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Not confident but not too shy; Not White but definitely not quite Oriental; Not religious but also not an athetist; Not sure whether 'athetist' is spelt correctly, but not that bothered about it; Not a naysayer, but not averse to saying no.

Friday, August 05, 2005

"You see me no up": Is Singlish a problem?

“You see me no up”
Language Problems & Language Planning 27:1 (2003), 45–62.

Is Singlish a problem?

Chng Huang Hoon
National University of Singapore

Singlish, Singapore’s brand of colloquial English, is accepted by some as an essential marker of Singaporean identity but deplored by others as a variety of English that puts Singapore and Singaporeans at a disadvantage because of its lack of international intelligibility. For this reason, it has been argued that Singaporeans cannot afford to maintain Singlish as a viable linguistic resource. A campaign known as the “Speak Good English Movement” was established in 2000 to counter the ill effects of Singlish through the promotion of Standard English. This paper addresses the Singlish-Standard (Singaporean) English debate in terms of discourse resources and the politics of language planning in Singapore. It may be true that Singlish is not the most internationally intelligible of Englishes, but what is more interesting is the considerable disparity between the official concern over international intelligibility and the reality of life in Singapore, especially for the Singlish speaker. Such a disparity suggests differing notions of what constitutes an important linguistic resource for the nation as a whole and for specific speech communities. On another level, it provides insights into the politics of language management in Singapore. The Singlish-Standard English debate also provides clear evidence of struggles over the determination of the choice of a preferred variety of English and the control over linguistic resources. Through an examination of media reports, official statements, and letters to local newspapers, the author considers the implications of this debate for Singaporeans (especially Singlish speakers) and their participation within the society. In the process, the author also examines the power relations that are intertwined in this debate for determining the ideal Singaporean society.

“Quick, quick. Late already. You eat yourself, we eat ourself.”1 This is an example of English as spoken by Phua Chu Kang, the lead character in Singapore’s most popular English-language television sitcom. Singlish, Singapore’s local brand of colloquial English, is recognized as the quintessential mark of Singaporean-ness; but it has also been identified (especially in official circles) as English “corrupted by Singaporeans” (SGEM 2001). As Singapore’s Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew sees it, Singaporeans “are learning English so that we can understand the world and the world can understand us.”2 Singlish is, he continues, “a handicap wemust not wish on Singaporeans.” Singapore’s Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in his 1999 National Day Rally Speech echoed Lee’s position when he said, “We cannot be a first-world economy or go global with Singlish” (Goh 1999). In other words, using Singlish hampers international communication, and since Singapore’s survival as a viable economy on the world stage is accepted by Singaporeans as a top priority, it has been argued that Singaporeans cannot afford to maintain Singlish as a dominant linguistic resource. To counter the ill effects of Singlish, a campaign known as the “Speak Good EnglishMovement” (SGEM 2001), joins the already long list of national campaigns launched in Singapore.

This paper explores the tensions between Singlish and Standard (Singaporean) English in terms of discourse resources, and the politics of language planning in Singapore.While it is accepted that indeed Singlish is not the most internationally intelligible of Englishes, there is the more important question of the considerable disparity between the official concern over international intelligibility and the reality of life in Singapore, especially for the Singlish speaker. This disparity suggests different notions of what is considered an important linguistic resource for the nation as a whole and what constitutes such a resource for specific speech communities. On a more macro level, it gives insights into the politics of language management in Singapore. As one looks closely at this language debate, there is clear evidence of a struggle over the determination of the choice of a preferred variety of English and the control over linguistic resources.

