Photo: ‘Poster using Singlish’ from SRN’s SG Photobank
The Speak Good English Movement (SGEM) launched on 29 April 2000. The campaign painted Singlish as an impediment to procuring greater economic and social benefits. However, recently there have been attempts to revive and promote Singlish as a cultural marker of Singaporean identity. Professor Robbie Goh (NUS Department of English Language and Literature) breaks down Singlish and considers its role in defining and defending a constructed ‘Singaporean’ identity in ‘The Anatomy of Singlish: Globalisation, Multiculturalism and the Construction of the ‘Local’ in Singapore’ (Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 2016).
Prof Goh explains that the lexicon of Singlish is limited but has broad usage in expressing ideas, practical everyday realities, and emotions through reference to bodily functions, responses, and states. For instance, reference to the male and female genitalia (lan chiao; cheebai) expresses scorn or indignation. Bodily references are also reflected in the enunciation of Singlish words and phrases. The relaxation of certain grammatical rules, like in the phrase ‘go fly kite’, associates the language with a body of natives distinct from cosmopolitan users of foreign languages.
In recent years, Prof Goh argues that the status of Singlish as an apolitical and playful form of discourse has shifted to a more serious one about inclusion and exclusion. The idea of ‘Singaporeanness’, as much as it is associated with one’s class, origin, and rootedness, is increasingly being defined and reinforced through the use of Singlish. The language has evolved to represent a shibboleth of ‘localness’ as it is used by social media users to complain online about hot-button issues like train breakdowns and fare hikes, rising property prices, and especially the rise of immigrants in Singapore.
Prof Goh perceives these shifts as indicators of socioeconomic and political tensions. He asserts that the SGEM has not managed to kill off Singlish, but instead relegated the language to the ‘local’ or ‘native’ domain, where it is used to express opposition to the ‘foreign’ amidst Singapore’s open and porous borders to a globalising world.