At 47, I still struggle with spoken English. Yet I’m the Speak Good English Chairman. Why ah.

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Mothership | July 21, 2019, 12:51 PM

Jason Leow, the Chairman of the Speak Good English Movement, shares some of his experiences learning English when growing up. In this piece, he also offers his views on why the Speak Good English Movement is still relevant to Singaporeans today.


By Jason Leow

You may have noticed a pop of colours – purple, pink, yellow, orange – at bus stops across Singapore.

These are posters that will urge Singaporeans to speak standard English that can be understood from “Marsiling to Melbourne” and “Newton to New York”. At the top left of these posters sits a hashtag that says #LetsConnect, shorthand for a fuller proposal to “Let’s Connect. Let’s Speak Good English”.

The sprinkling of these posters (somewhat) coincided with the first anniversary of my appointment as the new Chairman of the Speak Good English Movement.

I was appointed in July 2018, along with a new committee tasked to continue promoting good English, as our predecessors did.

In the past year, we’ve huddled together to figure out new approaches to help the movement stay relevant and revitalise interest in what we have to say.

And amid all this, I can’t help but reflect on all the work we’re doing and see amusing irony in all this — you see, English wasn’t even my first language.

Growing up, I didn’t speak a word of English

Having been brought up by grandparents on both sides, I was speaking Hakka and Hokkien until I entered Primary 1, when the grandparents also suddenly decided our conversations should be in Mandarin instead.

All emotional hell broke loose when I realised I had been put in a school where teachers spoke a foreign tongue: English.

I struggled with classes and homework every day. My foundation in English was so bad, I believe I was failing Primary 4 math and barely passing Science.

Rescue came in two ways.

My aunt bought me books, which helped tremendously

My aunt, an alumna of the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School, was the only elder on my father’s side to have gone to an English stream school.

Ironically, this was because (as a girl) she was deemed not ‘valuable’ enough to be educated in a classical Chinese school.

Her life was, however, paved with advantages when her education was done. One such edge was recognising that her nephew, me, was neither reading nor surrounded by books.

She began to buy me books by Enid Blyton, and made me sit with her daughters who were voracious readers of The Faraway Tree, the Magic Faraway Tree, The Famous Five series and the Malory Towers books. Competitive by nature, I engaged in a lot of one-upmanship reading.

At Primary 5, a second dose of serendipity happened. I had a form teacher named Miss Ong who, for some reason, noticed that I read quite a lot and had potential to do well.

She encouraged me to read more ambitious books (she might have mentioned Isaac Asimov).

When a teacher acknowledges you, you desperately want to do well. And so, in a home where what to eat next or being asked to eat something occupied everyone’s concerns, I pressed on even though no one in my family was bookish.

Fear of strict tutors helped me improve

A year later, my mother found me a pair of Indian and Eurasian husband-and-wife tutors whose fame was built on getting academically troubled kids like me to go from zero to A, or may be A* if we had it in us.

The husband was famous for caning us for our careless Math mistakes. The wife was the kinder one who nagged us to work at our English and Science.

Both fear and compassion helped me improve. I do not recall the lessons now, but I remember the self-loathing when I found concepts and the grammar rules difficult to understand.

I still feel immense gratitude to them for helping me get through Primary 6.

I remember the day I experienced an “aha!” moment. It was when everything clicked, and I achieved startling clarity. Luckily, this happened right before I took my PSLE.

And the rest of my life experience with English was, well, history. I would go on to spend some years writing at our national newspaper, and then in corporate communications — both of which depend greatly on good English usage.

Learning English well helped me find my first job in the newsroom, get my first overseas posting later, join a global media company as I got older, and finally rise through the ranks in corporate communications as I neared 40 years old.

Thinking back, it’s remarkable how many opportunities have arisen in my life because I can string together a grammatical sentence, and speak a version of English that is internationally understood.

That said, I continue to struggle with spoken English.

But I digress. Let’s face it — many of you haven’t found the Speak Good English Movement relevant or likeable for a while now. We confess it has suffered from two perception issues.

First, we have been seen as didactic and pedantic. Second, we have come to be seen as an anti-Singlish movement. Both are untrue – but of course I would say that. Hear me out with a little bit of history:

How did the Speak Good English Movement happen?