Competing discourses: Singlish vs Standard Singaporean English

In the past few years, the Singlish-SGEM (Speak Good English Movement) debate has been played out in various forums. First introduced as an issue worthy of national attention by local politicians in official speeches, the debate was subsequently elaborated in editorials and letters in all English daily newspapers in Singapore including the leading English paper, The Straits Times. In 2001, a committee to guide SGEM activities was formed. Through such constant articulations, the problems of Singlish and the corresponding need for Standard Singaporean English have become gradually solidified in the general consciousness. This section unravels the rhetoric employed to dismiss Singlish as a corrupted form not worthy of promotion, and the subsequent emphasis laid on Standard Singaporean English. But first, what is Singlish? Singlish has been defined as a colloquial form of Singaporean English, characterized by a mixture of local expressions (such as catch no ball = failed to understand), code mixing/switching (e.g. My English very chor = My English is very crude/vulgar), discourse particles (the most famous being lah), reduplication (e.g. Don’t pray pray = be serious) and direct translations from languages such asHokkien andMalay (e.g. You see me no up, fromMandarin ni kan wo bu qi, meaning You look down on me) (Kang 1992/1993). One study has found that Singaporeans are generally favourably disposed towards Singlish especially if Singlish is restricted to informal domains of talk, but when used in more formal contexts, Singlish is only acceptable for the less educated population (Kang 1992/1993: viii).3

Though most Singaporeans think of Singlish primarily as a spoken language, Singlish has become so popular that it is increasingly exploited in written genres such as local plays and poems, and in the process Singlish is made even more popular with the success of such works.4 Phua Chu Kang, one of the most watched Singaporean sitcoms in recent television history, has further added to the popularity of Singlish. In fact, the manner in which the lead character of this sitcom speaks Singlish each week on local TV has been widely imitated, especially by the younger section of the population, which is why the question of Singlish has become an overt concern for local politicians. To be sure, the concern over the use of Singlish was already expressed a decade before in the media. For example, readers have said that Singlish should not be too widely used because it is ”merely a poor imitation of English.”5 More recently, at a community-level National Day Celebration on 14 August 1999, Senior Minister Lee laid the groundwork for his dismissal of Singlish when he identified Singlish as a problem: Each family can create its own coded language; nothing wrong with that except that no one outside the family can understand you.We are learning English so that we can understand the world and the world can understand us. It is therefore important to speak and write standard English. The more the media makes Singlish socially acceptable, by popularizing it in TV shows, the more we make people believe that they can get by with Singlish. This will be a disadvantage to the less educated half of the population…. (Lee Kuan Yew 1999)

This group, he said, “will suffer economically and socially” especially if Singlish is the only linguistic resource they have in their possession. He then related how he went about successfully setting a standard of Mandarin for Singapore (by introducing the Taiwanese standard for media and education), and how this same approach may be adopted to get Singaporeans to adopt Standard English. If this approach is followed, Lee believes that “[w]e will see a difference in another one generation.” The intention and the power of policy makers to manipulate and shape a specific linguistic reality in Singapore is clearly evident in this statement.

Picking up on this theme a week later, in his National Day Rally Speech (22 August 1999), Prime Minister Goh added a pragmatic reason for learning English in Singapore: “to communicate with the world” so that we gain “a big advantage over our competitors.” He warned against the limited reach of Singlish and said that “if we carry on using Singlish, the logical final outcome is that we too will develop our own type of pidgin English, spoken only by 3 million Singaporeans, which the rest of the world will find quaint but incomprehensible.”

The solution, he said, is to discourage Singlish, or at least not to encourage it; and instead encourage the use of “proper” English. He then suggested, in jest, that the lead character Phua Chu Kang could be sent to remedial English classes. The television station however, took PM Goh’s remarks seriously and subsequent episodes saw the miraculous, if gradual transformation of Phua Chu Kang into a “better” English speaker, who makes occasional Singlish “mistakes” in his speech.6 This is but one clear example of how the media respond swiftly and often in consonance with official views on a matter already cast in terms of national survival. In April 2001, Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong urged Singaporeans to “speak English everyone understands” and said that though the mother tongues (read: ethnic languages) gave Singaporeans a sense of identity, Standard English is “a rational trade-off” for Singaporeans who want to be a part of the global economy (Straits Times Interactive 2001). DPM Lee also noted that Singlish is not the only way to strengthen Singaporean identity and that there are other ways to do so. Thus, he implied, it is not necessary to insist on the maintenance of Singlish.

