War of Words over 'Singlish'

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Fri Jul 26 12:20:47 UTC 2002

Time Asian edition:

JULY 29, 2002 / VOL. 160 NO. 3

A War of Words Over 'Singlish'

Singapore's government wants its citizens to speak good English, but they
would much rather be 'talking cock'


A couple of months ago, Singaporean officials unintentionally made
cinematic history. They slapped an NC-17 rating on a filmwhich means
children under 17 cannot see itnot because of sex or violence or
profanity, but because of bad grammar. Despite its apparently naughty
title, Talking Cock: The Movie is actually an innocuous comedy comprising
four skits about the lives of ordinary Singaporeans. The censors also
banned a 15-second TV spot promoting the flick. All this because of what
the authorities deemed "excessive use of Singlish."

Given the tough crackdown, you would expect Singlish to be a harmful
substance that might corrupt our youth, like heroin or pornography. But
it's one of Singapore's best-loved quirks, used daily by everyone from
cabbies to CEOs. Singlish is simply Singaporean slang, whereby English
follows Chinese grammar and is liberally sprinkled with words from the
local Chinese, Malay and Indian dialects.  Take jiat gentang, which
combines the Hokkien word for "eat" (jiat), with the Malay word for
"potato" (gentang). Jiat gentang describes someone who speaks with a
pretentious Western accent (since potatoes are considered a European
food), as in "He went to Oxford to study, now he come back to Singapore,
only know how to jiat gentang." As for "talking cock," the phrase means to
spout nonsense.

I like to talk cock, and I like to speak Singlish. It's inventive, witty
and colorful. 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. When I don't understand what's going on,
I say, "Sorry, but I catch no ball, man," which stems from the Hokkien
liah boh kiew. There's an exhaustive lexicon of such Singlish gems at
talkingcock.com, a hugely popular, satirical website that inspired the
movie. Its director, Colin Goh, has also published the Coxford Singlish
Dictionary, which lovingly chronicles all the comic eccentricities of
Singapore's argot. Since its April release, the book has sold over 20,000
copiesan extraordinary feat given that just 1,000 copies will get you on
Singapore's Top 10 list. Singlish is especially fashionable these days
among Generation Y, in part because it gives uptight Singapore a chance to
laughat itself.

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 the past, the government would impose strict rules and hefty fines to
shape social behaviordon't spit, don't litter, don't sell gum. But this
time, because it knows Singlish is trendy, it's using the soft sell.
Naturally, much of this has to do with semantics. Says SGEM head David
Wong: "SGEM is not a campaign, it's a movement. In Singapore, you
associate campaigns with the message that if you trespass, we're going to
punish you. A movement is different. We want to adopt a more lighthearted
approach." This lighthearted approach spawned the recent SGEM Festival, a
hapless exercise in unintended comic surrealism. Driving home from work, I
would hear 'NSync-style pop jingles on the radio telling me to "speak
clearly." On the cartoonish www.sgem.com website, I took a test to "Have
Fun with Good English." I didn't I failed the test because I wasn't sure
whether it was more proper to say: (a) "Please come with me, I will take
you to the airport" or (b) "Please come with me, I will send you to the
airport." (According to the website, the right answer is a.)

Blur as sotong responses like mine won't dampen Wong's zeal for promoting
good English. He dislikes Singlish because he thinks it's crude. "If my
son came back from school and told my wife that she was talking cock," he
says, "I would slap him." He would have to. Otherwise, how would
Cambridge-educated Wong's son learn to jiat gentang? Singlish is crude
precisely because it's rooted in Singapore's unglamorous past. This is a
nation built from the sweat of uncultured immigrants who arrived 100 years
ago to bust their asses in the boisterous port. Our language grew out of
the hardships of these ancestors. And Singlish is a key ingredient in the
unique melting pot that is Singapore. This is a city where skyscraping
banks tower over junk boats; a city where vendors hawk steaming pig
intestines next to bistros that serve haute cuisine. The SGEM's brand of
good English is as bland as boiled potatoes. If the government has its
way, Singapore will become a dish devoid of flavor. And I'm not talking

Hwee Hwee Tan, a senior writer at the lifestyle magazine 24/7, wrote the
novels Foreign Bodies and Mammon Inc.

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