PM Lee’s press secretary rebuts S’porean literary critic’s New York Times article on Singlish

Why so serious?

Belmont Lay | May 24, 2016 @ 10:40 am


The press secretary to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Chang Li Lin, has written a rebuttal to the New York Times (NYT) defending the Singapore government’s stance of making Singaporeans learn and use Standard English which “is vital for Singaporeans to earn a living”.

This was after a widely-read opinion piece on Singlish by local poet and literary critic Gwee Li Sui appeared in the international version of NYT, seemingly poking fun at the government’s clampdown and subsequent embrace of the creole language for practical means.

The issue of replying formally to an article discussing the evolution and merits of a living language used by the everyday men aside, Chang’s rebuttal can be read as a sort of trading of barbs.

It ended off by calling attention to Gwee’s privileged position of having a Ph.D. in English Literature, and implying that his supposed proficiency at being more fluent in the art of code-switching between English and Singlish should not be imposed on others.

Here is the press secretary’s rebuttal:

Gwee Li Sui’s “Politics and the Singlish Language” (Opinion, May 13) makes light of the government’s efforts to promote the mastery of standard English by Singaporeans. But the government has a serious reason for this policy.

Standard English is vital for Singaporeans to earn a living and be understood not just by other Singaporeans but also English speakers everywhere. But English is not the mother tongue of most Singaporeans. For them, mastering the language requires extra effort. Using Singlish will make it harder for Singaporeans to learn and use standard English. Not everyone has a Ph.D. in English Literature like Mr. Gwee, who can code-switch effortlessly between Singlish and standard English, and extol the virtues of Singlish in an op-ed written in polished standard English.



The author is the press secretary to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore.

Gwee’s original article, which appeared in NYT on May 13, 2016, posited that Singlish’s triumph in Singapore was almost inevitable despite years of nullifying its use, especially in a multi-racial country that needs a tie that binds.

He wrote: “The government’s war on Singlish was doomed from the start: Even state institutions and officials have nourished it, if inadvertently”.

The practical use of Singlish, therefore, was not lost on the people.

Gwee also cited examples of Singlish being used by politicians to connect with the masses, saying: “Finally grasping that this language is irrepressible, our leaders have begun to use it publicly in recent years, often in strategic attempts to connect with the masses.”

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