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Should We Speak Singlish or “Good English”?


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In this Explainer, find out...


  • What is the Speak Good English Movement (SGEM)?


  • What is Singlish how does Singlish contribute to Singapore’s culture and national identity?


  • How can the SGEM and Singlish Recognition Campaigns co-exist?


Introduction


All of us had been chided by our English teachers when we unintentionally sprinkled a “la”, “lor”, or a “sia” into our sentences. Some of us have also experienced talking to a foreigner and having them comment that “we speak funny” or ask us what language we are speaking even though we are native English speakers. Singlish is core to our lives as Singaporeans, and we often take great pride in the “efficiency” of this special language that we’ve developed for ourselves. However, some have argued that our familiarity with Singlish makes us less able to speak “proper” English.


Two movements have sprung up over the years that seem to support both sides of the debate. The “Speak Good English Movement” (SGEM) and Singlish Recognition Campaigns. While seemingly in opposition, both campaigns complement each other to result in a Singapore that speaks good English and Singlish.


Context


A Brief History of Languages Spoken in Singapore


Singapore’s history as a port town, with a diverse population consisting of ethnic Chinese, Malays, Indians, and Eurasians resulted in many different languages being spoken in one city.


Upon Singapore’s independence in the 1960s, Singapore’s Constitution declared the country’s four official languages to be English, Mandarin Chinese, Malay, and Tamil.¹ Due to English being the global language for commerce, technology and science, and it being considered a “neutral language” with no ethnic association, the Singapore Government decided to adopt English as the main working language of Singapore.²


English serves as the “bridge language” (lingua franca), which is spoken by members of all races. As such, it can be used for communication between members of all races.³


What Exactly is Singlish? 


Borne out of prolonged language contact between different ethnic groups speaking their native languages, Singlish is a colloquial variety of English that has developed and stabilised since the days of British Rule. Singlish takes influence from Chinese dialects, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil, with English being the “superstrate” language (i.e., the dominant or base language). This amalgamation gives rise to the idiosyncrasies and borrowed words that many Singaporeans are familiar with. 


For example, discourse particles such as “lah”, “leh” and “hor”, each with their tonal variants conveying different meanings, can be traced back to Cantonese, Hokkien, Mandarin and Malay.⁴ Borrowed words like “gostan”, which is a blend of the English phrase ‘go astern’ used in colloquial Malay, or the intensifier “sibeh” from Hokkien, are frequently infused in Singlish sentences too.⁵ 


Further, Singlish has a unique grammatical structure, which is complex and oftentimes unconventional. For instance, conventionally uncountable nouns like “furniture” or “equipment” can be pluralised into “furnitures” and "equipments" in Singlish, a modification that is not accepted in Standard English. Beyond grammar and vocabulary, deviations in pronunciation and word stress make Singlish unique as well.⁶ 


As a consequence of these distinctive variations, Singlish is often unintelligible to foreigners who do not encounter this variety of English in their everyday lives. As Singlish is not widely understood by foreigners, with many words being mixed from other languages, many dismiss Singlish as “broken” or “incorrect” English. 


The Importance of Speaking “Good English”


Speaking Standard English is not just about sounding “atas” or “chim” to impress others, however. It relates to English’s value as the global language for commerce, technology and science.⁷ In the 1960s, Singapore recognised this and believed that promoting the use of English as a native language would speed up Singapore’s development, allowing it to integrate into the global economy and benefit from international trade.⁸ 


Speaking Standard English is especially useful when working with international partners as it allows Singaporeans to communicate clearly with them. Being able to communicate with foreigners without being hindered by language barriers makes it easier to do business and grow economically by tapping into international markets.


Speak Good English Movement (SGEM)


The Speak Good English Movement was launched in 2000 by then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong for Singaporeans to understand why speaking precise Standard English is important and to encourage the use of Standard English.⁹


SGEM seeks to encourage Singaporeans to speak grammatically correct Standard English, and to identify speaking Standard English with the Singaporean identity.¹⁰ At the time, Singlish was not seen as a distinct type of language but was instead seen as speaking “bad English”.


