Another perspective on Singlish

In his Sept. 10 column, “The Queen’s Singlish,” Sam Lasman ’12 comments on Singapore’s “Speak Good English Movement” that has been intensified this year.

As co-president of the Yale University Malaysian and Singaporean Association, and in light of the recent announcement about a Yale-affiliated university in Singapore, I wish to provide additional commentary on the social context behind the Movement and offer another perspective on this topic.

For much of its history, Singapore has relied on its strategic position as a major trading post to fuel economic expansion. The practical concerns of business made it important (even necessary) for the multi-racial populace to learn English not only in order to communicate with the international community, but also to become mutually intelligible among themselves. English is, for the most part, the language of instruction across the education system. Likewise, English has also been the predominant language in mainstream media and arts. The central issue has always been — and remains — how a country of less than five million, with few natural resources, could flourish in the global marketplace. Language skills rank among the most crucial for the accumulation and deployment of human capital.

With this in mind, it is not hard to understand why the government of Singapore actively promotes the use of correct, idiomatic English in its citizens. The concern, then, is what defines “correct”?

Lasman rightly points out that the concept of correctness in language is perhaps too vague in itself, since “there isn’t actually anyone with complete authority to say what is, or isn’t, grammatical.” I agree with this statement — English does, after all, evolve with time, and that which conforms to the commonly-defined standard in one period may not in another. But the purpose of Singapore’s “Speak Good English Movement” is less about having people speak like antiquated robots than it is about encouraging them to speak in a way such that someone of similar English proficiency from New York, Paris or Tokyo would easily understand the conversation. It’s about phrasing what one has to say in an elegant and cosmopolitan way, so that even any English-speaking listener can grasp the varied nuances of that particular exchange without having prior knowledge of Chinese, Malay, or Tamil (the other ethnic languages of Singapore).

I appreciate Lasman’s decision to explore the quirky intricacies of Singlish in his column — not many people are aware of this fairly obscure version of Southeast Asian creole, and fewer follow Singapore’s domestic policy towards it. I take pleasure in knowing that a fellow Yalie is well-traveled — and erudite — enough to be able discuss the dialect and allude to common instances of its usage verbatim.

Janice Chen

Sept. 13

The writer is the co-president of MASA and a junior in Branford College.