SINGAPORE May 30 Singapore has enlisted a drag
queen comedian to give its people grammar lessons, as part of a
long-running drive to encourage the correct use of English, for
fear that weak language skills could dent its reputation as a
Foreigners visiting the tiny affluent Southeast Asian island
occasionally find themselves bemused in conversation with
Singaporeans, many of whom speak in a mishmash of broken
English, Chinese dialect and Malay, popularly known as Singlish.
Despite a 15-year-long campaign to improve the use of
English in the city-state, most of its population of around 5.4
million has stayed resistant to what they see as curbs on an
integral element of their culture.
This week the 'Speak Good English Movement' launched a
campaign to encourage better usage, enlisting comedian Kumar to
act as 'The Queen of Grammar' in a series of videos berating his
subjects' use of the language.
"We speak English much better than our neighbours, and
that's one reason why people like to come here. But we have
become overconfident about our position," said Adrian Tan, a
lawyer and committee member of the Speak Good English Movement.
"One day people in China will speak better English than us,
and then we'll be in trouble," he said.
Singlish evolved from the speech of the diverse ethnic
groups that make up modern Singapore and is often seen as a
common patois that unites its citizens.
Its best-known uses include tags such as 'lah' or 'leh' to
add emphasis at the end of sentences, while if you wanted to
admonish someone for being unreasonable, you would say "Why you
so like that?"
Singlish speakers who featured as main characters in popular
television serials in the 1990s, such as "Phua Chu Kang" or
"Under One Roof", went on to become national icons. The shows
later drew fire from the government for promoting bad English.
While Singaporeans in the central business district mostly
speak standard English in order to be understood by foreigners,
Singlish is still the main dialect in use across the rest of the
island, and many nationals object to being told how to speak.
Accountant Joseph Ho, for example, acknowledged that while
Singaporeans should use proper English in formal settings,
Singlish remains an essential part of the Singaporean identity.
"If the government is so concerned about building a national
identity, then why can't Singlish be a part of that identity
too?" he asked.
(Reporting by Andrew Toh; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)