Such official statements about Singlish and Standard English were soon enthusiastically taken up for discussion in the local papers. As early as 1988, and perhaps even earlier, it was observed that “Singlish is the spontaneous and delightful way that Singaporeans express themselves in English…. Singlish is the common dialect of the people of Singapore” (New Paper 1988). Though officials today would not endorse this “delightful way that Singaporeans express themselves,” this comment revealed that the average Singaporean understands that Singlish is a form of “street talk” and for this reason, even though Singlish may be “the common dialect of the people of Singapore,” no one should worry that Singaporeans will indiscriminately use this form of English when engaged in the global economy. However, a sentiment often heard in Singapore involves the ambivalent attitude towards Singlish, or, more accurately, the unattractive Singaporean traits (mostly having to do with “uncultured” behaviour) that Singlish encapsulates, unsure whether to take pride in it, or to be ashamed of it. The recent entry of the term“kiasu” in theMacquarie English dictionary (Koh 1995) provoked mixed feelings among Singaporeans, with some dismayed that a not exactly attractive national trait was being publicized and possibly perpetuated in the language, but others were pleased that a Singapore termhad become significant enough to merit inclusion in a dictionary.7

Shortly after key politicians had voiced their sentiments about Singlish, their views were echoed by media reports on the subject. An August 1999 report for example, quoted various people whose views are consonant with the official view. Gurmit Singh, the actor who plays the lead character, Phua Chu Kang (otherwise known as PCK), had this to say to his young fans: “This is Singlish; it’s for fun, it’s a sitcom. Just watch it to see Uncle Gurmit having fun,” thus making a clear distinction between enjoying the show and actually adopting Singlish as a discourse option in real life (Srilal 1999). The report also cited the assistant vice-president of the local TV station who is most directly responsible for creating this hit comedy as saying that it is a great idea to have “PCK sound like PCK without resorting to Singlish” and she promises that PCK “will still be recognizable after his linguistic make-over.” The report ended with this unambiguous endorsement of the official line by The Straits Times: Singaporeans are well-equipped for the knowledge-based economy of the new millennium. But [Singapore] will not be able to do business with the rest of the world with Phua Chu Kang’s Singlish. The government is right to recognize the problem and deal with it now because, ultimately, Singlish will be a handicap.

The result of a May 2000 survey of 500 people to determine the standard of spoken English in Singapore was reported in The Straits Times: 49% felt that the standard of English in Singapore is “good”, 89% felt “it is very important to speak good English”, and 94% said they will try and speak good English” (Straits Times 2000b). Such results should reassure the authorities that in spite of their worry over the trendiness of Singlish, Singaporeans are heeding the government’s message about the stakes invested in using and maintaining “proper” English. Furthermore, in spite of frequently heard sentiments such as “people are emotionally attached to Singlish” and “Singlish is an important unifying force in Singapore,” since the SGEM launch the British Council has received many calls from Singaporeans who are “eager to sign up for classes” (McNulty 2000). Books attempting to boost the use of Standard English have been rapidly produced. One series, called Grammar Matters, was jointly produced by the Southeast AsianMinisters of Education Organisation Regional Language Centre (SEAMEO RELC) and theMinistry of Education, and focused on “areas of grammar that many Singaporeans seem to have problems with” (Lim 2000). In short, the encouragement given to Singaporeans to learn
“proper” English is a visibly public affair, and though the abandonment of Singlish is not spoken of in so many words, in much of the effort to overtly promote Standard English usage, Singlish is understood as the sacrificial lamb.8 Singapore is so well known as a campaign city that the fatigue among Singaporeans at the suggestion of yet another campaign sufficed to get the Speak Good English campaign called a “movement” instead. So when Colonel David Wong was entrusted with the awesome task of steering Singaporeans away from Singlish, the new campaign was named the “Speak Good English Movement” or SGEM. Nevertheless, a campaign by any other name is still recognizably a campaign, and so the machinery for a national effort began, with the setup of a full committee made up of members including local academic Lionel Wee, local entertainerKohChiengMun, Director Eric Khoo, StraitsTimes English Language Specialist Helen Tan and so on. SGEM’s mission is to promote “good” (read: standard) English usage among Singaporeans and in the process decrease the reliance on Singlish (SGEM 2001). A website ( was set up, and language activities were planned. Wong was soon interviewed and featured in the local paper (M. Nirmala 2000a). According toWong, We are trying to build a sense of pride, that as Singaporeans, we can speak good English as opposed to pride that we can speak Singlish.We are trying to check a trend in which younger Singaporeans are beginning to feel that it is perhaps a way of identifying themselves as Singaporeans if they speak Singlish. (Nirmala 2000a)

