The debate in Singapore: Singlish vs. English

Singlish no good-good lah!
The debate in Singapore: Singlish vs. English

1. Introduction

This paper will be concerned with a variety of English spoken in Singapore, namely Singapore English. Singapore English knows two varieties: that of Standard Singapore English, which follows British spelling and grammar, and Colloquial Singapore English, the last one also known under its popular term ‘Singlish’. (Jenkins, 2003:110) In this paper we will take a closer look at this second Singaporean variety of English. First we will look at the history of Singlish and its use in Singapore’s society today. Second, we will look at some structural properties of the language. And finally we will look at the role of Singlish in today’s Singaporean society; how the government perceives Singlish, how they try to make their inhabitants ‘speak better English’ and how the Singaporean people feel about this.

2. Socio-Historical Background & Singlish Today

The history of English in Singapore goes back to the early nineteenth century. Ever since the British statesman Sir Stamford Raffles claimed the island of Singapore for the East India Company in 1819, English has had a place in Singapore. Before the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles English speakers had already visited the island for purposes of int. al. trading, but it was the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles that was responsible for the formal connection between English and Britain, which is responsible for the place the English language has in today’s Singaporean society. (Wee, 2004a) Singapore became an independent Republic in 1965, and ever since the use of English has increased still further. Since 1987 all Singaporean children use English as the main language in school (Gupta, 1994) and nowadays English is the language of instruction in all schools with one of the other official languages, Chinese, Tamil or Malay, being followed trough as the second school language. ‘Bilingualism’ in Singapore has thus come to be uniquely defined as ‘proficiency in English and one other official language’. (Pakir, 1994: 159) Gupta (1994: 3) points out that this bilingualism in Singapore is exceptional; “This is a community, then, in which bilingualism is not associated with minority groups, or with migrants, but one in which knowing and using several languages is expected”. Next to its role in schools, English is the first language of many of the 4.6 million Singaporeans and the second language of nearly the rest of the inhabitants of Singapore. English dominates important parts of Singapore: “…in practice, English dominated both in the institutional and private life of the nation. It is the language of the government, of administration and employment. It is the medium of instruction in all schools and tertiary institutions (…) Hence by any indicator – official status, social prestige, extent of use, number of speakers, English is the dominant language in Singapore” (Lim (1981:1). English plays a role at three levels: At the national level, English is the pragmatic choice to meet the government’s larger economic objectives. At the community level, English is seen to be the obvious choice for inter-ethnic communication. And at the individual level, since all members of society would have access to English, the gap between the English- and Asian-language-educated would narrow. All individuals have equal access to the benefits that a knowledge of English offered. (Bokhorst-Heng 1998: 290) in (Rubdy 2001: 344). Even though English is the language of the government and business, Rubdy argues that many of the citizens of Singapore speak Singlish at home and with friends and enjoy local TV comedies featuring Singlish-speaking characters.

3. Structural properties of Singlish

As stated in the introduction, Singapore English consists of two varieties, namely Standard Singapore English (SSE) and Colloquial Singapore English (CSE), the last one also referred to as Singlish. A few aspects can distinguish these two varieties from each other. CSE uses pragmatic particles, verb groups without subjects, conditional clauses without subordinating conjunction and zero copula. SSE uses auxiliary and subject in interrogatives, the presence of verbal inflections, noun inflections and certain complex verb groups (Gupta, 1994). Colloquial Singapore English is the most spoken form of English in Singapore, and is not seen as the standard. Speakers of CSE, who do not master the English language well enough yet, are learners of SSE (Gupta 1994:17).

3.1 Discourse Particles

We will now look at some examples in which Singlish differs from British English. To illustrate these differences I will provide some examples, some of them are taken from Maley (1997) in Jenkins’ World Englishes (2003) . The first example lies in the field of grammar – it is very common to leave out the verb ‘to be’ resulting in utterances such (1) and (2)

(1) I very scared.
I very scared.
‘I am very scared.’

