Singapore cracks down on Singlish ah

It’s about time, lah. From an unlinkable Economist newsletter:

Visitors to Singapore are often struck by the fact that such a modern city-state has its own creole. Singlish—short for Singapore English—blends the tongue of British colonisers with Chinese dialects and a smattering of Malay. Among its most common traits is the punctuating of sentences with a forceful “lah”, which carries no meaning, but adds emphasis.

Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s Cambridge-educated prime minister, wants this practice to stop. He is among the officials embarking on the Speak Good English campaign, an annual event aimed at sharpening the country’s competitive edge. On May 13th, Mr Lee urged Singaporeans to speak in full sentences and refrain from using “lah”. He also lashed out at text messaging, claiming the truncated spellings used on mobile phones could cause written-language skills to become “too mutated”.

Wah, they should be more relax. Eh, government can make people change way they talk? Can? Cannot!

(Got question on Singlish? Can go here .)

The Discussion: 29 Comments

Change the way people talk is definitely something a government is able to do.

A good example is madarine campaign in China.

May 31, 2005 @ 4:14 pm | Comment

Change the way people talk is definitely something a “authoritarian” government is able to do.

Just in case somebody else wants to make that complement for me.

May 31, 2005 @ 4:17 pm | Comment

I’m sure they can. I was being tongue in cheek, making gentle fun of Singaporeans’ use of the words can and cannot. (“Can you come over tonight?” “Can!”)

May 31, 2005 @ 4:37 pm | Comment

My students in HK couldn’t say my name without tacking a -lah on the end of it. I spent 4 years trying to get them to stop, without success …

One of my few successes was getting them to correctly pronounce the word “excused” … because I wouldn’t let them go to the toilet if they said “Can I be accused please.”

May 31, 2005 @ 5:35 pm | Comment

The question is, what’s wrong with a “lah”?

Lee Hsien Loong kicked off this year’s “Speak Good English” campaign with a speech at the HDB Hub (everything in Singapore is a “hub” – Singlish may be banned, but jargon is apparently OK). He said some predictably strange things — although in perfect English. It’s here:

This was duly skewered in Talking cock at

Apparently the PM was scandalized that an Aussie student was unable to understand a group of Singaporeans talking amongst themselves. (Note “themselves” here. There was no failure of communication. Only a failure of eavesdropping.)

My wife is Singaporean. Stripping the Singlish out of her would be to strip her personality out. The point isn’t that she can’t speak good English. She can. It’s that the Singlish reflects her personality and mood. She’s perfectly capable of speaking eloquent English to me and gutter Singlish to her friends (she uses it when scolding too). Frankly they should treasure something that gives Singapore some personality. Enshrine it. Make it the national language. Teach it in school. Bring back the unre-educated (and funnier) Phua Chu Kang.

What they actually seem to have in Singapore is a class issue that divides those who have a command of English from those who don’t. But examining the issue in that framework might be uncomfortable.

May 31, 2005 @ 5:57 pm | Comment

Imagthief, you have a great post on this at your own blog – sorry I missed it. I was travelling all last week and didn’t realize this story came out several days ago.

May 31, 2005 @ 6:07 pm | Comment

Not to worry. This issue is eternal. At least if the Singapore government has anything to say about it. Plus, I was not aware of the Absolute Astronomy entry on Singlish. It’s the most scholarly explanation of Singlish I’ve ever seen!

May 31, 2005 @ 6:59 pm | Comment

Oral Fixation: The Quixotic Attempt to Wipe Out Singlish

May 31, 2005 @ 7:06 pm | Comment

I strongly oppose Will’s idea … not because there’s anything wrong with his wife. I too think that it’s quite cool that she can shift between different registers depending on the context. Nothing wrong with that at all. Yet one of the most common questions I would get asked when I was teaching in HK was “how can I make my English better?” Since it’s impossible to answer that one in the course of a short conversation, I would always reply with one thing that could be done “stop saying -lah at the end of sentences. It will immediately make your English sound better.” The large majority of HK people are incapable of speaking English without using ma, lah, lor, etc. If they could shift to formal English register at will, like Will’s wife, then that would be no problem. But they can’t. The purpose of learning English is to operate in the international environment, not for communication between fellow Chinese.

(Note: Singapore may be a special case, as I understand that English actually is the lingua franca, even between speakers of Chinese dialects? I lack the experience on the ground there to say for sure. On the other hand, I can say that it’s an absolute curse in the HK educational environment.)

May 31, 2005 @ 7:26 pm | Comment

doesn’t it rather depend on what each person’s purpose of using english is?
I think some of the chinglish I encounter is charming, and I’ve found some wonderful uses of my native language that I think are brilliant. it might not be particularly appropriate if one is, say, a political translator. but for basic comminucation what’s the harm?

if canadians can add ‘eh’ to the end of things and american southerners can get away with ‘yawl’ as a pronoun rather than a boat, who is anyone to say that a ‘lah’ isn’t proper?

I’d much rather strike up a campaign to get people to listen better than rip the playfulness out of language.

