The latest incident to rekindle the fervour of the “Is Singlish good?” debate is Tower Transit’s decision to experiment with signs written in Singlish on their buses:
As usual, there is one camp that believes this will inevitably lead to the degradation of English into its “lazy”, “inferior” and “corrupted” version, Singlish.
But there is another, me included, that disagrees — not just with jumping to unproven and dramatic conclusions, but that Singlish and English are even the same language.
Singlish is Singaporean
Language is, as defined by the Collins Dictionary, “a system of communication which consists of a set of sounds and written symbols which are used by people of a particular country or region for talking or writing”.
So yes, I believe that Singlish is a language in itself. It might have started as a “dumbed-down” version of standard English, but it has since evolved to have its own writing systems (e.g. grammar), syntax, semantics and, of course, phonetics.
It is a unique creation of Singapore. It was born from many, many years of different races living together harmoniously — so much so that we were willing to learn and adopt phrases from each other’s language.
It was also born from a very Singaporean characteristic: efficiency. That is why Singlish sentences are short and to the point, and we don’t fuss about the difference between a long and short vowel.
That is why I see Singlish as a beautiful language that embodies both Singapore past and present by marrying familiar words from the different languages spoken by Singaporeans over the years.
Or simply put, Singlish is part of our national identity.
So, why are we embarrassed about it? And why do we still feel a need to censor it?
Can’t we code-switch?
This has sparked renewed fervour because of the Singlish signs that Tower Transit placed on public buses. Some are concerned that this will encourage the ‘improper’ use of English.
This issue is not unique to Singapore; because many other countries have native languages that were derived from English, like Australian English.
Yes, it is closer to Standard English than Singlish is but like Singlish, Australian English also has its own lexical and grammatical feature. A good example is “How ya goin’?”, which is grammatically and phonetically incorrect in terms of Standard English. But do you think an Australian that sees a sign that uses this phrase on a public bus will:
1) Worry that it will lead to a degradation of the level of English in Australia?
No. Because they know that it is Australian English and not Standard English.
2) Be embarrassed by the use of ‘incorrect’ English?
No. Because they are proud of Australian English — of its unique vocabulary and varied pronunciation.
This is sadly not the case in Singapore, where the shame and censorship of our English derivative is on a level that is uniquely Singapore. More importantly, we do not trust that our fellow citizens are capable of code-switching (switching between English and Singlish based on the social setting we might happen to be in at any given time).
But what concerned citizens like this guy do not realise is that their overwhelming response can, ironically, be seen as a signal that we *are* ready to loosen our reins on Singlish: because it shows that many Singaporeans can differentiate between Singlish and English. If not, they would not even recognise it as a problem.
So let us begin to trust that our fellow Singaporeans will impart said skill (of discerning the appropriateness of using the two languages) to the impressionable minors around them.
And let us be confident (and a bit less dramatic, can or not) that allowing Singlish signs on our buses will not open a flood gate, lead to an unstoppable stream of Singlish signs, advertisements and TV series that will lead to a fast “degeneration” of English towards Singlish (which, we might add, the Straits Times forum letter writer condescendingly called a language “used by people in Singapore who have missed the opportunity to master proper English”).
Let us begin to trust that Singaporeans are discerning enough to differentiate between Singlish and English.
Most importantly, let us begin to be proud of Singlish. Because — as the Oxford English Dictionary’s world English editor succinctly put it during an interview with ST — “any language community should be proud of their own words, as each is a reflection of their identity, which is shaped by their culture and history.”
And instead, criticise the many advertisements plastered on MRT stations and bus stops that are riddled with actual English errors.
Here’s another take we took on Singlish:
Unrelated article but it’s fun so why not:
Top photo from Flickr.