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.'
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.
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.')
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
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.