Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Wed May 18 19:13:55 UTC 2005
Singlish A war of words
Singapore's government wants its citizens to speak good English, but they
would much rather be 'talking cock'
By Hwee Hwee Tan, TIME. . July 27, 2002
A COUPLE of months ago, Singaporean officials unintentionally made
cinematic history. They slapped an NC-17 rating on a film-which means
children under 17 cannot see it - not 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 irector, 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 copies - an
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
laugh - at 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 centre.
For more than two years now, it has been waging a war of words spearheaded
by the Speak Good English Movement (SGEM), which organises 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 behaviour - don'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
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 flavour.
And I'm not talking cock.
This article was first published in Time magazine July 29, 2002 edition
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