May 31, 2005 @ 8:38 pm | Comment

Daily linklets 1st June

I thought we already knew who Deep Throat was. A translation of a thorough report on the Huaxi riots. The Slinglish crackdown. While the World Association of Newspapers gets the China bug, like many numbers in China those circulation figures aren’t al…

May 31, 2005 @ 9:02 pm | Comment

My tongue-in-cheek comment about enshrining Singlish aside, its a fair comment from Filthy, above. Some people really do want to improve their English, and they should be open to the few, simple things they could do to achieve that.

But I don’t think that “lah” in spoken English is *necessarily* a signifier of lack of ability any more than when I say “ain’t”. Ultimately, any society will have its textbook language and its colloguial language, and to destroy the colloguial is to strip an important aspect of culture. Echo, I love your comment about the playfulness of language — can you imagine anything duller than a world of standardized English?

I think Singapore deserves its own version of English as much as California, Scotland, India or New Zealand. (Think of Irvine Welsh writing the novel Trainspotting in Scottish dialect!) And its facile to say, as the PM does, that these cultures can all understand each other. It’s not always the case.

So, my point is that I don’t think Singlish has to be wiped out to improve Singapore’s English, which, admittedly, could use some improvement. I think the issue is to figure out why *some people* in Singapore can manage both the colloquial and formal and some can’t. And I think this is a more complex and nuanced social and class issue than the solution of trying to drain Singlish out of public discourse would have you believe.

May 31, 2005 @ 9:56 pm | Comment

I’m with Will on this.

English is a living languge and can’t be kept within certain definable parameters. I mean, once Americans and Australians/New Zealanders butchered and ruined the Queen’s English several centuries ago there wasn’t any further hope of retaining, let’s say, “certain standards.”

Singlish, defines the national character and as long as Will’s wife can speak eloquenly when she chooses then Singaporeans can’t complain that sound like a bunch of oiks.

May 31, 2005 @ 10:33 pm | Comment

I love ‘too mutated’.

June 1, 2005 @ 2:31 am | Comment

Hell, when I’m in NZ people think I’m English, when I’m in Australia people think I’m a kiwi, and when I’m in England, they think I’m Australian. What can you do? My English doesn’t belong anywhere anymore. Oh, and when I’m in America, they ask “what language do you speak in your country?” 😉

June 1, 2005 @ 3:31 am | Comment

I’m a Geordie from the north-east of England and Americans always think I’m Scandanavian.

I suppose our flattened-vowels do hail from the days when the overseas holidays of Norweigens and Danes involved high levels of raping, pillaging, looting and burning.

Thanks goodness it isn’t the case any longer.

June 1, 2005 @ 3:35 am | Comment

“the Speak Good English campaign”

Shouldn’t that be speak BETTER English?

June 1, 2005 @ 3:38 am | Comment

I have a hard enough time understanding the different American dialects, how are us poor English speakers supposed to understand a mixxture of Chinese and English?

June 1, 2005 @ 3:40 am | Comment

(Off topic–question for Richard).

Richard, I was Google-ing “Jerome Keating” this afternoon and, low and behold, the Peking Duck archive “An Essay on Taiwan and China” dated Dec 28 2004 came up very highly on the Google list.

I’ve just spent the last hour enjoying the excellent debate sparked by Mr. Keating’s essay, including contributions from the actual writer himself.

This made me wonder, how many other gems are hidden away in the (what now must be considerable) archives of Peking Duck?

I notice that, for example, the DEc 28 2004 post isn’t included in what I assume are the highlights of your site “The Emperor’s Jewels”.

Could I respectfully request that you update and lengthen The Emperors Jewels to include such posts/debates such as An Essay on Taiwan and China?

Many thanks

June 1, 2005 @ 4:12 am | Comment

Another off topic post:

I just read a story saying that George Bush wants Jeb Bush to have a crack at the presidency. First question: how reliable is this? Second question: do you (anyone) think Jeb Bush would make a better or worse president than George? I don’t think it matters whether you like or hate George Bush for you to answer this question.

June 1, 2005 @ 4:33 am | Comment

Peter, I appreciate the suggestion, and I will see what I can do. It’s a massive undertaking, since what goes there is so subjective. Right now, all those posts are highlighted there because when I wrote them I felt exceptionally inspired; they almost “wrote themselves.”

FSN9, I will not be at all surprised if Jeb runs. I urge you to pick up a copy of Kevin Phillips’ American Dynasty to gain insight into the dynastic nature of the Bush family. This is a natural progression and it would be surpring if they didn’t make a go fofr it.

June 1, 2005 @ 7:36 am | Comment

With regards to Jeb Bush, it was George Sr. that made the statement:

The Economist theorized about this some months ago. Their verdict was that it was unlikely. Too much dynasty, even for America. I guess you have to ask yourself, though: If the Dems can’t get their act together, what would you prefer? President Bush III, or President Frist?


As to whether he’d be better or worse, well, not to be cynical about American politics, but he who pays the piper, etc. If he’s backed by the same people, I reckon he’ll be about the same kind of president. Better public speaker, though, one would hope.

June 1, 2005 @ 8:40 am | Comment

without the amazing food and the linguistic eccentricities (sp?), i think singapore and malaysia (where they have a sort of manglish that’s similar to singlish) would be the most boring places on earth.

singapore already got rid of the street vendors, what else are they going to do to make their society bland?