The overt attempt to remake Singaporeans and the Singaporean identity linguistically is clear from this formulation of a newly defined “sense of pride.” A visit to the SGEM website shows the following topic links: “Calendar of Events,” “Let’s Learn Good English Online,” “Let’s Have Fun With Good “You see me no up” English,” “Courses and Seminars,” and so on. A booklet entitled SpeakWell, BeUnderstood has also been produced by SGEM (SGEM 2000b). In the preface, Singlish is again problematized: This book has a simple aim: to sensitize Singaporeans to features of Singlish so that they will make the effort to speak good English. The use of Singlish can be a problem because it gives the impression that the speaker is unprofessional or poorly educated.

The following example drawn fromthe SGEM booklet illustrates a typical entry: A section entitled “Interacting with Foreigners” depicts a Singaporean going to the airport to meet a foreigner who has just arrived. The Singaporean asks: “Would you likeme to send you to the hotel now?” There follows an explanatory text that clarifies the use of send/fetch/bring/take in Singlish and in Standard English. An alternative (good English) version is then provided: “Would you like me to give you a lift to the hotel now?” It is hoped that through these focused lessons directing attention to the “problems” of Singlish, and educating Singlish speakers about the standard forms, Singaporeans will come to speak a brand of English that will be acceptable and intelligible to the world.

The SGEM launch in April 2000 saw PM Goh reiterating his views about the harmfulness of Singlish, and urging everyone to discourage the younger generation from continuing with Singlish. In his words, the younger generation “should not take the attitude that Singlish is cool or feel that speaking Singlish makes them more Singaporean. If they speak Singlish when they can speak good English, they are doing a disservice to Singapore” (M. Nirmala 2000b). In these words, PM Goh framed the adoption of Standard English and the abandonment of Singlish as a matter of national duty. A new English syllabus has since been introduced in schools to combat this “erosion of standards”, and parents, teachers and members of the community are exhorted to set the correct standard for speaking good English. Phua Chu Kang even received an encouraging pat on the back from the PM at the SGEM launch as Phua’s English is now
portrayed as having visibly improved after receiving remedial English training. The SGEM website (SGEM 2000a) carries an unambiguous endorsement of the PM’s definition of Singlish as “English corrupted by Singaporeans.” This is taken as the point of departure for all SGEM-related activities. In 2001, a weeklong event called the “SGEM Festival 2001” (see organized more than 100 activities involving community centres, schools, and other groups in Singapore. Some highlights include plays by theatre groups that incorporated English lessons targeted at young schoolchildren at public libraries and other appropriate venues, articles on good English featured in the SGEM official paper The New Paper, and phone-in lessons provided by the British Council for specific periods of time. Through these kinds of intensive and goaldirected bombardment, it is apparently hoped that Standard English will take root, and that Singlish will recede into the background and will either die a natural death, or will at least be overtaken by “proper” English.

A Straits Times editorial dated 2 May 2000 fully endorsed the need for a movement like SGEM, calling it “a necessity.” The editorial predicted ready success for SGEM because, as it noted, Happily, Singaporeans buy into a rational economic argument readily. The political leadership has equated correct spoken English with the country’s continued economic viability. This alone can boost the campaign. (The Straits Times 2000a) However, the editorial continued to caution that a “linguistic balance”must be struck. Surprisingly, the balance to be struck is not between good English and Singlish, but between good English and other local languages, and even foreign languages:

