Why debate? Let’s talk Singlish


It was 25 May and I wondered to myself; Why is everyone so wound-up about Singlish?

Only a few days before there was a lively social media debate regarding the death penalty in Singapore. Supporters and opponents squared off trading views on whether or not the death penalty provided a useful deterrent and whether or not it was morally justifiable.

This death penalty debate flourished in the days leading up to the execution of convicted murderer Kho Jabing on 20 May 2016 and continued intensely, if only briefly, in the immediate aftermath of the execution.

Yet that debate is now all but non-existent. Extinguished, much like Kho Jabing’s life. Today reduced to not much more than a fading memory.

Quashed, as it was, by a letter.

My baby, she wrote me a letter

A letter published in The New York Times on 23 May.

A letter from the office of the Prime Minister, defending the government’s policy to promote the proper use of the English language.

Netizens immediately (perhaps ‘reflexively’) sought and published numerous examples of government officials and agencies using Singlish, and waxed lyrically on the cultural treasure that Singlish itself represented.

Then, before the Singlish debate had run its course, a new development was introduced into the public square; violations of so-called ‘cooling off’ day restrictions. Violators were notified, interrogations were conducted, smartphones and computers were seized.

An officer’s failure to wear her police badge during a crime-scene investigation received intense scrutiny amongst blogging netizens.

Timing is everything

And yet, why now? The respective cooling off day violations took place during the by-election on 7 May. The cooling off days were the 6th and 7th of May. The police reports were not filed until 27 May, three weeks after the alleged violations (and 7 days after the aforementioned execution).

One could wonder why the police reports were not filed on the first day of business following the by-election, namely Monday the 9th of May.

So here at the beginning of June the mainstream media is abuzz with articles about Singlish, cooling off day violations, rats in a supermarket, and the Prime Minister’s invitation to a State dinner at the White House.

Netizens are raving about Singlish, the alleged cooling off day violations, the treatment of the accused and a police badge left in a car.

All this whilst the debate regarding the death penalty has died. In the absence of such a debate, one thing is essentially guaranteed; death by execution will continue.

Momma don’t take my GRC away…

Like the ‘lost’ debate on the merits of the death penalty, a discussion of life and death consequences, so too have other debates that impact the health of a democracy been abruptly swept aside.

Take for example the aforementioned by election of 7 May 2016. This election resulted with a candidate of minority race being elected to Parliament. For a brief moment a few voices declared that this result clearly demonstrates that voters do not vote along racial lines. As such, some concluded that the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system is no longer needed to ensure minority representation in Parliament. Therefore, every seat can now be justifiably converted to a Single Member Constituency (SMC) seat.

But this debate, an exchange of ideas that could have a significant impact on the national democratic process and parliamentary representation, simply never got off the ground.

It’s a family affair

Instead, focus shifted to, amongst other things, the relationship between the SDP and the Chiam family, widely covered and discussed by the mainstream press, the independent press and netizens, not to forget the SPD and the Chiams themselves!

In weeks and months to come much energy will surely be spent on continued debate regarding the cooling off regulations, the use of Singlish, opportunistic defense lawyers with alleged political ambitions, feuding between opposition party leaders, and the old favourite; bicyclists causing traffic problems on the roads.

The mainstream media will surely give plenty of attention to such discussions.

Same same already

With the attention of the general public conveniently steered towards such comparatively trivial distractions, there is little chance that anything will change in respect to the application of the death penalty, the election of parliamentarians on GRC tickets, and other issues which are similarly kept under the radar.

Perhaps the lesson from all this is a realisation; Debates that are not conducted cannot be lost.

Defenders of the status quo can only be pleased.

Thomas Timlen is a freelance writer and a strategic business consultant with experience in the maritime industry.

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