(2) That boy so havoc, you know.
That boy so havoc, you know.
‘That boy is so havoc, you know.’

Another highly found Singlish feature is the widespread use of discourse particles such as ‘lah’, ‘a’, ‘lor’, or ‘what’ as in (3), (4) and (5):

(3) Got instructions. Can lah.
Got instructions. Can pcl.
‘I got instructions. I am able to do so.’

(4) The card put inside lor.
The card put inside pcl.
‘Put the card inside.’

(5) I never ever draw what.
I never ever draw pcl.
‘I never draw anything’.

Gupta (1994) states that this assertive particle lah is often used to show the speaker’s commitment to what is said, or to mark a directive (Gupta 1994:10). In example (3) we clearly see this commitment; the speaker wants to put extra emphasis on the fact that he or she is able to do what he or she received instructions for. In (4) we see the use of the particle lor, which can be analyzed is a tentative particle, and is used to put forward an idea or to make a request. In (5), the particle what is a contradictory particle, and it shows that the speaker is forcefully contradicting something that has been said (Gupta 1994:10).

Another discourse particle occurring in Singlish is the usage of ‘dun’ instead of ‘don’t’ as in (6) :

(6) ‘Dun lai dat, lah’
pcl like that pcl
‘Please don’t be like that. ‘

3.2 Zero-copula and Topic-Prominence constructions
It is very common in Singlish to leave out the copula in a sentence as in (7) and (8):

(7) Later free or not?
Later free or not?
‘Are you free later, or not?’

(8) Careful, laksa very hot.
Careful, laksa very hot.
‘Be careful, the laksa is very hot.’

Umberto Ansaldo, an Asian linguist who has done a lot of research on Asian Englishes, explains why it is not unusual in Singlish for the copula to be missing. He argues that “… from a typological point of view, zero-copula is a common feature of many languages of Asia and beyond. In such languages, it is typically related to another feature commonly found in isolating languages, namely the absence of a clear distinction between the word classes we know as ‘Verbs’ and ‘Adjectves’. (Ansaldo 2009:12)

Singlish is a topic-prominent language, as we can see from examples (9) and (10) :

(9) Lionel met (him) already
Lionel met him already
‘Lionel I already met.’ or ‘I already met Lionel.’

(10) That book got already
That book got already
‘I already have that book’.

Ansaldo (2009) argues again that topic-prominence is a highly present feature of Sinitic languages; a group of the Sino-Tibetan languages ( and that therefore it is not uncommon for Singlish to also contain these features, even though they do not occur in Standard English.

3.3. Tense and Aspect

When it comes to tense and aspect, we find that Singlish uses time phrases to indicate Tense and regularly marks Aspect (Ansaldo 2009:15). Please take a look at example (11) as an example of a phrase that grammaticalized into a tense-marker, also provided by Ansaldo (2009):

(11) Lasttime got mango you know.
Grammaticalized element got mango you know
‘We used to have mango’s here’.

Ansaldo continues by arguing that Singlish often expresses Aspect rather than Tense. He states that words such as already, still and always have also grammaticalized, as in (12):

(12) Oh, they go already ah?
Oh, they go already pcl
‘Oh, they have already left?’

Again, he argues this is not unusual for Singlish since Sinitic languages such as Mandarin, Cantonese and Hokkien all realize these aspectual categories in comparable ways (Ansaldo, 2009:16).

3.4 Pronunciation and vocabulary

When looking at pronunciation in Singlish we see that it is very common to replace final consonants such as t, d, k, g, p, b, and l by a glottal stop, as in ‘Wan• Or no?’, where • represents a glottal stop. Also found in Singlish speech is the tendency to lengthen final vowels, resulting in ‘stories’ to become ‘storees’ or ‘shopping’ to become ‘shoppeeng’ (Jenkins, 2003).

