Singlish on buses – and govt’s “prata” position on the language

Singlish on buses – and govt’s “prata” position on the language
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New bus operator, Tower Transit, has tread where few would dare to – using signs in Singlish on its buses.

Singlish, for the uninitiated, is a colloquial mutation of the English language, peculiar to Singapore.

The new bus operator is introducing buses with three doors, two staircases and USB charging ports.

The Singlish signs on its buses are its tongue-in-cheek way of getting commuters’ attention. They include phrases such as “Here got priority seats!”, “Here cannot go in!” and “Here can charge phone!”.

Underneath each sign, however, is the standard English text to explain the Singlish versions above.

Photo; Straits Times

“Tower Transit Singapore’s group communications director Glenn Lim said the signs are located strategically around the bus, such as near the doors and reserved seats, to help commuters ‘use the services provided on the bus better’”, the Straits Times reported.

Mr Lim said the company didn’t want the signs to be “run of the mill” and “only the headlines are in Singlish, to grab the passenger’s attention, so they will read what is beneath”.

While the signs have drawn mixed reactions from the public, Mr Zaqy Mohamad, PAP MP for Choa Chu Kang GRC and chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Communications and Information, said that the signs should be taken “with a sense of humour” and that “we should…give some leeway for advertising”.

His views, however, seem to run counter to what the government has been saying through the years, consistently insisting that Singaporeans adhere to proper or standard English, in school, at home and in the workplace.

Photo: Straits Times

The government’s obvious disdain for the localised language has been expressed by all three prime ministers, Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Chok Tong and Lee Hsien Loong.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew had, in 1999, declared that Singlish was “a handicap we must not wish on Singaporeans.”

In the same year, Mr Goh, who had by then become S’pore’s second prime minister, described Singlish as “English corrupted by Singaporeans” and urged Singaporeans to “improve the standard of our spoken and written English.”

“Let us not go in the reverse direction with Singlish, or to use Singlish, let us not ‘go stan’”, he added, using a familiar Singlish phrase meaning “to go backward”.

Current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has also added his voice to the message.

Explaining why using proper English was important – because otherwise others (foreigners) would not understand us – PM Lee said in 2005, “When our English becomes too mutated, we become unintelligible to others. We then have a big problem.”

But in recent times, the Government itself has resorted to the use of Singlish to get its message across.

In his National Day Rally speech in 2006, for example, PM Lee himself famously made the now infamous remarks on national tv: “Mee siam mai hum”, a blunder which was instantly noticed by the average heartlander. “Mee siam”, a Malay noodle dish, does not have “hum” (cockles).

So when PM Lee said he would order a plate of “mee siam mai hum” (“mee siam without cockles”), his phrase became a representation of how out of touch the ruling elite had become. You do not have to order “mee siam” without cockles because me siam does not come with cockles anyway.

And during elections campaigning, candidates of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) use Singlish in their rally speeches, to connect with the average heartland voter.

In the lead-up to the 2015 General Election, for example, the Government released a slew of short promotional videos on the Pioneer Generation Package, and various other government policies, all done with dialects and Singlish as the languages of choice.

My Paper, Feb 2015

“Chinese dialects were used to explain the Pioneer Generation Package to older citizens, while colloquialisms such as “gahmen” (government) and “cheem” (Hokkien for profound) were used on the Government’s official Twitter account, @govsingapore,” My Paper reported.

Government ministers such as Minister of State for Communications and Information Sim Ann told the media that “it was crucial to use what is most effective to build rapport and give a personal touch.”

Isn’t this a u-turn of government policy on Singlish? Apparently not.

“The public is very discerning,” Ms Sim Ann said. “For less formal occasions, many members of the public understand that we should go with the flow and use the language or style appropriate to that setting.”

She said what is important is to “get people talking.”

“Perfection isn’t the goal,” she explained, “but getting the message across is.”

Yet, when others support the use of the language, they are censured, at times very publicly indeed.

On 13 May 2016, the New York Times published an article by Singaporean poet Gwee Li Sui, exhorting the “nimble, practical and dynamic” nature of the colloquial language which, he added, had become “an enemy of the state.”

His article, “Do you speak Singlish?”, drew the ire of the press secretary of the Prime Minister, who promptly wrote to the American newspaper 10 days later, complaining that Mr Gwee had trivialised the Government’s effort in promoting standard English.

Repeating the government’s line of past decades, Ms Chang Li Lin, the press secretary, wrote; “Standard English is vital for Singaporeans to earn a living and be understood not just by other Singaporeans but also English speakers everywhere.”

And she added:

“Using Singlish will make it harder for Singaporeans to learn and use standard English. Not everyone has a Ph.D. in English Literature like Mr. Gwee, who can code-switch effortlessly between Singlish and standard English, and extol the virtues of Singlish in an op-ed written in polished standard English.”

Chang’s letter to New York Times

Her letter to the newspaper in turn drew criticism and ridicule as another elite who is out of touch with the masses.

Many Singaporeans without PhDs “code switch” easily and comfortably between standard English and Singlish, contrary to what Ms Chang said.

In brief, the Government’s position on Singlish is a confused one.

Depending on political expediency, it is used by the government itself (during politically advantageous periods such as during elections where it needs to show itself as being connected to the Singlish-speaking masses), and in its policy campaigns, as mentioned above.

In other times, however, it slams the language and exhort the use of standard English instead.

In the end, the message from the government is seen as an inconsistent, even hypocritical, one, hitched onto the flag of political expediency and swinging whichever way the political advantage blows.

Maybe the government should realise that Singlish is a unique cultural phenomenon in Singapore, and accept it as part of our national identity. It is a language spoken by the common man and woman of all stripes – Indian, Malay, Chinese, Eurasian, and even Caucasians and others.

In fact, at a naturalisation ceremony for new citizens in 2012, PM Lee encouraged them to integrate with Singaporeans, and said if the new citizens “[could] understand Singlish, so much the better.”

Again, Singlish is ok if it supports a government or a PAP goal. Otherwise, it is an unhelpful “handicap”.

Let the buses put up the Singlish signs. There is nothing to be ashamed of. After all, Singlish is part of us, the average Singaporean, whether the elites accept it or not.

And the government should decide its position on Singlish once and for all, instead of flip-flopping, or “prata”, when it suits its whims.