Singlish Can Or Not ?


So many people say so many different things about Singlish nowadays my kapala also pusing.

My Singaporean friends, I know you fully understand what I’ve just said above.

As for my international readers, I suspect some of you may feel your head spinning, just from trying to unravel this uttering of mine. Which may not necessarily be a bad thing, since it would imply that you’ve already caught not just a whiff, but also a sense of Singlish. For “kapala” and “pusing”, both originally Malay words, mean “head” and “spin”, and combine in Singlish to mean…yes, you got it! Singlish, you see, is a corrupted form of English, borrowing from and incorporating a whole shebang of words and phrases from the potpourri of languages and dialects which so characterise multi- racial, multi-cultural Singapore.

But Singlish can and does get more complicated than the sample above. It can get more “cheem”, as we like to say around here. But I have no wish here to write a primer on Singlish, nor to add fuel to the ongoing debate about its role in our national life. There has been plenty of chatter already in the media. All I wish to do is say my two cents’ worth about the use of Singlish in writing, this being a blog on the writing craft.

Probably the best piece of writing advice I had ever received was from an old boss of mine, for whom I was working as a young trainee executive. He had saved up copies of my business correspondence written during my probationary period, and brought them up as illustrations for discussion prior to my confirmation.

“Mr Soh,” he said, “I know that your English is very good, and you write beautifully, full of verve and flourish. But remember the purpose of business correspondence is to communicate. Now, we Americans are often accused of being blunt, but we do get our points across. We communicate.”

To this day, I have not forgotten that very gentle lesson in business communication, which I have applied to all forms of communications. If the intended audience cannot grasp what I am trying to get across, because my message is worded less than clearly, I have not succeeded in getting across my point. Regardless of whether it is a piece of personal or business correspondence, or an essay, an opinion piece, or a story, if the intended reader cannot understand what I’m saying, I haven’t communicated. No matter how eloquently I might think I have expounded on the matter.

It is through these lenses that I view the use of Singlish in writing. One may think it’s cute or clever, but the reader may remain in the dark, through a lack of understanding of the lingo I choose to use. What is the point of writing something which the intended reader cannot comprehend?

If one’s targeted readership is a largely Singaporean one, use Singlish if you feel you must. But make sure you observe the standard rules of engagement (yes, even Singlish has its own rules; you cannot suka suka only anyhow hantam.) Otherwise even those die–die Singish practitioners, let alone the uninitiated, will have difficulty understanding you.

When writing for an international readership, I think one would be well advised to stick to standard English. If you must throw in a couple of Singlish terms for extra flavour or emphasis, well, do what you think you have to. In doing so, apply your writerly skills, so that the meanings of these terms or phrases become self-explanatory from the text. Refrain from resorting to translation or footnotes – these just make the writing unwieldy and the reading uneven.

In my own writings, I have tended to avoid using Singish as much as possible, for the simple reason that I wish all my intended readers to be able to read and understand what I write. There are the exceptional situations, where only the local term or phrase will do the trick – deliver the desired impact. In these exceptional cases, I will make sure that the meaning of that particular Singlish term or phrase is self-evident in the body of the text itself.

For example, in my story “Love Fishing Hate Fish” in my short story-collection, “Tales From The ECP”, I had the big bully character call the Caucasian a “chow ang moh.” In a later part of the story, the narrator mentioned that the “smelly red-haired” was waiting patiently for a response to the challenge issued to the bully. A reader doesn’t have to be a sleuth to be able conclude that “chow ang moh” means the “smelly red-haired” one.

In another example, in the story “My Late Father” from “Not The Same Family” the father character refused to talk about the past by dismissing it as “sudah lama lah.” A little further on, the narrator of the story added, “as though saying it was a long time ago was a good enough reason not to talk about it.” No prize for guessing what “sudah lama ”  means.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, ask yourself if you wish to, wittingly or unwittingly, be the poster boy (or girl) for championing the growth of a whole new generation of fluent Singlish users, who may not be able to code-switch comfortably to standard English – unless they “happen to have PhDs in English Literature?”. Well, maybe not doctorates necessarily.


For my international readers, this is the context:-

The recent induction of a few Singaporean words and phrases into the Oxford English Dictionary has sparked a flurry of debates on whether it’s time to legitimatise the use of Singlish. The event might have passed without much fanfare if not for the appearance of an Op Ed piece entitled “Do You Speak Singlish? ” in a recent issue of the venerated New York Times. The piece was authored by an eminent Singaporean poet, graphic novelist and literary critic, who just happens to have a doctorate in English (the standard one, not the Singlish version). His attempt to make light of the Singapore’s government’s seemingly shifting and confusing stand on the legitimacy of Singlish earned an immediate sharp rebuttal from the Singapore Prime Minister’s office, through his press secretary. Defending the government’s stand of making Singaporeans learn and use Standard English, she said, “English is vital for Singaporeans to earn a living. Using Singlish will make it harder for Singaporeans to learn and use standard English. Not everyone has a Ph.D in English Literature like him, 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.”