‘You can’t tell people to not speak it,’ says NUS don. But where does Singlish stand now?
From the ban on its use on radio, to the Sar-vivor rap during the first coronavirus outbreak, to a growing body of research on its place today — Singlish has come a long way as part of the Singaporean identity. This is explored in CNA’s two-part special on Singlish, this National Day.
SINGAPORE: Search for “Singlish” on TikTok and you will be served up with more than 2,000 videos, with 60 million views in total. That is an indication of the popularity of this video content.
But guess what? Back in 1974, the authorities banned Dick Lee’s classic tune, Fried Rice Paradise, by reason of “improper use of English”.
“Those were the actual words they gave me,” the singer-songwriter said in CNA’s two-parter, Singlish: Why We Talk Like That? “It seemed like I committed a crime or something.”
Today, with Singlish used in anything from Phua Chu Kang’s COVID-19 vaccine rap to Word-leh! — the local version of the viral word game Wordle — it may be hard to imagine that it was once considered a threat to Singapore.
WATCH: How Singlish went from ‘cannot make it’ to national hero (47:22)
A study being conducted at the National University of Singapore (NUS) has even found that the Singlish vocabulary is as integral as that of English to the way Singaporeans make sense of the world.
“They form important concepts for Singaporeans. They coexist with other languages that Singaporeans may know,” said NUS assistant professor of psychology Cynthia Siew, who is doing the research.
How did Singlish evolve to become such a part of the Singaporean identity? And what place does it have in the country’s current stage of development? CNA looks at attitudes towards and understandings of Singlish as Singapore turns 57.
‘DO YOU HAVE THE VERBAL CAPACITY OF A CABBAGE?’
Lee was all of 17 years old when he released Fried Rice Paradise. It was heard only on subscription radio service Rediffusion, and not on free-to-air radio.
Singlish, though the term had not yet been coined, was seen as getting in the way of Singapore’s pursuit of development and business deals with the world, or as he put it, attempts to “get out of Third World status”.
Then in came the native English-speaking teachers, and a disdain for the way locals spoke.
“If you didn’t speak in proper English, you’d be … looked down upon as not having been educated properly,” said theatre and television personality Hossan Leong, who began school in the 1970s.
He recalled how his English teacher from the United Kingdom would respond to Singlish uttered in class — even the casual “huh?” — with comments like, “Do you have the verbal capacity of a cabbage?”
How Singlish came about
Singlish did not come out of English, but rather bazaar Malay, literally meaning the language of the market, said Tan Ying Ying, an associate professor of linguistics and multilingual studies at Nanyang Technological University.
Bazaar Malay was predominantly Malay, with a smattering of Chinese vernacular.
As Singapore opened up to new settlers — the British, the Chinese and the Indians — Singlish came about through a mixture of their languages along with that of the original Malay inhabitants.
“Because people needed to trade (and) work together … this kind of communication took place,” noted Tan.
While Singlish is known as Singapore English, there is “very little of English grammar in it”, she said. “You see Hokkien grammar, you see Malay grammar, and that sort of makes up the bulk of Singlish.”
English was the main medium for post-independence education, however, so “Singlish today is very anglicised”, she added.
Attempts to celebrate Singlish met with pushback.
A letter in The Straits Times in 1982 from Jonathan James Webster, who wrote, “let the speakers of Singapore English be proud of their language”, led to a backlash from the Education Ministry and teachers themselves.
“As far as they were concerned, British English was necessary in order to protect Singapore's international status,” recalled the then NUS English language and literature lecturer.
Despite government efforts, Singlish proved impossible to stamp out.
The 1987 play, Army Daze, and the 1996 film of the same name about army life were mainstream successes. And as many men might attest, National Service was a breeding ground for Singlish expressions like “bobo king” (weak shooter) and “wake up your bloody idea”.
“It could be (due to) boredom, the fact that you’re sitting there, waiting to do things. It could be that you’re struggling to remember a phrase and you mash up your dialect-speak with an English word,” said Michael Chiang, 66, who wrote Army Daze.
“After your NS, you go out into the workforce, and you bring it along with you … (If) you see someone struggling, ‘don’t gabra’ (don’t be so nervous that you mess up) is just something you’ll say.”
There was also music such as Why You So Like That by songwriter Siva Choy.
With Singapore’s second generation of leaders in the early 1990s, there was “a kind of relaxation of the politics”, noted Ilsa Sharp, 76, whose husband Choy died in 2018.
WATCH: The Wah Lau Gang and Singapore’s favourite Singlish songs (4:10)
But after the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, the government redoubled its efforts to get people to speak properly.
The series Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd, which would become Singapore’s longest-running sitcom, and the actor who played its titular character came in for special mention.
