Singlish is English!

Now, as the Phase 2 Heightened Alert has kicked in, here comes a new round of social distancing measures and an uptick in boredom. To get my brain cells up and running again, I have decided to try my hand at something a little bit out of my comfort zone. You’ll now see my latest piece, my submission for mothership’s inaugural essay writing competition about “sounding local.”

Becoming a “bona fide” local is not about merely inhabiting in a particular city nor is it defined by whether you are Singaporean or not. Especially coming from someone who considers herself a “pseudo-Singaporean.”  While the pandemic has wreaked havoc around the world with restrictive border policies, we have become “forced” to start to appreciate what happens in our own backyard. Pre-pandemic, hearing the Singaporean accent characterised by the syllable timed words, the “th’s” being replaced by “d” ’s instead brought a smile to my face. Sure, I may be a temporary visitor in that foreign country but hearing the oh-so-famous Singaporean accent is akin to finding rice within the depths of a place where rice is not their staple food. It is simply comforting. Reminds me of home and that wherever I go, there is always someone else of my kind.

Singlish is undoubtedly the hallmark of sounding like a local— in fact, I think that is the most identifiable trait aside from the syllable-timed accent which we are familiar with. My personal trifecta of Singlish consists of the three Ls as I choose to term it. “Lah, Lorh, Leh”, to non-locals it is expected that hearing these will raise eyebrows and elicit puzzled looks. However, for anyone who has had enough time to acclimatise themselves to the surrounding culture in Singapore, I am fairly certain that Singlish no longer seems so foreign to them.

Aside from this “trifecta” as previously mentioned, there is something else about Singlish which is undeniable. Singlish at its core is simply efficient and snappy. Sentences are reduced to a single word and the different inflections signify different meanings even though it is just one word. For example, “can”, that word already signifies agreement. No need for “Sure, that works” or perhaps an “I agree.” Just “can” will suffice. While there may be slangs and other initialisms in other languages which may share some similarities to Singlish, it is not something which can be replicated.

Singlish gives us a bit of a glimpse into Singapore from an outsider’s point of view. By definition, Singlish is an informal variant of English which draws on elements from a wide array of languages. It is representative of the eclectic mix of cultures considering that the realm of Singlish stems from initialisms to borrowed words from other languages. Singlish has been often been touted as “improper” which has since culminated in various efforts to squash the use of Singlish. Especially on the premise that Singlish isn’t really considered lingua franca in most cases. I’m pretty sure most of us would probably remember those “Speak Good English” campaigns with examples of “proper” English emblazoned on buses and other forms of media. While laudable, it inevitably becomes reduced to something which one may look at with a fleeting glance.

Although most of us are competent in “code switching” depending on the social context, the Singaporean accent may be a bane to some. While I have never really felt the need to change the way I speak personally, sometimes, people may choose to put on a “fake” accent when outside the confines of Singapore. Even though there is nothing inherently “wrong” with the way that we currently speak, I guess it boils down to being an outlier and perhaps feeling insecure over one’s linguistic ability. When in Rome do as the Romans do, which is human instinct. We all want to conform to society in one way or another to gain acceptance. As much as we might remind someone to be themselves and take pride in their roots, there is a propensity for one to attempt to emulate the manner of speech or pick up some of the local slang for the sake of fitting in.

Even so, it begets another question, “why do we still feel insecure about our Singaporean accent?” even though we clearly identify ourselves as Singaporeans when asked where we are from. It is an official language here, and most of us who are millennials or Gen Z would have definitely grown up with English as our main medium. Perhaps it could be a lack of representation of people who sound like us? Over the years Hollywood has made a concerted effort to step up in diversity and greater representation of Asians in film and TV. While this has been a welcome move, there is something else you can’t really deny about Singlish: Singlish and the Singaporean accent is not really something which you would see on the top 10 Netflix shows outside of the Southeast Asian Region. We see people who look like us, but they still have a foreign accent or at best a stereotypical accent of a non-native English speaker.

My best guess is that Singlish is not something which is intuitive and can be easily deduced from context. Case in point, “wah! I kenna scolded for sending the wrong email.” To a local or basically someone who has lived in Singapore for a decent amount of time, you would be able to deduce it easily. Even though to a non-local it may seem like gibberish, there lies the beauty of Singlish.

If you were to pick out specific words in that one sentence, simply changing the tone can bring about a different meaning. Furthermore, if you go deeper into it, you would realise that with Singlish, one sentence can consists of words from at least three to four languages. In some ways, perhaps Singlish could be a reflection of Singapore’s society in some ways? We pride ourselves on the efficacy of Singlish in communicating emotions and different sentiments. In the same vein, I guess we might even relate this to the efficiency of many processes in Singapore. Coupled with the latest round of social distancing measures, Singlish becomes even more integral in bringing us together. With social interactions largely reduced to text or perhaps an occasional zoom call, all the more we would expect defaulting back to Singlish. Simply because it gets the point across in just a few words, barring exceptional circumstances where the need for “proper” English arises.

As 9th August draws closer, we are soon reminded of the need for national pride and a strong national identity to help us weather through this crisis. One thing remains for sure though, Singlish is here to stay. No matter how many posters are plastered around Singapore to discourage us from using Singlish, it is who we are as a local and the nature of Singlish itself possesses highly unique qualities which cannot be easily replicated. After all, “something like this can find outside meh?”


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