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.