Ask the average non-Singaporean what they know about the island city, and they are likely to mention one of the following three things: Singapore chilli crab (a delectable dish many Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans alike are rather fond of, that remains an intrinsic part of Singaporean history that we cannot ever, ever, ever do without), Lee Kuan Yew (the late founding father of Modern Singapore whose policies and public persona were as polarising as they were distinguished), and Singlish, the unique and distinct variety of English spoken by many, if not all, Singaporeans, that is as polarising as, well, Singapore itself.*
Singlish, contrary to popular belief, is much richer and fuller than simply adding “lah” to the end of a sentence.
It draws on the myriad of other languages and dialects spoken by Singaporeans, in turn reflecting the multicultural rojak (a Malay term loosely referring to a mixture) nature of the country. You are as likely to hear someone complain about how sian (Hokkien for bored or tired) as you are to hear people debate where they want to go to makan (Malay for food, or eat) later. Its lexicon consists of vocabulary from Malay, Mandarin, Hokkien, and other languages used in the country, while much of its grammatical structure mirrors that of Mandarin and other Chinese dialects used by the Chinese-dominated population, such as Teochew or Hokkien.
Singlish is a largely spoken variety, though its grammar and lexis does sneak into a school composition or two, much to the ire of educators and policy-makers. Singlish, a linguistic dialect, is often mistaken for an accent. However, the “Singaporean accent” is, as the term suggests, is simply an accent. While there are some features that are basic components to the accent, such as a non-rhotic ‘R’ sound (e.g., we tend to say ‘cah’ and not ‘carrr’), it still largely exists on a spectrum, and can easily be modified or adapted depending on context or situation.
Singlish is also not morbidly ungrammatical, as many critics of the dialect suggest.
On the contrary, it has its own uniquely intricate and elaborate system of sentence and phrasal structure that is often only understandable and comprehensible to so-called “native” Singlish speakers. If Singlish were so basal and devoid of linguistic rules, then why is it so difficult for non-Singaporeans to pick up? Its very opacity is a testament to the deep history reflected within the dialect and its use, as is a common feature of many creoles and dialects used by locals in post-colonial states, where the fullness of a local dialect is often only accessible to the locals themselves.
But it isn’t just non-Singaporeans who take issue with Singlish. Local policy-makers have raged a long-standing battle against the dialect, with one of them famously referring to it as English “corrupted by Singaporeans.” It is often heavily criticised and discouraged in favour of its globally-intelligible, if not slightly sterile, alternative, Standard Singapore English. This has resulted in campaigns such as the Speak Good English Movement, where the focus is not just on promoting “good” standard English, but on eliminating Singlish as much as possible.
But don’t think that Singlish-speaking Singaporeans are blissfully unaware or ignorant of the tarnished reputation and stigma attached to Singlish. Just recently, one of my Singaporean friends found out that I had studied Linguistics at university, and asked me outright if I looked down on Singlish and people who use it (keep in mind this was in the middle of a conversation in which I had thrown about more lahs than a choir member singing her do-re-mis). This opened up a discussion in which I was able to share my own personal experience and thoughts towards Singlish over the years.
Growing up, language had a huge part to play in shaping my identity as a Singaporean.
I always felt like somewhat of the stereotypical “angmoh pai” (which very loosely translates to “Westernised”) Singaporean, largely because my Mandarin was so god-awful for someone who had been in bilingual education since kindergarten. My form teacher in Primary 4 also told me not to worry about the fact that I had scored a grand total of zero marks out of 15 for my Chinese comprehension exercise, because I came from an “English-speaking home”. This didn’t make sense to me, because my parents were, and still are, clear proponents of Singlish, and spoke nothing like how the angmohs on cable television did. To me, I always identified as a Singlish-speaker first, and a Standard English-speaker or Mandarin-speaker only when the situation called for me to be.
Even now, while my Mandarin has gotten better thanks to a renewed commitment towards appreciating and utilising the language, I am still immeasurably more fluent in Singlish than my “mother tongue”. And even after spending the last few years reading Linguistics in the birthplace of modern English, I still feel a stronger kinship with Singlish than “English” in its conventional sense. And in turn, I still feel immeasurably more Singaporean than I do Chinese, or Malay, or “English”.
And that is where the true value of Singlish lies. Singlish has undeniable and irreplaceable sociocultural and political significance, and is an intrinsic part of the Singaporean identity.
First and foremost, it is a unifying force that transcends barriers of race, religion, and even language itself. In modern Singapore, Singlish is a resource that all Singaporeans have access to, whereas access to Standard English (the ‘global lingua franca’) or other Mother Tongues may not be as pervasive, thanks to economics, education policy and language planning. In a multi-ethnic society where lines of cultural division could potentially pose a huge threat to the country’s economic, social, and political success, Singlish remains “Singaporean”, and every Singaporean has ownership of it. Chock-full of influences from our colonial past as well as all the different cultures present within our society, Singlish not only draws upon the diversity within the country, but reflects it as well.
Moreover, as a young nation that builds on a history of colonialism and immigration, Singlish is one of the few things we have as Singaporeans that is unique to our culture and to our country. Singlish is a product of Singapore that is not exonormative, especially in contrast to how Mother Tongues like Mandarin or Tamil may embody the culture of their mainland country of origin, or how “standard” English is still largely a remnant of our colonial past. Instead, Singlish draws on these very elements of our history to form a distinct dialect that is as opaque to foreigners as it is instinctive to so many Singaporeans. In the plainest of terms, it is truly Singaporean, and it is one of the few things we can proudly say we own. (I mean, even our right to call ourselves the originators of Singapore chilli crab is constantly being disputed by Malaysia.)
That being said, one major piece of the puzzle that figures into the Singlish debate is that of its economic value in a day and age where standard English is fast becoming the global currency in connection to the international economy. This concern is what fuels the government’s seemingly iron fist clamping down on Singlish, and could be a legitimate reason for the need to emphasise standard English.
Like it or not, we live in a predominantly Western-centric world where much of historical economic power is tied to the West. Hence, standard English, as the lingua franca of the world, is a huge source of cultural capital that Singaporeans have the opportunity to capitalise on.
Hence, the main target of the government’s crusade against Singlish may not be Singlish itself, but the use of Singlish over standard English in certain economic contexts, and the negative economic repercussions that come along with it. Still, I believe the trick is not to prize one variety or language over the other, and in examining language use in Singapore, we should instead seek objectivity and balance instead of explicitly demonising Singlish.
That being said, the point still stands that Singlish is undeniably and irrevocably deeply embedded in the fabric of Singaporean society. It is as polarising as it is unifying, and it draws as many critics as it does its fair share of advocates (myself included). Singlish may get a bad rep from people who don’t understand it, aren’t privy to it, or simply haven’t realised its inherent value as a reflection of Singapore’s unique multicultural history and society. But if you take the time to understand its intrinsic link to the Singaporean identity, and find out how it plays a crucial and vital role towards unifying a multifaceted society, and why it has stood the test of time (and many Speak Good English Movement campaigns), then you’ll realise why it is, and always will be, an irreplaceable part of Singapore that is imperative to its survival and success.
So if you’re lucky enough to have mastered the behemoth that is Singlish, be proud that it is a part of your linguistic repertoire — it is a map of your history, of where you’re from, of where you’ve been, and of the experiences you’ve had. And that’s pretty unique, just like Singlish.
*Other notable topics include, but are not limited to: the ban on chewing gum, the “boat on top of the building” (aka, Marina Bay Sands), and humidity.