3.4.1. Vocabulary

Singlish contains a lot of loan words from the other Singaporean languages, such as ‘siau’ for crazy, ‘yaya’ for smart ass or ‘buaya’ for womanizer. There is also a whole series of idiomatic forms peculiar to Singlish. For example ‘I feel so frus’ to indicate that one feels frustrated. New words, combined by two other English words are also to be found in Singlish, such as ‘corright’ , a combination of ‘correct’ and ‘right’ ( To ask how someone is doing speakers of Singlish ask ‘Have you eaten already?’ which sounds very strange for a speaker of Standard English, but is a polite way to greet someone in Singlish (Lim, 2009).

3.4.2. Reduplication

Reduplication, a morphological process in which a word or part of a word is repeated, is another occurring phenomenon in Singlish. Ansaldo (2004) and Wee (2004) identified at least four patterns of reduplication in Singlish:

(i) Noun-Noun for intimacy: this is my girl-girl meaning ‘this is my little girl’.
(ii) Verb-Verb for attenuation: just eat-eat lah meaning ‘eat a little’ or ‘pick some’
(iii) Pred.Adj.Pred.Adj for intensification: his face red-red meaning ‘His face is really red’
(iv) Verb-Verb-Verb for durative: we all eat-eat-eat meaning ‘We keep eating/eat a lot’

Singlish also knows occurrences of ‘triplication’ as in (iv) which is in fact a ‘typologically rare
phenomenon’ (Ansaldo 2009:17). Triplication does not seem to occur in other restructured
English varieties: “If internally motivated change were the only explanation for triplication in SE, we would expect this to have occurred in at least some other case. The fact that triplication exists in the most significant adstrate of SE, however, explains why this feature would appear in SE and apparently no other English-based varieties” (Ansaldo 2009:18).

4. Singlish versus the Government

The growing use of Colloquial Singapore English in areas such as work, lower education and media is seen as a big problem by the government. Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who was Prime Minister for 31 years, sparked off the debate by calling Singlish a ‘handicap’ that is stifling the country’s economic development (Rubdy, 2001: 345) Lee Kuan Yew held the Singaporean sitcom Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd responsible for the ‘bad’ English of younger Singaporeans. Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd was one of the most widely watched shows on Singapore’s Channel 5. The show told the story of a Singlish speaking man named Phua Chu Kang, who is set against his higher-educated brother and his snobbish wife. Then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said “In trying to imitate life, Phua Chu Kang has made the teaching of proper English more difficult”. The sitcom was eventually taken off air, and ended its season with Phua Chu Kang promising to take classes to learn Standard English (Rubdy, 2001:346). Singlish was seen as such a big problem that on the 29th of April in the year 2000 Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong launched the ‘Speak Good English Movement’ ( The main goal of the Speak Good English movement is to make Singaporeans use less Colloquial Singapore English, and more Standard English, or as they say “to encourage Singaporeans to speak grammatically correct English that is universally understood”. Every year the movement launches a program covering a certain theme, for instance this year’s program is called ‘Get it Right’. According to the Speak Good English Movement this is “a call to action for everyone to make the extra effort to ensure they use the English language accurately and correctly.” Other themes for programs from previous years carried titles such as “Impress. Inspire. Intoxicate”, “I Can”, “Rock Your World” or “Be Understood”. Next to the ‘Speak Good English Movement’, The Education Ministry has taken several measures to raise the standard of English used in schools. These include revising the English language syllabus to make the teaching of English more rigorous; a sixty-four course for 8,000 teachers leading to certified skills in teaching English, courses on the latest methods of teaching grammar and campaigns to promote the use of proper English in schools – all in a pre-emptive move to prevent an erosion of English language standards among the young (Rubdy, 2001:348). Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong also discouraged the use of Singlish in the media – Singlish was shown as a less attractive, ‘silly’ variety of English, something that nobody would or should want to speak.
Not all Singaporeans celebrate the existence and the ideas of the ‘Speak Good English Movement’ and what it brings along. In fact, many Singaporean citizens object to their ideas. Speaking the same language, and not the prestigious English that is spoken all around the world, makes the Singaporeans feel connected to each other; ‘”Acknowledging the significant role of Singlish in establishing group identity and solidarity, regardless of racial, linguistic or cultural differences, (…) Speaking standard English in this era of globalization is absolutely essential, but Singlish identifies us and bonds us as Singaporeans. This special ‘language’ should not be forsaken but instead, (…) be exploited as a tool for social cohesion” (Rubdy, 2001: 347; Harry Chia Kim Seng, The Straits Times, 8 September 1999). Pakir (1994) argues that “many Singaporeans consider Singlish the only cultural trait uniquely Singaporean”. The government clearly has a different view on these ideas of unification. Former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong argues that “They (Younger Singaporeans) should not take the attitude that Singlish is cool or feel that speaking Singlish makes them more Singaporean. If they speak Singlish when they can speak good English, they are doing a disservice to Singapore” (Rubdy, 2001: 348; The Straits Times, 30 April 2000). Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in 2001 in The Straits Times that though the mother tongues (read: ethnic languages) gave Singaporeans a sense of identity, Standard English is “a rational trade-off” for Singaporeans who want to be a part of the Global economy. He also noted that Singlish is not the only way to strengthen Singaporean identity and that there are other ways to do so (Chng Huang Hoon, 2003: 48). Unfortunately, DPM Lee Hsien Loong does not provide the Singaporeans with any of these ‘other ways to do so’. The arguing of the ‘mother tongues giving Singaporeans a sense of identity’ seems to be invalid since these mother tongues are all different languages and will not give the same, united feeling as Singlish does.

