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English Language : Linguistics : Phonology :

Attitudes towards Colloquial Singapore English/Singlish

المؤلف:  Lionel Wee

المصدر:  A Handbook Of Varieties Of English Phonology

الجزء والصفحة:  1021-60



Attitudes towards Colloquial Singapore English/Singlish

The official unacceptability of English as a mother tongue creates an arena of conflict since there is evidence that English is growing rapidly as a home language. The data below, based on the 2000 Census of Population, show that, except for the Malays, the officially assigned mother tongue is often not necessarily the home language.


Language most frequently spoken at home (figures in %):


This has led to occasional calls for English to be officially recognized as a mother tongue. But it has also created a tension between the standard variety of English and its more colloquial counterpart (better known as Singlish). This is because the government insists that English must continue to serve a purely instrumental role if Singapore is to maintain its economic competitiveness. The existence of the colloquial variety is felt by the state to undermine the development of proficiency in the standard, and hence, to threaten that economic competitiveness. Thus, in his 1999 National Day Rally Speech, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong stated that:

The fact that we use English gives us a big advantage over our competitors. If we carry on using Singlish, the logical final outcome is that we, too, will develop our own type of pidgin English, spoken only by 3m Singaporeans, which the rest of the world will find quaint but incomprehensible. We are already half way there. Do we want to go all the way?


The Prime Minister thus expressed the hope that in time to come, Singaporeans will no longer speak Singlish:

Singlish is not English. It is English corrupted by Singaporeans and has become a Singapore dialect… Singlish is broken, ungrammatical English sprinkled with words and phrases from local dialects and Malay which English speakers outside Singapore have difficulties in understanding… Let me emphasize that my message that we must speak Standard English is targeted primarily at the younger generation… we should ensure that the next generation does not speak Singlish.

(The Straits Times 29 August 1999)


This led the government to launch the Speak Good English Movement (SGEM) on 29 April 2000, and according to the chairman of SGEM, Col. David Wong (The Straits Times, 31 March 2000):

We are trying to build a sense of pride, that as Singaporeans, we can speak good English as opposed to pride that we can speak Singlish. We are trying to check a trend in which younger Singaporeans are beginning to feel that it is perhaps a way of identifying themselves as Singaporeans if they speak Singlish.


The view that Singlish should be eliminated or at the very least, discouraged, has met with resistance from some Singaporeans who see it as “a key ingredient in the unique melting pot that is Singapore” (Hwee Hwee Tan, Time magazine, 29 July 2002).

As Bloom (1986: 402) puts it,

We now come to the crux of our problem. We seem at times to be talking about two different languages. On the one hand, English is this marvellous instrument of nation-building, the language of the “true” Singaporean; on the other hand it is a language learned strictly for the purpose of getting rich, divorced from the traditional values of Singapore’s component peoples, the language of, in the terms of S. Rajaratnam, the Second Deputy Prime Minister (Foreign Affairs), the religion of “moneytheism”.


This tension between, on the one hand, accepting Singlish as a legitimate part of Singapore’s linguistic ecology, and on the other, rejecting it in favor of a more standard variety is a continuing and important aspect of understanding English in Singapore. A similar preoccupation with the relationship between the colloquial and standard varieties can be seen in more academically-oriented discourses, to which we now turn.