Yes, I’m From Singapore. No, I Don’t Have An Accent.*

Taxi drivers do it. PR agency people do it. Random people I contact for my articles do it. And it’s getting increasingly annoying to be asked if I’m a “local”.

Oy. I was born here. I spent my formative years being crushed under the iron boots of the Singaporean education system, thanks. It’s only the last 4 years that I’ve been in Austin, and my accent honestly hasn’t changed that much.

The question really hasn’t come up before, so I must assume that my accent has changed somewhat – or maybe it’s just that I actually speak to other people now. But the fact still remains that my default accent is not Singaporean, or at least not Singaporean enough. I don’t pepper my words with “lah”s. I don’t have that unique sing-song lilt. I don’t mix Chinese and Malay with my English.

I used to be a little ashamed, a little disappointed at the fact that I obviously hadn’t picked up this most defining of Singaporean characteristics. Like being lost in hawker centres (all I knew was mee siam and mee goreng – and I’m vegetarian) and not having very many Chinese friends, I thought it was a serious deficiency in my Singaporean Identity.

Now, I’ve decided that I really, really don’t care.

Why? Because I don’t like the Singaporean accent. I don’t like how terribly grammatically incorrect it is. I don’t like the fact that people assume everyone knows what the different slang words are, and are actually offended or surprised when I have to ask what they mean. I don’t like the assumption that I need to speak that way in order to be a ‘real’ Singaporean. I don’t like the fact that people – even educated people, people in the media – have to resort to proper English only when, say, confronted with an essay. And I certainly don’t like the implication that proper English automatically makes you a “snob”.

My friend T agrees. In fact, she thinks these people who are so doubtful of my identity should shut up and stop judging people like us, people who insist on grammatically correct sentences and slang-free language.

At first I thought T was being a little prickly about this. I mean, the accent really does let people get a little more relaxed around you. For one, they think they’re dealing with another Singaporean, someone who’s lived here, someone who knows the system. They might also feel a little safer and more likely to confide in you if they believe they’re not being judged by their grammar or speech. It opens people up to you, is what I mean – and it’s come in relatively useful when I do interviews, although they always eventually come to the conclusion that I’m not Singaporean.

Of course I’ll respond with a little more Singlish if someone speaks to me in it. I don’t thank taxi drivers in perfect English. I usually behave as the circumstances dictate, because I like to think I’m not lost in my own universe. To be frank, it’s a bit fun to act like I’m a true-blue Singaporean – I feel like I can finally stake a claim to a country – even if I’m caught out in the end.

But I’ve given this a try, and it’s not working out. About three months of living here, 7 weeks of being in relatively close contact with Singaporeans. And the accent isn’t growing on me, it’s wearing my patience thin.

I respect the English language. I respect all languages, actually, which is why I like grammatical accuracy in English and get annoyed if people don’t bother to pronounce the “zh” or hard “L” correctly in Tamil. And the general sense that I get out of Singlish and hard-core Singlish speakers is that they just couldn’t be bothered.

That, I think, is what really annoys me about Singlish. That, because of this “snob” thing, it seems so anti-English. People, listen: when foreigners, all of whom speak English with varying accents and degrees of success, come to your country and literally don’t understand you, maybe it’s you, not them.

Singapore runs campaigns for all sorts of things: courtesy, filial piety, cleanliness. It also ran a campaign for good English, which some asses derided as being “against the spirit of Singapore” because it was biased against Singlish. Which is, apparently, something on the scale of a national treasure.

Now, look – it’s cool that Singapore has a unique culture and a unique accent. But letting Singlish dominate proper English is ultimately going to be a loss for the nation. And barring me, or the many expats here, who speak ‘different’ English, from being “Singaporean enough”, is just unfair.


*Thanks for the title, Niyantha 🙂

5 thoughts on “Yes, I’m From Singapore. No, I Don’t Have An Accent.*

  1. I should clarify that I do make a distinction between a Singaporean accent and Singlish. The latter includes the former, but not vice versa. I’m sure you can come up with a venn diagram to demonstrate that. =D “Singlish” wholly within “Singaporean accent” perhaps?

    Anyways, the difference as I see it – an accent is just a different set of stresses, inflections, tonalities, etc. So, the British say “to-mah-to” and the Americans say “to-may-to,” but the word “tomato” itself doesn’t change. Its grammatical relevance to any given sentence, or the way it’s used, don’t change either. The Singaporean accent, for me, runs across a fairly wide spectrum. For instance, I speak with a higher-end Singaporean accent. It’s not English, it’s not American, it’s not Indian. It’s mistaken for all of the above because most Singaporeans (or most Singlish-speakers, anyway) are more used to hearing the lower-end accent.

    (It occurs to me that “higher-end” and “lower-end” could be kind of haughty terms to use; I only mean that the former’s not very strong, and the latter is extremely pronounced to the point of being difficult to understand for non-locals. You’d get the same variation in, say, America.)

