The Inevitable Rise Of Singlish

Singlish Sign on Pulau Ubin | © Prianka Ghosh
Singlish Sign on Pulau Ubin | © Prianka Ghosh
Photo of Prianka Ghosh
21 December 2016

Singlish is a dialect spoken by locals of Singapore that takes its influences from the four official languages; English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil. Recently, Singlish has seen a surge in popularity and acceptance into the mainstream on the back of Singaporean poet and literary critic Gwee Li Sui’s article in the New York Times championing the language.

Singlish is generally reserved for informal situations, however, it is true that it is different enough from Standard English that foreigners may not be able to understand what is being said. In 1999, the Singapore government decided that it was time to put an end to Singlish and launched the Speak Good English movement, trying to encourage people to speak in Standard English using proper grammar, vocabulary and syntax. The government felt that by using Singlish, Singaporeans were tarnishing the country’s image to outsiders as they felt the language was synonymous to lacking sufficient English Language education.

Why ah? #SGEM

A photo posted by Benjamin "Mr Miyagi" Lee (@miyagisan) on

The Speak Good English movement tried different themes each year until 2011 to alternate their target audience and increase the total reach of their message over time. Although the annual themes have stopped amid mounting criticism, the Speak Good English movement still exists with a Facebook page that is frequently updated and a website containing grammar lessons, quizzes and other tools to help locals improve their English skills.

The Speak Good English movement was immediately met with criticism as people saw it as an attempt to eradicate Singlish. The main opponent was the now-defunct satirical website Talking Cock, who launched an opposing campaign, Save Our Singlish in 2002. Many supporters of this campaign feel that Singlish is an integral part of what it means to be Singaporean. The campaign was given legitimacy by high-profile speakers in 2006 when Ruby Pan, a Singaporean who has been a Ministry of Education scholar and graduate of Princeton University, showed that it is very easy for Singaporeans to switch between Standard English, Singaporean and even a Californian accent with ease.

The Save Our Singlish campaign was quick to say that they in no way were opposed to people speaking Standard English, instead they felt that Singlish was an integral part of the Singaporean identity. One of the campaign’s major arguments was that the Speak Good English campaign was insulting to Singaporeans, implying that they didn’t know the difference between Singlish and Standard English. In the same way that your vocabulary and use of slang are different whether speaking to your grandparents, or friends you have known your entire life, Singaporeans understand that there are situations when Singlish is acceptable and situations when it would be useless, or even problematic.

In March 2016, the Singaporean government had to admit defeat to the inevitable rise of Singlish when the Oxford English Dictionary announced that their quarterly update would include 19 Singlish terms in its revered book. These include ang moh, a Caucasian person; lepak, meaning to relax or loiter; and maybe the most interesting for its level of irony, Chinese helicopter, which is a derogatory term for a Singaporean person who was educated in Mandarin and as a result has limited knowledge of English. Ultimately, Singlish came into existence as a patois from the many cultures that come together in Singapore – the government’s decision to finally embrace the language shows that they understand the importance of Singlish to Singaporeans.

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