4.1 Ten years later

Almost a decade later the Speak Good English Movement is still fighting for Singaporeans to speak ‘Good English’ and fighting against Singlish. Lisa Lim (2009:58) notes that:

A critical mistake with SGEM (…) has been the inability to recognize that different varieties of
English can co-exist, each serving different functions in different domains. Instead SGEM pitched
‘good English’ against ‘Singlish’, and had as an aim, in particular in the first five years (2000 to 2004), amongst other things, “to help Singaporeans move away from the use of Singlish” (SGEM 2009). Almost a decade on, SGEM, which has seen a number of prominent language specialists at the helm, plus an advisory board which includes local linguists, still adopts a prescriptive stance, and has also, as noted by Gupta (fc) fostered a maven culture for English in Singapore, breeding insecurity in ordinary users of English without any serious effort at improving their English.

It is indeed remarkable that the Speak Good English Movement tries to force the Singaporeans to speak Standard English and try to abandon Singlish, while the two could co-exist next to each other. There are many countries in which there is one official language with other languages or dialects existing next to each other. In The Netherlands, for example, Dutch is the official language, but in the north of the Netherlands, in the province Friesland, another language called Frisian (also known as West-Frisian) is spoken. Frisian is used in schools, in the media and in official institutions. Even secondary scholars in Friesland can choose Frisian as a subject in school. Next to Frisian, all Frisian speakers master the Dutch language perfectly. When outside of Friesland no one has a hard time understanding them. Frisian is ‘their own thing’, something which belongs to their identity. It makes me wonder why a similar situation is not possible in Singapore. Then again, for this to be possible Singlish would first have to be recognized by the government as an official language, something which does not seem likely to happen in the near by feature.

5. Conclusion

In this paper we have taken a closer look at Colloquial Singapore English. We have looked at the socio-historical background of Singlish, its place in Singapore’s society and at some structural properties of Singlish. We also dove into the fierce debate of Singlish versus the Government.
It is clear that this debate is not likely to end within this century. Singaporeans will keep on using Singlish to stick to their own identity while the government will keep on fighting against it. Perhaps they will succeed in the future, or perhaps they will eventually give up the fight and let Singlish co-exist next to Standard English, just as is the case in the Netherlands. Either way, the discussion is not over yet.



Works Cited.

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