(i’m married to a malaysian chinese.)

June 1, 2005 @ 9:36 am | Comment

Me … a question for you. Do you consider Malaysian Chinese to be different from Singapore Chinese? Speaking generally, of course.

June 1, 2005 @ 10:07 am | Comment

(Off topic)

Richard> Yes, I can imagine that it would be a massive undertaking but it would be a tragedy if discussions like the one I had the joy of reading this afternoon remained buried away in the archives.

What might and might not go into an extended Emperor’s Jewels list IS subjective but it’s your site Richard and it should simply be left up to you. Enough said.

That, by the way, would be quite good enough for me.

Many thanks.

June 1, 2005 @ 11:02 am | Comment

Y’know, I’ve had alot of people come to me saying: “I think American pronunciation is better. Can you teach me American pronunciation?”. At first I found this bewildering and sometimes annoying, as it was a caveat to “Hello. What’s your name? Can I be your English friend?” Over time, I realized that pronunciation is nearly an obsession among English students here. People with perfectly comprehensible Chinese accents would denigrate their own pronunciation because it didn’t sound like mine.

I recently came up with the following approach:

Student: I’d like to learn American English pronunciation.

Me: Why? Are you ashamed of Chinese pronunciation? Are you ashamed of Chinglish? Are you ashamed of China?

Student: (terrified) No!

Me: Good. There’s nothing wrong with having a Chinese accent. There are hundreds of different English accents and there’s no putonghua for English. You use your accent, and practice listening and understanding different accents. Hell, it took me a year to understand one Irishman, and we share the same native language!

Exceptional students would then find the following George Bernard Shaw quote funny:

England and America are two countries separated by a common language.

The creation of dialect in a foreign language is an expression of cultural identity, asserting ones cultural ideas in a foreign tongue. As Wil says, to take Singlish away from his wife is to strip away part of her personality. I agree with this, and thats why I encourage my students to embrace Chinglish for its positive qualities, as an expression of who they are.

Of course, this does make English an international language, meaning that discourse tends to center around it. Hell, even the EU depends on English for daily function, especially after countries like Turkey and parts of Eastern Europe started applying. I’m all for a lingua franca for communications, but I do recognize the problems of smaller languages being overwhelmed or bigger ones becoming “too mutated”. But as ACB points out, it can be a hassle just to understand different American accents (and I’m a native New Yorker). There is something positive about the diversity and adaptability of English.

June 1, 2005 @ 1:45 pm | Comment

do i consider malaysian and singaporean chinese to be different? (i’m assuming you’re talking about culture.)

hm … yes, but only slightly. and this observation is coming from an american who hasn’t lived in either country but visited many times. i’m sure singaporeans and malaysians would be up in arms over this.

to me, it seems as though malaysians are trying to be singaporean, while singaporeans are … um … trying to be even more singaporean.

June 2, 2005 @ 9:17 am | Comment

I’m an English teacher who has taught it as both a first and a second or foreign language;depending on which country or where and whom i am teaching, i have to switch to adapt myself and to be flexible to cater to the needs and wants of my students; thus, i have had to speak with an American accent, BBC/Queen’s English, Aussie, Kiwi, Hongkie,Singlish! Malaysian english,filipino english with a spanish accent, etc..etc… to get to entice my students to speak(up)/ participate etc…
Let’s be realistic, I cannot possibly speak BBC English at the wet markets since i would be laughed at or worse, pay twice as much.. Hee! Hee! But honestly/ By golly, one must put oneself into the context of the situation like Will’s wife does…
To a certain extent, all of you have had some good points to highlight. Let’s hope that Singaporeans are taking note of all this.

Finally, as you may have guessed by now, I’m a Singaporean Eurasian who grew up in England, Ireland and Scotland, and Australia! aND EVERYONE SAYS THAT I HAVE A SOUTH AFRICAN ACCENT-lah! ALAMAK!

June 12, 2005 @ 7:25 pm | Comment

Woo hoo!! I love this topic! haha anyway I fully agree with those who support the continuation of singlish! Singlish has been around for so long that it has practically become a culture and a national language. And I feel Singapore, as a independent country, has a right to it’s own national language.

Anyway what’s wrong with singlish? I am a Singaporean student and I can get an ‘A’ for my English (Including my oral segment and everything). In addition during formal speeches, people always tell me that I speak very fluent English. In lower secondary I was even nicknamed ‘English Boy’ by my teacher!On the other hand I also speak very fluent singlish. In fact I was once chosen to replace my friend to act in a play as a Ah Beng because I spoke more fluent singlish than him! (F.Y.I the friend I replaced is also a local mind you.) All my friends also feel that I normally talk very much like a Beng. (Ah Beng: Singaporean gangster)

So what’s the problem? I’m sure PM Lee also understands singlish right? So why the fuss?

Dun worry so much la! Talk singrish like will die like dat ha? Everyone understand can liao rite? U say u catch no ball your probrem la!

Zhang, 17 years of age.

July 30, 2006 @ 9:11 am | Comment

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