“Gurmit Singh can speak many languages, but Phua Chua Kang speaks only Singlish,” said then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong at the 1999 National Day Rally.
“If our children learn Singlish from Phua Chu Kang, they will not become as talented as Gurmit Singh.”
The Speak Good English Movement was launched, heralding public speaking competitions and skits. Even Phua Chu Kang “kena arrowed” (was tasked with something): He had to learn proper English in the show’s third season.
The irony was not lost when, in 2003, Singlish was one of the answers to a life-and-death situation: The outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome — “the virus that I just want to minus” as the song went.
The Sar-vivor rap summed up everything people needed to do — wash their hands often, avoid foreign travel, wear a mask and “use your brain, use your brain, use your brain” — to stay safe. Oh, and “don’t play play”.
“Lives were at stake, so effective communication was very important,” said Serene Choo, the former Mediacorp creative director behind the Singlish earworm.
And the perfect person to deliver the public health message was Phua Chu Kang, who spoke to the man in the street, she felt.
WATCH: From Phua Chu Kang to national icon: Majulah Singlish (46:56)
“People were singing it; kids were singing on the school bus. It just got into your system, subconsciously or consciously,” she added.
NOT AN EITHER-OR SITUATION
What followed the Sar-vivor rap has been a growing understanding of the language. Studies have found that it is not improbable to have both standard English and Singlish, rather than having to choose.
The Institute of Policy Studies surveyed more than 4,000 Singaporeans in 2018 and found that a large proportion of those who identified most with Singlish, or indicated a high level of proficiency in Singlish, also indicated a high degree of oral proficiency in standard English.
Can children also code-switch between the two?
According to a 2008 study by linguists from NUS, involving 260 pupils in “non-elite” secondary schools, 73 per cent of the respondents could speak both, “which points to their ability to code-switch”.
In an experiment to test language use, Nanyang Technological University linguistics lecturer Luke Lu also showed that a group of 13-year-olds “understood perfectly” the appropriateness of using Singlish in a casual context and standard English in a more formal context.
Siew from NUS is now exploring where Singlish sits in the brain by building a map of Singlish.
It involves getting Singaporeans to say the first words that come to mind when given a Singlish word, such as “paiseh” (which could be “embarrassed” or “sorry”). As more people provided their word associations, the connection between “paiseh” and “sorry” was shown to be strong.
Her research findings so far, derived from more than 500 undergraduates, have shown that “you can’t tell people to not speak Singlish”. When Singaporeans communicate with other Singaporeans, these concepts “inevitably become activated”, she told CNA Insider.
Rather than try to “delete” Singlish from our lexicon, there should an appreciation for how the knowledge of Singapore English has “shaped the way we interpret and understand the world around us”, she said.
Take, for example, the word “chope”. Singaporeans may understand that tissue paper or an umbrella placed on a seat at the kopitiam means it is reserved, but try that overseas, and someone else would take the seat anyway, she cited.
“Language is connected to social experience and communication.”
Origins of Singlish phrases
Pattern more than badminton: It might have originated from the flashy moves in a competitive game of badminton. And pattern rhymes with badminton.
Steady pom pi pi: “Pom” came from the Hokkien word “poon” (blow), while “pi pi” is the sound a whistle makes. These sounds were commonly heard during the 1980s and early 1990s when blowing whistles showed support for a team.
It has evolved to mean someone who is calm and collected.
Kancheong spider: The term is likely to have originated in the army. Soldiers would scramble nervously (kancheong) before a rifle inspection to clean the barrel of dirt, also known as “spiders”.
Her team wants to collect more word associations from Singaporeans of a wider age group, especially the older population. “Then we can see how (Singlish) words have changed … (compared to those of) our young,” she said.
A cultural record of Singlish words, whether common or not, could be useful even for speech recognition technology in future.
So has Singlish finally shaken off its bad rap?
One person besides Singh who shot to fame with rumbustious use of Singlish is Lerine Yeo, perhaps better known as S-Hook Jie. She clocked up over 2.3 million views in 2018 thanks to a video of her selling S hooks and clothes on Facebook Live.
It is precisely that use of Singlish, she believes, that has contributed to the success of her small business. This year, she opened a brick-and-mortar shop in Bugis.
“Because of Singlish … I attract more people,” she said. “More relatable … more comfortable, like I treat you as my friend instead of ‘you’re trying (the) hard sell (on) me’.
When I speak more of proper English, they’ll feel, it’s not you leh, Lerine. They’re used to my leh, lor, lah, eh — don’t like that leh.”
Indeed, once perceived as a threat to our global-city connections, Singlish has become a global point of interest instead.
Sarong Party Girls: A Novel, about a young Singaporean woman’s exploits while climbing the social ladder — written in Singlish — was picked up and released by HarperCollins in the United States and Atlantic Books in the UK in 2016.