Initiatives


Each year, SGEM sees a change of theme, and a year-long programme is announced with various activities that engage the public in using Standard English in their daily lives.¹¹


Each year-long theme focuses on different target audiences and on unique aspects of speaking good English. For instance, the 2006-2007 theme was “I Can”. That year’s programme focused on the people who interacted with Singaporeans and international visitors the most, such as frontline staff in the retail and service sectors, seeking to improve the level of Standard English used in business settings.¹²


Each year, unique programmes are also launched to approach the issue from different angles. These programmes include:


  • Inspiring Teacher of English Award: This ongoing award recognises English teachers who “ignite a love for the English language and are effective in helping their students speak and write accurately.” By recognising role models within the English teaching community, SGEM showcases effective English teaching methodologies by sharing best practices from these exemplary teachers.¹³


  • British Council Workshops: In partnership with the British Council, workshops were held to help parents improve their pronunciation, identify Singlish errors and replace them with standard forms.¹⁴


  • Speak Good English Weekend: This event was held at the Arts House at Old Parliament, with activities that encourage English speaking including scrabble and poetry.¹⁵


  • Service English for Retail Professionals: This was a training programme aimed at non-fluent English speakers in the service and retail sectors.¹⁶


  • English As it is Broken Contest: This was a contest with the Singapore Armed Forces’s PIONEER magazine, where T-shirts were given to those who sent in photos of signs that used broken English and corrections in Standard English.¹⁷


SGEM is technically still active, with the Inspiring Teacher of English Award still being presented annually. However, the movement has not had many prominent initiatives as of late, with the last theme announced in 2019 being “Let’s connect. Let’s speak good English”.¹⁸


Effects of SGEM


SGEM’s success is demonstrated by data showing that English-speaking levels in Singapore have improved over time.


English standards for Singaporean students have risen tremendously, with Singapore ranking among the countries with the highest English proficiency standards. In the 2023 EF English Proficiency Index, which gave a score using test data from 113 countries, Singapore was ranked the 2nd best in the world with a score that indicates that students had “Very High Proficiency” in English.¹⁹


While the evidence does show that English standards have improved, other forces at play may have also driven the rise of English standards. Increased globalisation, resulting in a greater demand for highly proficient English speakers may also be a potential cause. The general improvement in English teaching techniques, although not directly linked with SGEM, may also have resulted in the improvement in English speaking.


The Rise OF Singlish Recognition


The Cultural Value of Singlish


While many see Singlish as “bad English”, there is also a growing movement that views Singlish as a unique symbol of Singapore’s linguistic diversity, racial diversity, and national identity. Singlish is viewed as a reflection of Singapore’s multiculturalism, as seen by how it is commonly used by Singaporeans from all walks of life.


Compared to the past when Singlish was viewed as undesirable “bad English” that should be eliminated, many have started to view Singlish as a unique selling point of Singapore. Merchandise featuring key Singlish phrases such as “Chope” tissue paper boxes or cards featuring key Singlish phrases, and marketing campaigns that rely on Singlish phrases demonstrate the commercial value of Singlish.²⁰


Singlish is undoubtedly a key feature of local culture. Singlish is found everywhere, whether it is in National Day Parade floats or even the names of Singaporean companies like “HungryGoWhere”. With this cultural value, it is understandable that when the Government launched SGEM, concerns arose that SGEM would wipe out Singlish culture, thus resulting in “counter-campaigns” to seek better recognition for the value of Singlish.


Singlish Recognition Campaigns


Singlish Recognition Campaigns may be regarded as “counter-campaigns” run by groups who recognise the uniqueness of Singlish and wish to preserve Singlish for its cultural value. 


In 2002, the “Save Our Singlish Campaign” was launched. It viewed Singlish as “something to be proud of” and “what makes us uniquely Singaporean”. It also viewed the SGEM not as an opposing campaign, but as one that can coexist with the Save Our Singlish Campaign.


Another group called the “Speak Good Singlish Movement” sought to separate Singlish from broken English. This group views Singlish as being “full of cultural nuances and wordplay” and not just incorrect or improper English.²¹


It is clear that many saw SGEM as possibly threatening Singlish and decided to make their voices heard through these various campaigns that seek to gain recognition for the unique value of Singlish.


A Good Balance can be Achieved!


The Singlish Recognition Campaigns and SGEM may seem like “enemies”; by promoting Singlish, we somehow reduce our ability to speak English and vice-versa. However, many are beginning to recognise that speaking Standard English and having a rich Singlish culture are not mutually exclusive and both can exist at the same time.


Both Singlish & SGEM can Exist at the Same Time


It is true that many struggle with speaking Standard English because they often mix Singlish expressions into their speech in inappropriate contexts. However, many can also express themselves equally well in both Singlish and English. 


If we think about Singlish and English as two different languages that someone can learn, it is clear that we can be good at both without compromising our ability to speak one of them. Just as it does not make sense to say that being fluent in Chinese makes us less fluent in English, it is also possible to speak good Standard English and Singlish at the same time.


SGEM is necessary to promote the speaking of precise and accurate Standard English which is crucial for global communication, while Singlish Recognition Campaigns are useful in promoting Singlish as a unique element of Singapore’s national identity. SGEM and Singlish Recognition Campaigns may both thus be deemed as necessary and useful for Singaporeans.