Singaporeans can achieve a global presence if sizeable numbers of them are fluent in other foreign languages. There is room for Japanese, French and German. More should study these to a professional level, not just recreationally. Malay is crucial to deepen cultural sensitivity in dealings with the two most important neighbours. Few Chinese are learningMalay. Spanish can next be pushed by the Education Ministry in expectation of an economic opening to South America. Only then can Singapore have global pretensions.
It is dismaying that in an editorial note about linguistic balance in Singapore, no consideration is given to a formof English like Singlish that more than some Singaporeans count unhesitatingly as a crucial part of their identity, and yet much is said about equipping Singaporeans with various foreign languages. To give a taste of how some Singaporeans view the Singlish-Good English debate, here is a sample of letters and opinion pieces taken fromThe Straits Times. There are probably as many Singaporeans on each side of the debate, some singing the praises of Singlish, and others lamenting the falling standard of English in Singapore. For example, in one such letter to the Editor, one Singaporean noted: It is indeed worrying that the standard of English used in Singapore has been dwindling steadily…. I certainly hope that Singaporeans will embrace the coming years with the common, fervent endeavour to speak and write proper
English, as far as possible. (Chan 2000)

Another letter entitled “How long more can we go on speaking Singlish?” expresses a similar lament: Indulging a hybrid [Singlish] is easy but what requires no effort is a cop-out and a luxury no struggling learner can afford.We must dissociate English from Singlish, its insidious enemy. (Lee, A.M.Y. 1998a)

This letter provoked at least two responses. One letter writer, a Singaporean student in the UK, said she was furious when she suddenly realized that her English was incomprehensible to an Englishman who could only “smile politely and pretend to understand” what she herself took to be good (Singaporean) English (Ang 1998). She subsequently had to “re-learn English from [her] English friends” and she asked, as SM Lee asked, “Did we learn English to communicate among ourselves, or with the rest of the world?” The second response came from a Singaporean student who wrote from the USA: Singlish is a mark of how we have evolved as a nation and should surely have a place in our culture. Embracing Singlish as part of our heritage is not selfdeception… but the educated and wise will know when to use Singlish: use it among Singaporeans and close friends. Do not use it at job interviews or when making public announcements. (Lee, M. 1998) Some other letters that have made their way to the Editor on the issue included the following: “Forget Singlish, speak English” (Law 1998), “Let’s speak up for Singlish” (Sng 1998), “Using Singlish has a high opportunity cost” (Lee 1998b), and “Singaporean English is fine” (Tan 1998).

A recent reaction to SGEM’s effort focused on the prejudices that are reinforced in this debate between “good” and “bad” English. In one text that is meant to teach “good” English, the local paper featured two interlocutors, Simon (a speaker of “good” English) and Gary (a Singlish or “bad” English speaker) in an exchange. Readers were supposed to learn from the mistakes made in Gary’s speech. However, the letter writer notes, …it soon becomes clear to the reader that Gary is made to be more than just a speaker of bad English. He is childish and irresponsible. He asks to drive Simon’s car without being properly insured… Furthermore, there is the suggestion that the bad English speaker is less well-off than the good English speaker…. On the other hand, Simon’s English is not only grammatical, but also forceful: his speech does not merely reveal linguistic proficiency, but a personality that is steady and mature. The writer concludes: This text is therefore a good example of the entire galaxy of prejudices people have in their estimation of those who do not speak the same type of English as them. These prejudices produce an image of deficient speakers as vulgar and stupid, lacking the refinement and culture of the speaker of good English. Texts that reflect prejudices stigmatise less able speakers as not only linguistically deficient, but also culturally and intellectually deficient. Using such a strategy to compel people to learn a language is, quite simply, hitting below
the belt. (Sim 2002)

