The Rajpal Abeynayake Column           By Rajpal Abeynayake  

Two kinds of Singlish - Sri Lankan and Singaporean
"Singapore's government wants its citizens to speak good English, but they would rather be talking cock.'' So says an article blurb, which describes a feature about Singapore's own brand of Singlish and the government's efforts to make Singaporeans speak 'English as she is spoken.'

"I like to talk cock, and I like to speak Singlish. It's inventive, witty and colourful. If a Singaporean gets frustrated at your stupidity, he can scold you for being blur as sotong (clueless as a squid). At work, I've often been reprimanded for having an "itchy backside," meaning I enjoy disrupting things when I'm bored.'' So says a Singaporean about the city state's own brand of spoken English, which the movie "Talking Cock'' is essentially about.

Singapore's love hate relationship with English is hilarious had it not been for the serious implications that are supposed to flow from all that is associated with speaking the language. Singapore's brand of Singlish makes me think of Sri Lanka's own brand of Singlish which the government has made no effort to curb. (In Singapore, on the other hand, the movie Talking Cock has been given an adult's only rating, not because it contains any violence or sex, but because Singlish is said to be subversive of the government's moves to foster good English and stifle the spread of excessive Singlish.')

Singaporeans, it is therefore shown, always take their English seriously. This is pertinent to Sri Lanka where English is worshipped, except that nobody will quite own upto it, except a few people who want the English medium reinstated in schools so that their sons and daughters will retain what's dubiously called the competitive edge.

This is almost hypocritical, even though it's a good thing that nobody officially pushes English down anybody's throat, in this neck of the woods. But it is hypocritical in a sense because the primacy that English enjoys in society is still retained despite all that has been said about 'swabasha' in the past six decades. In one sense Singapore's aggressive push to regiment its society to use proper grammatical English shows the country's down to earth pragmatism as opposed to the mealy mouthed cant that passes off here for patriotism.

I for one would support the official dethroning of English for varied reasons, the first being that there is no reason we need to continue using the language of the colonial power. But, that's beside the point. As long as English remains the language of commerce and the language of the elite and the entrepreneurial classes, there is some hypocrisy in the government's refusal to make a case for good English. Even though they don't have to do it as half as aggressively as the Singaporeans do perhaps.

It is a different case in Singapore where the ethos seems to be such that the whole culture doesn't see anything particularly wrong in English being the language of the ruling classes. Lee Kuan Yew in his reminiscences (which are currently being excerpted elsewhere in this newspaper) writes of a pay cut which effected all personnel drawing $ 220 a month and above. All these people happened to be from the English educated classes. He continues that "the English educated believed we had set out to punish them for having voted against us. That was not our motive. We wanted to show everyone in Singapore, especially the Chinese educated majority, that for the public good the English educated were prepared to make sacrifices, led by Ministers.''

But all he does in the end with this explanation is that he betrays the fact that he held the English educated in Singapore in some kind of special esteem. He was unhappy about having to upset them - and of course, there was more than tacit acknowledgment that the English educated were indeed the privileged.

A recent article on Singaporean English/Singlish states: 'But the government is not amused. It doesn't like Singlish because it thinks it is bad language and bad for Singapore's sober image as a commercial and financial center. For more than two years now, it has been waging a war of words spearheaded by the Speak Good English Movement (SGEM), which organizes everything from creative writing to Scrabble contests in order to encourage standard English. "Poor English reflects badly on us," said Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong at SGEM's launch, "and makes us seem less intelligent or competent."'

In Sri Lanka, those who have delusions of making this country a sober financial centre, seem to make a similar case for English. They are making a case for unadulterated English in the classrooms, and some parents from the privileged backgrounds point out that a Sinhala education has not done much for them because they "need a translator to understand the Sinhala news.'' Though all this can be jarring - one needs to hand one thing to the Singaporeans. They seem to know exactly where they are.

They know they are fierce anglophiles pushing an aggressive commercial ethos, and they make no bones about it. In Sri Lanka, on the other hand, English is enthroned surreptitiously, and the push for English therefore cannot be state sponsored in the way it is done in Singapore. But as long as English gives people an unfair advantage as it does in Sri Lanka - -especially in the commercial world - there is no excuse for the government to stop aggressively pushing English. Those who say that this will be subversive of the mother tongue or our culture will be handing over an advantage to the English educated privileged coterie, unless they change the system and give Sinhala/Tamil their proper place. In other words, these people will be talking cock.

The Rajpal Abeynayake Column Archives
Back to Top
 Back to Columns  

Copyright © 2001 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd. All rights reserved.