When the movement was launched in 2000, then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong laid out the thinking for such a “campaign”, when campaigns were still fashionable and socially acceptable: we should recognise there is comparative advantage for a nation to use good English that can be understood wherever English is used.

I paraphrase him generously. In Singapore, between ethnic groups that don’t have a common language, English also serves as the social connector, alongside mother tongues as their respective carriers of culture.

Various iterations of the movement have since been introduced to Singaporeans.

After nearly two decades, the current format revisits the movement’s original intent: the use of standard English enables us to connect with people not only in Singapore, but also across cultures and borders where English is spoken.

The original purpose continues to be useful and relevant because it is extremely pragmatic, and also remarkably human.

Pragmatic because it is useful to be understood by others, whether at work or on vacation. It is also human to want to connect with another person – the use of good English can be a way to do so.

Our new logo points to a fresh approach. The quotation mark in the logo symbolises a person in conversation, reflecting our hope that everyone will find a way to connect with, and be understood by, anyone in the world.

The colours, stark and bright, hopefully make our movement friendly, approachable, maybe even younger.

We want to be practical, not preachy

Admittedly, there is a side of the Speak Good English Movement that is all about teaching you the grammar rules and being correct and precise. That is our practical side, and we think this needs to continue.

After all, if you believe the English language is important, and you are a willing learner, then there is practical value in knowing the rules and the difference between standard and broken English.

Hence, we provide you with as many resources as we have on our website, our Facebook page and our YouTube channel.

The movement also has another side that is friendly, even empathetic.

At this point, I expect our critics to say “ownself say ownself”. But the truth is, the Speak Good English Movement isn’t a teacher or an enforcer.

Our role is to have the resources ready to enable willing learners and speakers of standard English.

By pointing to the rules of good English, we are not passing judgement on those who have bad English. Rather, we think of ourselves as the tips-providers and resource-pointers to these rules and norms.

We are not anti-Singlish

There is that other perception that we are anti-Singlish. The use of Singlish outside formal and institutional situations is evident and widespread, and we acknowledge that it is a cultural marker for many Singaporeans

For many years, we have also acknowledged Singlish on our official website.

We don’t aim to be a movement with its head in the sand. Singlish exists, alongside textspeak, netspeak, millennial speak, Gen Z speak, and who-knows-what-else-will-emerge.

I also have been asked if our movement supports British or American English. To that, I say, we support consistency of use. I write American English (the spelling of which has been amended by Mothership’s editors, whose house style follows British English for the most part!), and have done so for many years consistently.

We acknowledge all of their existences and don’t think they conflict with our twin objectives of raising awareness of the value of good English, and encouraging Singaporeans to speak good English.

You don’t have to choose between standard English or Singlish. We are not asking you to do so. If you can code-switch, more power to you.

If you are learning standard English, we hope that you are able to tell the difference between that, broken English, and Singlish. It helps with the learning. We are practical people, not judgy gatekeepers.

The movement aspires to be inclusive

The current committee consists of a bunch from the business world, education, arts management, the social services, and the civil service. We do this because, as outmoded as it sounds, we believe in the purpose of promoting good English.

As Chairman, and as an English language learner, I know how hard learning English is and I am in no position to judge anyone.

As a late-learner of the English language, and someone who grew up in a predominantly dialect-then-Mandarin-speaking family, I have benefited from being forced to improve my standard of English.

It is precisely because I learned English by reading that I still struggle with spoken English today.

If memory serves me right, years ago I read the Straits Times columnist Chua Mui Hoong saying that her spoken English isn’t spontaneous or organic because that is how learning-by-reading English speakers process the language. (I paraphrase her generously and ask for pardon.)

Talk to me, and you may be able to picture me mentally constructing English sentences in my head before I verbalise them to you. Often you will find me verbally tripping up when the sentences don’t form or when words don’t come out naturally.

The point is that I empathise with English language learners. Like me, my movement’s steering group peers are in no position to judge your competency.

We are a movement that enables willing learners and speakers to come along and connect with us. We are not here to diminish or exclude any group.

Hopefully, this somewhat clears the air.

You can find out more about the Speak Good English Movement on their Facebook page.

Top photo by Andrew Koay