Don’t Anyhow Condemn Singlish

A while ago, Gwee Li Sui’s column in the New York Times drew a snarky reply from the PM’s press secretary. Didn’t think much about it, till I came to London for work last week. I hear so many accents on the street- South Asian, Jamaican, Cockney, Scottish, and the truly unintelligible Northern English. That’s on top of all the migrants from all over the world. Even on TV, people seem to let loose in their natural accents (except perhaps on the news).

It got me thinking about Singapore and Singlish. The government feels that Singlish is a hindrance to learning Singlish. But the jury seems to be out on this. MOE says it has observed Singlish being a hindrance, but other research indicates that even non-elite students know how to code-switch.

In fact, many classic English Literature texts, and many we teach in school, are full of non-standard English too.

“Of Mice and Men”: “They don’t belong no place. . . . With us it ain’t like that. We got a future. We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us. We don’t have to sit in no bar room blowin’ in our jack jus’ because we got no place else to go. If them other guys gets in jail they can rot for all anybody gives a damn. But not us.”

“The Joy Luck Club”: “She said the two soups were almost the same, chabudwo. Or maybe she said butong, not the same thing at all. ”

“Huckleberry Finn”: ” ‘I hain’t got no money.’

‘It’s a lie. Judge Thatcher’s got it. You git it. I want it.’ ”


Even Shakespeare is very far from the standard English we teach. English is a language with myriad influences and variations, and it’s virtually impossible to stick only to “standard English”. The government might have good intentions, but end up in a war it can’t win. When Singlish makes us feel such pride and connection, the government can’t afford to be on the opposing side to it.