It is easy to discern from these sample headlines and letters alone the wide range of public opinion and the competing discourses surrounding the issue of Singlish versus Standard Singaporean English. The gap between the official agenda to have every Singaporean speak internationally intelligible English and the opposing desires of the average Singaporean to maintain Singlish as a discourse option results in an ideological conflict over what makes Singapore work and what makes its inhabitants Singaporean. Discourse resources, language management, and the sociolinguistics of access Let us begin our discussion situating the Singlish-SGEM debate in wider theoretical issues by pointing out that the true-blue Singlish speakers in Singapore do not have a voice in the debate at all. The discourses promoting Standard Singaporean English and opposing Singlish come predominantly from people who have access not only to Standard English, but also often to Singlish itself. From this standpoint, it is clear that there is already an unequal access to discourse resources and a differential access to power networks.
Like the Ebonics controversy of December 1996 in Oakland, California, Singlish is identified as the language of disempowerment.9 Like the Ebonics debates, commentators have cast the issue of Singlish-Good English as “a natural dichotomy of power”: Standard English is seen as naturally empowering, and Singlish, like Ebonics, is but a “language of social marginals,” a “handicap,” and therefore a language that will mark the Singlish speaker in positions of inferiority (Collins 1999: 212). No one in Singapore, including the present author, is recommending that we use Singlish in the Singaporean classroom. Supporters of Singlish however, are of the view that Singlish is a crucial part of Singaporean identity, and unlike the view expressed by DPM Lee, “You see me no up” who obviously recognized the emotional value of Singlish, a trade-off is perhaps not necessary, at least not for speakers who have access to multiple discourse resources, and even perhaps for those who have no direct need to engage in the global economy. But what about the group of Singaporeans whose dominant discourse resource is Singlish? Are we doing them a disfavour by advocating Singlish, as SM Lee believes?

In her work on the Speak Mandarin Campaign in Singapore,10 Wendy Bokhorst-Heng (1999: 255) has argued that “the use of a national campaign for the promotion of Mandarin created two key paradoxes”: One has to do with the slippage between nation and community created by the use of a national campaign for community purposes. The second has to do with the slippage between public and private created by the use of the public genre of the national campaign to makeMandarin a mother-tongue, an issue located in the private domain of the home. Similarly, the issue of the falling standard of English among Singaporeans is cast as a national concern that is translated into a rationale for weeding out Singlish, the language of a marginalized community or what has been called (Straits Times 1999) a “linguistic working class,” and thus blurring again, as in the Speak Mandarin Campaign, the boundaries between nation and community.

The local leadership needs to recognize that what is economically sound for the nation may not always be equally desirable for specific speech communities, especially a community that has to directly absorb the impact of a national policy. Of course, the local leadership has taken pains to argue that Singlish is a handicap, ignoring the fact that Singlish actually serves the daily needs of Singlish speakers quite well. Furthermore, quite apart from the economic benefits that are promised by the command of Standard English, there is another equally important, if not more important, concern — the emotional benefits Singlish brings to a community. The promotion of Standard English in the public domain has a direct impact on a private domain issue, whether it is articulated or not: in this debate whose motivating force is an effort to phase Singlish out, the identity of Singlish speakers is at stake. The fact that Singlish is not a language of a particular racial/ethnic group does not make it less damning to suppress it. The blurring of public and private domains is reminiscent of what has been undertaken in the Speak Mandarin Campaign; but in the Speak Mandarin Campaign, the voices of resistance are voices of racial minorities in Singapore, and that seems to have made the resistance more seriously noted and also subsequently more carefully managed. There is no reason why Singlish cannot be kept as a private domain resource, operating freely in the private domain, serving the diglossic L function in Singaporean society.Many Singaporeans know well when Singlish is or is not appropriate: allowing Singlish in informal situations poses no real threat for public domain (read: global) needs.

The official rhetoric assumes that Singlish is the main or direct reason why some Singaporeans speak less-than-comprehensible English. But to date, no evidence has been provided to show that Singlish is indeed such an obstacle to learning good English. Just as the presence of the Chinese dialects was taken as the stumbling block preventing Singaporeans from acquiring Mandarin, Singlish is now argued to be in the way of “proper” Singaporean English. The Singaporean authorities have often adopted the stance that in land-scarce and resource-scarce Singapore, such binary choices have to be made on most issues. But something can be said for allowing Singlish its own space, to co-exist with other varieties in the local context, including Standard English, without necessarily having to take Singlish away from this context. Writing on the Ebonics controversy, Salikoko Mufwene (2001: 260) argues: It is true that socioeconomic stratification has imposed a system in which command of either standard or White middle-class English has become a requirement for success in the professional world. However, developing proficiency in these norms need not be at the cost of abandoning one’s vernacular for all communicative functions. Vernaculars have their own social identity functions; and many speakers are not ready, and certainly not eager, to renounce that social-indexical role of their vernacular. Similarly, a sound command of Standard English in Singapore may be needed for professional success, but this does not preclude a place for Singlish as a marker of social identity.

