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I am Singaporean V – Singlish, again September 9, 2010

Posted by The Truth in I am Singaporean Vol. III.

The Speak Good Singlish movement is back!

Singapore’s Auntie Killer MP, Vivien Balakrishnan, kicked off this year’s movement by “correcting” a “No Outside Food” sign. The correct form of English, so says our Auntie Killer, is “No food from elsewhere, please.” But is it, in the first place, correct?

A sign which has words on it is supposed to deliver the information it is to deliver in the most efficient way, i.e., with the least words. Signage also has a certain linguistic function – pragmatically, signage attempts to effect a certain change of behaviour in the one reading the sign. For example, if you see a “STOP” sign whilst driving, you prepare to stop your car at the next junction. If you are walking along a construction site and see the sign “DANGER!” you are expected to pay attention as you walk aroud, so that a cinder block doesn’t crack open your skull (worst case scenario.) In MRT trains, we see signs saying “NO DURIANS”, “NO EATING AND DRINKING”, etc. It is clear what these signs mean – pragmatically, they are imperatives forbidding a particular action.

Is there a “please?” in any of these signs? No, because “please” is something which affects the meaning of the sign in a very important way – if “please” is left out, the imperative come across in its strong form – no durians in the trains, period. With a “please”, then it comes across as a request – and knowing that people can, and will twist the meanings of certain statements to their own benefit, one can be sure that sooner or later, people will start bringing durians with them on the MRT. (Not that I have anything against that, but my girlfriend probably does.) In the same sense, a sign saying “No Outside Food” means that No Food That Thou Hast Begotten Elsewhere Shalt Be Here Consumed. And what about “No Food from Elsewhere, please”? It probably still has the imperative component of “DO NOT BRING FOOD PURCHASED ELSEWHERE INTO THIS EATERY”, but saying “please”, while making it nice and friendly, tends to weaken this imperative component. People think that it’s impolite (but not forbidden!) to bring food from elsewhere in. Especially if it’s on signage.

So “please” has no place in signage. But “please” has a place in oral communication. Let’s say that someone does bring in food purchased elsewhere into the restaurant, thereby ignoring the sign. Any requests by restaurant staff not to bring in the food/to leave/not to consume it will be marked by “please”. Here, “please” is a marker of politeness which is expected in the service industry, and thus has its place in everyday usage. I daresay that this politeness marker is so important in the service industry that it is used even if there is a threat component in what is being said: “Please leave now, before I call the police.” Vivian has mixed up spoken and written communication, as have many others before and as will many others after him.

What makes the mistake so serious is that Vivian, like many others, has conflated spoken and written communication. It is true that you “write as you speak”. But, and most importantly, let’s not forget that Singlish is spoken but hardly written (and, if written, only under very special circumstances, like literature), whereas Singapore Standard English is mainly written but not so much spoken. (I mean, even the crème de la crème of society uses Singlish.)  Also, it should be noted that Singlish and Singapore Standard English, more than being medially different,  also fulfill very different functions – Singlish is used in different contexts as compared to Singapore Standard English.

For example, speaking Singapore Standard English to your friends (unless they too speak only this form of English) would be considered being aloof, etc. Using Standard English where it isn’t appropraite smacks of elitism. On the other hand, using Singlish during your job interview is the quickest way not to get the job. One must differentiate between the two, formally and functionally. Vivien’s oversight consists in bringing the two together, saying that we should give up our oral patois to follow the written language, in assuming that one language is “pragmatically more significant” than the other. Well, you can’t compare apples with oranges. If you use context to judge pragmatic significance, you will see that Singlish and Standard English serve very different functions in Singapore. The functions are so diffferent that the only way you can declare one form to be “pragmatically more significant” than the other is if you have artificially defined what is “better.” And, i think that this “better” has to do with staying relevant with the world.

But is this “better” also better for the country? In this pop-linguistic analysis, I have tried to show that Singlish and Standard English fulfill two very different sets of functions. In that sense, you can only declare one to be better than the other in the presence of an artificially defined “better.” Singlish probably has the function of creating identity. Standard English has the function of staying globally relevant. You can’t ignore either of them. Perhaps it is time for some introspection. What is important for Singapore is a sense of identity, a sense which is becoming quickly diluted by more and more foreign talent (which may not necessarily be talent), as well as being relevant globally. If language and identity form such a strong link, then why are we encouraged to discard our language and take up another? Why should we discard our identity, only to have our leaders complain that Singaporeans have no sense of national identity? If staying relevant as a country is so important to our Auntie Killer, then perhaps he should start looking at how to stay relevant as a country.

You can, for example, teach students to recognise the functional difference between Singlish and Singaporean Standard English and to use them appropraitely. I think knowing when to use what is much better than trying to eradicate one for the other. And much easier too.



1. Daily SG: 10 Sep 2010 « The Singapore Daily - September 10, 2010

[…] angmo preese – Die neue Welle: I am Singaporean V – Singlish, again – Dee Kay Dot As Gee: Speak Good English Movement – Don’t be a Grammar […]

2. gdy2shoez - September 10, 2010

I think they confused the Speak Good English campaign with the Courtesy campaign

3. Kai - September 11, 2010

The Swiss speak Swiss German, which is a grammatically incorrect form of High German, and is widely and proudly used by Swiss at work and play. Swiss German is not taught in school. The German cannot make sense of Swiss German, but why the Swiss should bother changing something that is not their identity just because it did not follow some grammatical rules of another tribe/country.

Speaking good English is important, but so is Singlish, because this is our identity, no different from our Char Kuey Teow, Mee Goreng, and Nasi Lemak. Taking Singlish away is like taking that national dish away.

Singlish is for local consumption; English is for international communication. For foreigners and PRs who are not accepting Singlish like the Germans do with Swiss German, get used to it, cause if you are in Singapore, live like a Singaporean.

4. Weekly Roundup: Week 37 « The Singapore Daily - September 11, 2010

[…] “If staying relevant as a country is so important to our Auntie Killer, then perhaps he should start looking at how to stay relevant as a country.” The Truth […]

5. Wahaa - September 11, 2010

Please refrain from using terms that might get you into trouble with the law

“auntie killing MP” might be interpreted by some as unlawful killing of a specific group of people or “aunties” with malice aforethough and liable to be sentence to death. You can be charged for defamation just like the recently case of a person who was against the YOG used the term “burn the MP”.

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