by ephraem tan, photo credits.

The Singaporean vernacular was born under curious circumstances. Its relevance to business prospects recognised, Singapore’s independence in 1965 saw British English retained as the national language of instruction; the Bilingual Policy was effected a year later, to varying degrees of success within the different ethnic communities, with the intention of promoting fluency in both one’s English and Mother Tongue. The common language was effective in unifying our cultural mosaic, but it also led to the emergence of something new: Singlish.

You’ve probably heard this one before: a foreign minister flies into Singapore on an SQ flight. Having heard about the country’s impressive education system, he stops a flight attendant and asks her about the employment requirements for, say, her own job. Hearing her answer, he excitedly turns to his colleague:

“Did you know academic study of the judiciary system is a prerequisite for flight attendants in Singapore?”

“What? That doesn’t sound right.”

“It’s true!” insists the foreign minister. “I asked her how she came to be employed on this plane, and she shrugged and said, ‘Study lor.’”

Singlish has, in fact, been so heavily incorporated into our culture that its co-existence with standard British English in our city state has been analysed as a diglossia, where two language types – one of high register, used in academia and literature, and one of lower register, used in everyday conversation – are spoken by a community sharing a common language. It is, at its core, an infusion of dialect and colloquialism into an otherwise formal language; it breaks elaborate ideas into their basic components, and, by way of omitting syntax, simplifies and shortens. To the frequent speaker, it makes conversations easier. Excuse me, please move out of the way shortens to S’cuse. Sir, may I go to the washroom? shortens to Cher can go toilet. Words from other languages help relay ideas that would otherwise be cumbersome to explain: sekali is loosely translated as what if when pertaining to undesirable possibilities; bo jio, spat out by those indignant that they’ve been neglected to have been invited somewhere by close friends.

Our country itself lacks a clear stance on the emergent dialect. On one hand, our government actively discourages its use under campaigns such as the Speak Good English Movement, with PM Lee denouncing it and denying its relevance to the Singaporean identity in a 2007 speech. On the other, our people seem to have embraced it; it is as widespread on local radio as it is on local television, rife in every classroom and meeting and kopitiam. Assuming the diglossia model is true of Singapore’s situation, our government need not worry about Singlish handicapping the nation’s collective ability to speak proper English; given Singapore’s massive shift from dialect-speaking households to English-speaking ones since the 1960s, fluency in both is a bilingualism many have already mastered.

Like every other dialect, Singlish comes with its own set of accents and nuances. While embodying the soul of colloquialism, it manages to be more intricate than most would give it credit for; and, as our culture continues to pulse and mutate through the new century, so too will it continue to evolve.

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