SINGAPORE (Reuters) - 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 business hub.
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 neighbors, 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