    On the other hand, Singlish operates on a completely different set of grammatical rules from English. Listen to someone speak in Singlish and you’ll realise that the entire sentence structure is different. Well, okay, I can figure things out even if the word order’s a bit funny. But it’s hard to miss the liberal borrowing of words from other languages – as replacements, not supplements – to convey what you want to say. That’s a problem for me because I don’t always know the meaning of these words, and if half the sentence is in a language other than English, I can’t even figure it out contextually!

    I believe – though I may be mistaken – that the tendency to drop words (especially articles!) is something carried over from other languages (especially the various Chinese ones) which don’t tend to use them. I’m fairly positive that the general grammatical structure of Singlish is more closely related to various Chinese dialects than any other language it borrows from. It is, in fact, possible to have correct or wrong grammar in Singlish, if you consider it a language in its own right.

    Should we, though? I’m of two minds about that. On the one hand, I don’t actually have anything against Singlish, in and of itself. I tend to regard it as a separate phenomenon from English. And I don’t have anything at all against the Singaporean accent; it’s just a regional quirk influenced by the languages predominantly spoken in the country.

    So I’m fine with Singlish, so long as Singlish speakers realise that I might require an English translation for some of the things they say. But there’s the “other hand” – it’s my experience that, by and large, Singlish speakers tend to regard you with incredulity and/or suspicion and/or patronisation if you reveal that you don’t understand Singlish. It’s why you and I keep getting people refusing to believe we’re locals. Do they believe that we look down on them? I don’t know. I’m sure some people do, but surely not everyone! As for myself, I reiterate, I don’t care – I just wish that they’d realise that not knowing Singlish doesn’t make me a snob/elitist/stuck-up/a poser/fake.

    Very long comment, sorry. I suppose what I’m trying to say is, Singlish itself doesn’t bother me if 1) people realise it’s completely different from English and 2) its proponents don’t denigrate English and English speakers in an attempt to promote it.

    1. That’s something I never thought about, you know – treating Singlish like another language altogether. I’ve always just thought of it as cannibalising English 😀

      But it makes a lot of sense especially with the article dropping, as you said.

      My main worry is that – and this applies to any dialect/slang/adaptation of a language – people start using Singlish to supplement English when it comes to more formal communication.

      I LOVE that your comments are long 😀

      1. Hah, I can’t think of Singlish as anything but another language altogether. In my more charitable moments, I do compare it to English in a way – English started out stealing words from other languages, after all! And, well, just look at how many languages make an appearance in Singlish…

        Thinking of it linguistically like that makes me less inclined to hate Singlish. On principle, though, I do think it’s important for people to draw a distinction between the two languages. It’s like me speaking to you in Malayalam; you might get a few words here and there, but I wouldn’t expect you to understand what I’m saying. If I wanted to communicate with you in any meaningful fashion, it’d be in English.

        And yes, absolutely – that’s where a lot of Singaporeans fall down. They can’t draw the distinction. Again, I have no problem with the accent, so long as it’s English and not Singlish they’re speaking. But people have to remember that they’re quite different languages, and it’s only common courtesy not to speak to someone in a language they don’t understand. If more people were taught to perceive Singlish as a separate language, then maybe they’d be a little more accomodating towards non-speakers. Who knows?

        I don’t care if you speak Singlish, so long as you also speak English – learn to code-switch as befits the occasion! Honestly, it doesn’t even have to be perfect English; I won’t judge you based on your English. I’m perfectly aware that some people are more comfortable in other languages. Just leave out the strange words I don’t get. And if you insist on using them, do NOT make it out to be a failing on my part when I don’t understand you.

  2. I understand your frustrations with Singaporeans not treating you like a local when you don’t speak with the same accent or the same Singlish as everybody else is speaking as I have experienced it before as well, having had a tertiary education overseas.

    However I do not think that it’s really that much of a deal because one’s cultural identity does not depend on the way one speaks or even the amount of slangs one knows. Most people here would almost certainly view you in a new light if you speak proper English with a different, distinctly non-Singaporean accent. Personally, I think that that is just a natural and normal reaction; the same probably applies to another country as well. However, if you get discriminated against and viewed as someone from outside the ‘inner circle’, don’t fret about it as it probably shows the extent of their open-mindedness, which apparently isn’t much I would say.

    Singaporeans nowadays, especially the younger ones, do know how to use and speak proper English and I’m pretty sure that most of them ‘change’ their accents depending on the people they are speaking to at the time or the situation. Some people even have an occupational accent, as they call it. For example, lawyers and English Literature teachers in local schools.

    Singapore is and should be a globalised city where multi-culturalism is celebrated. If different races can co-exist peacefully, I don’t see how different accents shouldn’t be as well.

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