FEBRUARY 21 — “Is your Singlish fluent?” my (non-Singaporean) husband asked me the other day.
“Ahbuden,” I smiled, pleased with my retort.
He looked at me sceptically and quickly rattled off the names of a few friends who spoke more Singaporean than me. My neutralised accent with the occasional punctuation of lah for emphasis was not the classic Singaporean dialect he concluded.
Growing up in a neighbourhood school (a strange yet common expression for most schools in Singapore that aren’t elite schools) classmates were routinely mocked for having a put-on ang-moh accent if they didn’t speak the most identifiable sing-song Singlish.
But at home, with parents who spoke different mother tongues, my brother and I would speak an easy, comfortable English that to my ears sounded largely accent-free but was still distinctly Singlish. After all, I peppered conversations with words or phrases borrowed from the island’s unique lexicon: your head, kancheong and say me say yourself (still a favourite 20 years on).
However, it is true that I don’t speak with the same cadence or consistency as a taxi-uncle or my coffee shop aunty who sells (I would argue) the best rojak north of the Singapore River. But it is still Singlish I speak. I consider this creole my native language.
This is why I was happy to see an article recently that announced how overseas universities were paying attention to “Singaporean” literature and that Singlish terms have become a topic for study. Heartening and yet a little sad that it takes the rest of the world to acknowledge Singlish for what it is: a bona fide patois that captures the nuances of a particular people — a burgeoning nation that took the mandate of “Speak English!” and made it their very own.
So what happens now? The state too has moved from deriding it to tacitly accepting it with Speak English Campaigns fading to make way for state-sponsored celebrations of it including floats at last year’s Jubilee Celebrations spelling out “leh” and “liddat.”
Ultimately and undeniably this hodgepodge language is one of the bedrocks of the increasingly fleeting Singaporean identity.
Like any living language, it also continues to evolve with new words and phrases coming on stream at an impressive rate. But with growing acceptance for our mother tongue comes new questions: should we look to formalise it? Perhaps the next generation of Singaporeans can have Singlish class after English class — assimilating old and new Singaporeans. Is it time too for Singlish news broadcasts?
In all seriousness it is difficult to say what the future holds for our lingo, its future is still uncertain given the influx of new immigrants and the increasing homogenisation of global culture.
But for now it remains a binding thread and may even still be growing because later that evening, over dinner my husband started an anecdote about a colleague with, “So this garang woman...”
Steady Bom Pi Pi, I say!
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.