“Eh Can You Talk Proper Engrish Prease?”

Posted: September 18, 2010 in Uncategorized

(picture taken from Speak Good Singlish Movement Facebook page)

Singlish is a hotly-contested issue in Singapore today. The Speak Good English Movement was launched just this month on 7th September in order to stamp out Singlish and promote the usage of “proper standardised English”. However, there have been murmurs of discontent; many Singaporeans are unsurprisingly displeased with the Government’s stance on Singlish. While most people believe that proper English is a must to have, they find that this clampdown on Singlish (which includes guerilla tactics such as pasting post-its on signages with improper use of English) is a step too far.

Singlish is an integral part of our society. It has evolved alongside our population for the better part of more than half a century. It is who we are, and to deny that would be an affront to our culture. Already we are lamenting that we have lost our roots, having grown homogenous with the rest of the globalised world. The government recognised that our culture was slowly being eroded and thus set out to rectify the problem, splurging millions of taxpayers’ money on preserving our heritage. However, it is a tad myopic for the government to classify traditional buildings as part of our culture yet dismiss Singlish as being a detriment to society. Sure, I can understand how important being able to communicate in proper English is to our standing as a global city, but it is time for the powers-that-be to realise that it is possible for English and Singlish to coexist.

Let us take it into context: Singlish is widely regarded as being a vulgar way of communication, but only within Singapore society itself. Any foreigner coming to Singapore for a visit would not associate our slang with being vulgar or even rude. It is just as how Singaporeans go overseas and converse to the people there in English and experience difficulty understanding them. It is just what makes us unique; it is what makes us Singaporean. More importantly, it helps us to identify each other when we meet overseas. Ever so often do you hear tales about how Singaporeans meet overseas because one party overheard the other using a leh or a lah.

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis claims that language shapes our environment, and our cognitive processes are hugely influenced by the way we speak. For example, the word “shiok” can hardly be explained in proper English. The closest anyone could get would probably be “a sense of satisfaction”. However, any Singaporean would tell you that that definition does not even begin to capture the essence of the word. There are so many other words that make Singapore so much more colourful.

Another advantage keeping Singlish is is that it actually promotes tolerance towards other races. This is particularly important in a people-driven economy like Singapore. Singlish is a mixture of English, Malay, and several dialects of Chinese. It helps to foster a sense of camaraderie whenever we use a slice of another race’s lingo. For example, when I was in the army, my Malay friends and I would agree to go and “lepak one corner” when we had finished our duties. The Malays would also learn slices of Mandarin or Hokkien to converse with us. However, this is not learning the language per se. This is how Singlish evolves: when someone mixes one language with another.

To the powers-that-be, I implore you thus: let us keep our “unofficial national language”. We know better than to overuse it when in the company of foreigners. Let us decide for ourselves. We deserve to have that right.


Speak Good English Movement Launch

Examples of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

  1. IAN says:

    hey nice post chris, i agree that the speak good english campaign is a very hypocritical move made by the government, we try to salvage old buildings and monuments as they are part of our culture, however the government is clamping down on the singlish language…..which is definately a part of your culture and society.

    but in terms of the government’s point of view salvaging old buildings serves another purpose as a tourist site. However trying to promote singlish has no economic benefit whatsoever.

    good job btw

  2. shaun says:

    playing devil’s advocate: the problem has always been not that singlish is spoken, but that singlish is spoken to the exclusion of english. you and i may be able to code-switch between the two depending on context, and we have, but the problem is that not everyone can do that. sure, most of us can speak english, but it’s not like the average standard of english is particularly good. come on, i read somewhere that MOE thinks we need to start teaching English as though it was a second language (ESL)! you and i are in that part of the population who can use words like “cogent” and write like this in addition to lyk dis, but that doesn’t mean everyone is like us. (ALSO, DUDES: that, incidentally, doesn’t make us “better” or anything. just saying.)

    i guess the fundamental fear is that people are learning singlish to the exclusion of english, and so the powers that be are anti-singlish perhaps because they think that good english and good singlish cannot, in the majority of the population, coexist.

  3. F. Ismailov says:

    I think having Singlish isn’t a problem, unless the people who use it can’t switch to using proper English. It also becomes an issue when they confuse both languages together, and it starts to look bad when they get confuse English words for another, making some Singaporeans look like a backward, uneducated nation. If we can comfortably speak both languages well, I think the government would have had no issues in keeping Singlish as it truly represents Singapore as a unique nation.

  4. treenie7 says:

    Yes, Singlish is like a national language. However, when people practice more Singlish, they would have more difficulties in speaking good English as compare to people who speaks English most of the time. Most of my polytechnic classmate spoke in Mandarin or Singlish and could not deliver a good presentation as and when needed in good English. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect. If we do no practice good English in our day to day lives, how would we be able to reinforce the foundations of our English? Singlish may be similar to a national language of Singapore, but at the end of the day, is being effective in communication more important or the “national language” more important?

  5. timothy says:

    I is seriously disgust with the standard of english nowsaday.

    I used to be very eloquent but I learnt all the bad english during army.

    Check out 2:31 onwards.

    “Kay??!! My name Lieutenant Heng.”

    Who speaks like that?

  6. -ian says:

    I agree with what Shaun wrote. The general standard of English is not great to begin with out here, and more often than not, when someone speaks with the proper enunciation, you will hear people going “eh, don’t slang, don’t slang”. For starters, they do not even know the basic difference between an accent and slang.

    There is no respect for speakers of proper English here, as they are deemed to be snobbish and with a chip on their shoulder. Perhaps the point of the “powers-that-be” is not to completely eradicate Singlish, but instead to cultivate the basic ability of conversing in good English amongst Singaporeans.

    As Shaun pointed out, while some of us may be able to seamlessly switch between the two, there are those whose Singlish is the best version of English that they can muster.

    Just my two cents worth. You may keep the change. =)

  7. Rawbeanladen says:

    It’s funny how they are resorting to pasting post-its on signage(s) that utilize improper English. Are they going to take it a step further by fining Chinese restaurants that have poor translations of their menus?

    While I agree that Singlish is a way of life, I also support to use of standard English. I believe that this has to start from home and the daily conversations among family members. This however will probably take decades to correct, as many of the older generation were not as privileged as the current generation to be able to learn the language effectively.

    Perhaps in 2100, this vision will be realized.

  8. shaun says:

    Rawbeanladen: some of the engrish translations in Chinese restaurants, in Singapore, are truly epic. Quite some time ago I saw, on a sign outside one of those Chinese restaurants, a menu proudly advertising:


    I still have no idea what they were actually trying to say. The mind boggles.

  9. weeklyscope says:

    I am for keeping singlish! Without Singlish, Singapore would not be Singapore. However, while I am for keeping Singlish, I feel that Singaporeans should also master proper English for communications. There is no need for us to use proper English at all times. It is okay to use the lahs and lehs when we are talking to family and friends but the line should be drawn at that. Formal and proper English should be used at work, when addressng in a meeting or even when talking to superiors. Grasping proper English also gives us an edge when talking to foreigners who would know nuts about Singlish. This also leaves the foreigners with a good impression of the nation and it’s people. By the way, I love the post its with the corrected English on it in the country’s lastest Speak Good English Movement. As post its are small, light and handy, people could pick them up and keep them in their bag so that they can refer to it as and when they need to.

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