Singlish holds a special place in the hearts of most Singaporeans. The off-grammar creole is spoken almost exclusively by inhabitants of our small island-nation and very often prompts strong emotional responses from people when it is challenged or belittled. It is also a source of comfort, according to some, especially when stuck in a foreign land where the only thing you miss most is the sights and sounds of a far away home.
A personal anecdote should illustrate this: while travelling recently through the metropolitan Chinese city of Shanghai, a friend and I stepped into a famous restaurant, seating ourselves down next to a couple and their two young children. Perched on their seats were several shopping bags emblazoned with the names of luxury brands – it was apparent that they had just returned from a shopping trip at a nearby luxury chain street.
I gestured to my friend, “Looks like Singaporeans.”
As if on cue, the exasperated mother, who was trying her best to feed the youngest of the lot, exclaimed: “Can you don’t be so naughty and eat your food properly!? If you like this, Mama won’t feed you anymore!”
It would be difficult to explain to a foreigner the feeling of warmth I felt at that moment in that comical situation.
Unsurprisingly, many Singaporeans have similarly experienced such feelings of belonging and comfort just from hearing or engaging in the use of Singlish. So why is it the government feels the need to bash local poet and literary critic Gwee Li Sui?
After publishing a tongue-in-cheek piece on the New York Times about how the Singapore’s government’s own attempts to snuff out the language may have indirectly led to its rise as a island-wide cultural phenomenom, Gwee found himself at the receiving end of an unhappy letter from the Prime Minister’s press secretary, Ms Chang Li Lin. Springing to the defense of the government’s language policies, Ms Chang argued that using Singlish would jeopardise Singaporeans’ ability to communicate in Standard English, a task which the government feels is already hard enough because English is not our mother tongue.
In ending her letter with a snarky rejoinder: “Not everyone has a PhD in English Literature like Mr Gwee, who can code-switch effortlessly between Singlish and standard English”, Ms Chang has also unwittingly set the government up for a good round of verbal walloping.
In the local blogosphere, bloggers, netizens and even alternative media platforms like The Independent Singapore and The Middle Ground have joined in a chorus of criticism to defend what they probably see as a prized “uniquely Singaporean” cultural artefact. The Independent for instance has rolled out a series of articles detailing how Singaporean politicians and even the People’s Association have used Singlish for their own benefit, during election rallies as a means to connect with the masses or during the National Day Parade 2015 as a marker of Singapore’s cultural identity.
The double standards of the government’s use and abuse of Singlish has clearly not been lost on the average Singaporean netizen. Cheeky responses on the comments section of The Independent Singapore’s Facebook page can be best summed up by this variant of a memorable election quote: “Ownself slap ownself.” (In case you are wondering, the original phrase “ownself check ownself” was first coined by Workers’ Party MP Pritam Singh during GE2015, when he mocked the People’s Action Party claims that a PAP-dominated government could act as a check against itself in preventing any government excesses.)
Gwee’s response to the letter on TMG, where he writes a weekly Singlish column, was this: “I don’t think that I have made light of the government’s considerable effort to promote English among Singaporeans. But I wonder if this can be done without demonising Singlish, which is loved by many of us, both young and old. It ought to be possible for English and Singlish to live together and thrive in a harmonious way.”
Like many other Singaporean netizens, I think the government should be less concerned about what comes out of my mouth. Instead, they should tackle the root cause of declining English language standards in Singapore. TMG’s Bertha Henson rightly points to the poor reading culture among the youth. Others have said that the internet is also to blame for the decline. Personally, as long as I can speak freely and be understood by my international cast of friends, who hail from all parts of the world and speak their own unique blend of English, there really should not be a reason to tell me what I can or cannot say lah.