An English Article on Singlish – Ashley Tan, Singapore


Colloquial Singaporean English, or more ubiquitously known as “Singlish”, has been dubbed one of the most prominent features of this nascent little red dot. As a colourful patois that uses basic English as a carrier, Singlish lives by the rules of Chinese grammar, and is liberally daubed with Hokkien, Malay and Indian dialects (Channel NewsAsia, 2015). This colloquial language is commonly used amongst Singaporeans, serving as a bridge between locals from all walks of life.

However, the continued use of Singlish has become an increasingly pronounced obstacle to international communication with the intensification of globalisation. As a young nation, Singapore still struggles to carve out its own unique cultural identity,  in which Singlish plays a predominant role. In a bid to remain economically relevant as a bustling global hub, there has been an increased sacrifice of the colloquial language in an attempt to preserve economic stability. More specifically, globalisation has exerted pressures on Singapore to move towards using an internationally recognised language (i.e. standard English) due to our dependence on international trade. This has, in turn, led to somewhat of an identity crisis, leaving Singapore in a conundrum between finding a balance as both a nation-state and global city.

Over the years, many Singaporeans have come to develop a fond liking towards this lexifier language that embraces multiethnicity. Singaporean filmmaker Colin Goh, an outspoken advocate of Singlish, shared that many locals are “fighting for Singlish… because it’s simply part of our culture… It mixes all the various languages, which… spread multicultural understanding”. With Singapore being well known throughout the world as a strong multiracial country (Lim, n.d.), Singlish serves as a symbol that embodies this uniquely Singaporean trait. It is something that binds all of us together, regardless of our backgrounds, thereby promoting inclusivity within our society and strengthening the Singaporean core.

While ordinary Singaporeans support the use of Singlish, the government takes on a different stance and views Singlish as a problem, fearing that speaking it will adversely affect the ability of Singaporeans to learn “good” English (Wee et. al., 2014). In the year 2000, during the Speak Good English Campaign Speech, then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong highlighted the government’s strong stance on this issue, stating that, “Singlish uses Chinese syntax and Singlish speakers often use literal translations of Chinese phrases”, resulting in “sentences (that) are not only ungrammatical and truncated, but often incomprehensible, especially to foreigners”. Worse still, Singlish could be equated to “poor English, which reflects badly on [Singaporeans] and makes us seem less intelligent or competent”.

This raises the concern that Singaporeans from the lower stratas of society may end up losing out on various opportunities in the long run, as Singlish is not a language that is typically used in formal settings, thereby causing others, particularly foreigners, to misunderstand the local jargon. This could potentially pose a threat to Singapore’s status as a global hub, making our country less attractive to the international community.

However, rather than embodying an immutable stance against Singlish, the government should formally acknowledge its value in our society and even promote the art of code-switching. Code-switching is a skill mastered by many Singaporeans, who are able to switch fluently from standard British English to Singlish, depending on the setting that they are in. If all Singaporeans are able to pick up this skill and learn to do it well, then the existence of Singlish should no longer pose an issue since we will still be able to communicate easily using proper English when placed in a formal environment, such as a business congregation.

Ultimately, for many Singaporeans, Singlish has become a language for communication and a reflection of our identity (AsiaOne, 2014). Granted, standard English is still key to ensuring our survival in this highly globalised world. However, this does not mean that we need to forsake our cultural identity in order to preserve stability. Both Singlish and standard English can coexist peacefully; the two are not mutually exclusive. I firmly believe that if all of us are able to work together, we can ensure that our global-local nexus remains protected to form a global city that still contains a spirit filled with zest and heritage that is truly shiok for all.

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