The Rise of Code-Switching


The knowledge of “code-switching”, is thus a crucial skill that Singaporeans ought to learn to enable them to speak with anyone. Code-switching refers to the switching of the way we speak in different social settings and contexts.²² Code-switching is particularly useful in Singapore as there are settings where it is more appropriate to use Singlish and settings where it is more appropriate to use Standard English. 


If you were ordering food at a Kopitiam, or buying vegetables at the wet market, it would be rather strange to order in verbose Standard English. The opposite would be true if you were using Singlish during a job interview or a business conference call. Having the technical language skills of knowing how to speak fluent Singlish and Standard English is not enough. Rather, knowing when to code-switch and understanding the appropriate context to use each language is more important. This comes naturally to some and requires practice for others. 


Conclusion


SGEM and Singlish Recognition Campaigns are not enemies. In fact, they are “brother-brother” campaigns that are “sibeh steady” with each other. 


SGEM equips people with skills to speak “damn solid” Standard English which helps make sure we continue to “spoil market” on the international stage. Singlish Recognition Campaigns make sure that in the process of speaking Good English, we are not being “geh kiang” causing our unique culture and Singaporean identity from Singlish to “kena”. Code-switching helps us know when we should switch between speaking Standard English and Singlish, thereby avoiding the “sia suay” moments when we sound either too “cheem” or “not atas enough” depending on the social situation. 


MAJU PE_2024_04_Should We Speak Singlish or _Good English__
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This Policy Explainer was written by members of MAJU. MAJU is an independent, youth-led organisation that focuses on engaging Singaporean youths in a long-term research process to guide them in jointly formulating policy ideas of their own. 


By sharing our unique youth perspectives, MAJU hopes to contribute to the policymaking discourse and future of  Singapore.


 
¹ Silver, Rita E. 2005. “The Discourse Of Linguistic Capital: Language And Economic Policy Planning In Singapore.” Language Policy 4 (March): 47-66. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10993-004-6564-4.
²  Ibid.
³  Ibid.
⁴ Lim, Lisa. 2007. “Mergers and acquisitions: on the ages and origins of Singapore English particles.” World Englishes 26 (4): 446-473.
Singlish.net. 2017. “Gostan - Malay.” Singlish Dictionary. https://www.singlish.net/gostan/.
⁶ Low, Ee L., and Adam Brown. 2005. English in Singapore: An Introduction. N.p.: McGraw Hill.
⁷  Ibid.
⁸  Ibid.
⁹  Goh, Chok T.. 2000. “PM Goh Chok Tong (2000) Speech by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong at the Launch of the Speak Good English Movement.” Speak Good English Movement. https://www.languagecouncils.sg/goodenglish/-/media/sgem/document/press-room/2000/sgem-launch-2000-goh-speech.pdf.
¹⁰ Ibid.
¹¹ Speak Good English Movement. 2023. “Speak Good English Movement - About Us.” Speak Good English Movement. https://www.languagecouncils.sg/goodenglish/about-us.
¹² Speak Good English Movement. 2018. “Speak Good English Movement Through the Years (2000-2018).” Speak Good English Movement. https://www.languagecouncils.sg/goodenglish/-/media/sgem/document/pdfs/speak-good-english-movement-through-the-years-2000-to-2018.pdf.
¹³ Speak Good English Movement. 2023. “Inspiring Teacher of English Award Information.” Speak Good English Movement. https://www.languagecouncils.sg/goodenglish/inspiring-teacher-of-english-award/2023.
¹⁴ Speak Good English Movement, “Speak Good English Movement Through the Years (2000-2018).”
¹⁵ Ibid.
¹⁶ Ibid.
¹⁷ Ibid.
¹⁸ Leow, Jason. 2019. “Speech by Mr Jason Leow, Chairman, Speak Good English Movement.” Speak Good English Movement. https://www.languagecouncils.sg/goodenglish/-/media/sgem/document/pdfs/itea-2019/2019-chairman-welcome-address.pdf.
¹⁹ Education First. 2023. “EF EPI 2023 – EF English Proficiency Index.” EF Education First. https://www.ef.com/wwen/epi/.
²⁰ Viera, Silvia G. 2017. “Language and Multiculturalism: A Case Study On Singlish.” Universidad de Cadiz. https://rodin.uca.es/bitstream/handle/10498/20766/TFG%20ING.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.
²¹ Wee, Lionel. 2014. “Linguistic chutzpah and the Speak Good Singlish movement.” World Englishes 33, no. 1 (February): 85-99. https://doi.org/10.1111/weng.12055.
²² Morrison, Carlos D. 2023. “Code-switching | Linguistic Benefits & Challenges.” Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/code-switching.
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