Furthermore, in the extreme situation, in discouraging Singlish by overtly stigmatizing discourse we can arrive at a point where Singlish, like the Chinese dialects, will become a thing of the past.11 Denigrating Singlish usage can also result in linguistic insecurity among Singlish speakers, thus strengthening the negative stereotypes associated with these speakers, and at the same time reinforcing the naïve assumption that too many co-existing language varieties are somehow uneconomical and thus detrimental to effective language learning. Instead, it can be argued that to allow Singlish to co-exist with Standard English is to increase the discourse options for many Singaporeans, and possibly to provide an additional educational resource for acquiring Standard English (cf.
the arguments in the Ebonics debate). Such official discouragement of Singlish “You see me no up” 57 also means that an available or existing resource has been or will be left to
waste. As a result, Singaporeans may actually be worse off as speakers of English because they become less confident in English, and more reluctant to use the language creatively in all the enriching variation allowed by the local variety.12 In Kachru’s three-circle model of description (1982), Singapore is considered a norm-developing outer circle country. If SGEM succeeds in weeding out Singlish, Singapore will regress from being norm-developing to being norm dependent.

In linguistic terms, then, the drive for national progress (i.e. international intelligibility) to make Singapore a viable player in the global network actually may result in its increased dependency on external norms. This is surely not what the local government has in mind in developing the nation.13

The disparity between the official goal of achieving international intelligibility with Standard (Singaporean) English and the reality of life for the average Singaporean, especially those who have been described as belonging to the linguistic working class, is significant. In the official drive towards language management in Singapore, the government has usually been keenly aware of the need to tread carefully, as language issues are not just political issues: they are also increasingly recognized as identity issues. An ideological conflict lies in the fact that there are differing notions about what makes a Singaporean and what constitutes a valuable linguistic resource. The latter question opens up a further conflict because the idea of “valuable resource” is defined in economic terms for some and in personal terms for others, and in Singapore economic priorities often do not match personal desires. In such conflicts, power often comes into play as the determining factor. But, as is recognized elsewhere, in today’s terms power has to come in the formof manufactured consent, rather than coercion, and this requires much rhetorical work on the government’s part to build consensus and work towards productive resolution of the conflict. However, it is clear that even when the conflictmay one day be said to have been resolved, the reality is that control over specific linguistic resources lies in the hands of decision makers, especially in a nation that readily buys into an economic argument. The immediate implication for the average Singaporean is that he/she will gradually come to accept a new status quo, avoiding the use of Singlish even while preaching its value, and perhaps gradually letting go of a language that he/she feels emotionally attached to even while embracing Standard English as an important investment in a brighter future. Until a renewed confidence and pride in the way in which Singaporeans speak their own particular brand of English is found, what Rubdy has termed “creative destruction” with respect to the replacement of Singlish by Standard English will indeed take its place in Singapore’s linguistic landscape.

This said, however, it is true that as long as there exist Singaporeans who feel genuine attachment to Singlish, it will not fade away without a good struggle for some time to come, in spite of all official efforts to make the economic argument override all other arguments. One writer of a letter to the editor of The Straits Times perhaps said it best when she tried to pinpoint the im[ortance of Singlish to the Singaporean identity: My American husband understands me perfectly when I say, “Are you ready already?”, and when the day comes that he can put the “lah” in the right place, I’ll know we’re truly married! (Lee, M. 1998)

Such attachment to Singlish testifies to the uniqueness and emotional value of Singlish to some, if not all, Singaporeans. In the pursuit of that magic element that will unite all Singaporeans in the creation of a Singaporean identity, Singlish is very much a part of that formulation, and should therefore be allowed to thrive in Singapore.


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