Got Crass No Class?

I recall how one day, a friend of mine said to me, “Singlish sounds very crass. Why do you still speak it?”

While I was taken aback by her startlingly accusatory remark, I reflected. I remembered a time how a hawker had dismissed my order by curtly saying, “No more.” I recalled how my seemingly helpful suggestion to improve the handwriting of a friend, was rejected with a, “You think you very good meh?” And indeed, when put into contexts like those, Singlish did sound very rude.

Yet I was unwilling to let go of my “crass” language. It’s Singaporean culture, I reasoned. Singlish, the learned, shared language between generations of Singaporeans, encompassed Malay and Hokkien elements. Historically, the growth of Singlish speakers multiplied due to an increase in the employment of Singaporean teachers who, while attempted to teach in the Anglo-English variety that they were educated in, reverted to certain expressions in Malay and the Chinese dialect groups, thus maintaining intrinsic Singlish features. The magic of mispronounced words, repeating words (e.g. “I agar agar only.” meaning “I was only guessing.”) and even direct translations from other languages was in that it resulted in a language that was understood between races, and even between generations. Yet the role of Singlish was continually relegated to one that was spoken by working to lower-middle classes. Singlish was inappropriate for Singapore. Was that then the reason why Singlish was disdained by my “high class” Singaporean friend?

In Everyday Life, Lorraine Aragon gives an account of the Javanese language in Indonesia. She explains how, although the Javanese language was spoken by many citizens, the Malay language took precedence as the national language, since the Javanese language was hierarchical and unsuitable for the national language of a modern, twentieth-century model of equals. In Singapore, the rationality of the Singaporean Government in selecting British English as a linguistic base for Singaporeans rendered other local variants of English to be categorized as Singlish. Singlish was conferred the title of being a pidginized form of Anglo-English, and its use greatly discouraged, with the implementation of the Speak Good English Movement (SGEM). The two political moves were parallel in its consequences, that it relegated the native languages to be a source of identity. Tobaku language, as Aragon writes, is spoken between Tobaku people, regardless of their ability to speak Indonesian fluently. Language was used firstly, as a show of responsible membership to the group identity, and secondly, as a preventive barrier against outsiders, who would then not be able to understand them. Similarly, in Singapore, Singlish is spoken between Singaporeans, regardless of the speaker’s ability to converse fluently in English. Born as a nation with colonial traditions and led by a political party with largely Asian values, Singlish came to crystallize the past history of Singapore by encompassing both English and local variants. Codification of Singlish, with the emergence of Singlish dictionaries and usage guides, allowed Singlish to be locally accepted as an integral part of Singaporean culture. However, it is greatly assumed that Singlish speakers receive a low level of education in Anglo-English, since the “Standard” way of speaking would be to use Anglo-English. Singlish is established as language spoken by lower classes, since its structure and vocabulary differs greatly from Anglo-English, and was inappropriate in an increasingly globalized world, since speaking Singlish amongst Singaporeans would exclude non-Singlish speakers (the rest of the world) who were unable to understand the language.

The common contention by the SGEM on the discourse of Singlish lay in its practical use in the workplace. This generated the emergence of Singaporeans who were able to code-switch between Singlish and Anglo-English, where Singlish was used for everyday interactions with friends and family, while “Standard” Anglo-English was used for interactions with colleagues and clients. The separation of private and public spheres, and the language used accordingly, allowed for agents of cultural structures to code-switch and shape the construction of the Singaporean culture. 1st generation Singaporean culture may have been a mélange of migrant cultures, which slowly integrated into a collective 2nd generation Singaporean culture. This too, has shifted, with the gradual emphasis on knowledge-based industries in Singapore, to allow Singaporeans to communicate in both English and Singlish, depending on the social context in which the speaker and recipient were in.
Singlish is thus, not a language of class, it is a language of nationality. Just as it is Indonesian language to give feelings of reciprocity to bind relations, it is Singlish, which binds us together as part of our national identity. It is the language which allows us to converse with other Singaporeans in our common language, it is the language which shapes our identity as Singaporeans. Singlish, and its usage, is part of Singaporean culture – an amalgamation of our past history and our outlook towards the future.

And to that, I replied my friend, “You not Singaporean meh?”

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