Tan Hwee Hwee | Writing Samples
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Letter from Singapore

A War of Words Over ‘Singlish’

Singapore’s government wants its citizens to speak good English, but they would much rather be ‘talking cock’

A couple of months ago, Singaporean officials unintentionally made cinematic history. They slapped an NC-17 rating on a film – which means children under 17 cannot see it – not because of sex or violence or profanity, but because of bad grammar. Despite its apparently naughty title, Talking Cock: The Movie is actually an innocuous comedy comprising four skits about the lives of ordinary Singaporeans. The censors also banned a 15-second TV spot promoting the flick. All this because of what the authorities deemed “excessive use of Singlish.”


Given the tough crackdown, you would expect Singlish to be a harmful substance that might corrupt our youth, like heroin or pornography. But it’s one of Singapore’s best-loved quirks, used daily by everyone from cabbies to CEOs. Singlish is simply Singaporean slang, whereby English follows Chinese grammar and is liberally sprinkled with words from the local Chinese, Malay and Indian dialects. Take jiat gentang, which combines the Hokkien word for “eat” (jiat), with the Malay word for “potato” (gentang). Jiat gentang describes someone who speaks with a pretentious Western accent (since potatoes are considered a European food), as in “He went to Oxford to study, now he come back to Singapore, only know how to jiat gentang.” As for “talking cock,” the phrase means to spout nonsense.


I like to talk cock, and I like to speak Singlish. It’s inventive, witty and colorful. If a Singaporean gets frustrated at your stupidity, he can scold you for being blur as sotong (clueless as a squid). At work, I’ve often been reprimanded for having an “itchy backside,” meaning I enjoy disrupting things when I’m bored. When I don’t understand what’s going on, I say, “Sorry, but I catch no ball, man,” which stems from the Hokkien liah boh kiew. There’s an exhaustive lexicon of such Singlish gems at talkingcock.com, a hugely popular, satirical website that inspired the movie. Its director, Colin Goh, has also published the Coxford Singlish Dictionary, which lovingly chronicles all the comic eccentricities of Singapore’s argot. Since its April release, the book has sold over 20,000 copies – an extraordinary feat given that just 1,000 copies will get you on Singapore’s Top 10 list. Singlish is especially fashionable these days among Generation Y, in part because it gives uptight Singapore a chance to laugh – at itself.


But the government is not amused. It doesn’t like Singlish because it thinks it is bad language and bad for Singapore’s sober image as a commercial and financial center. For more than two years now, it has been waging a war of words spearheaded by the Speak Good English Movement (SGEM), which organizes everything from creative writing to Scrabble contests in order to encourage standard English. “Poor English reflects badly on us,” said Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong at SGEM’s launch, “and makes us seem less intelligent or competent.”


In the past, the government would impose strict rules and hefty fines to shape social behavior – don’t spit, don’t litter, don’t sell gum. But this time, because it knows Singlish is trendy, it’s using the soft sell. Naturally, much of this has to do with semantics. Says SGEM head David Wong: “SGEM is not a campaign, it’s a movement. In Singapore, you associate campaigns with the message that if you trespass, we’re going to punish you. A movement is different. We want to adopt a more lighthearted approach.” This lighthearted approach spawned the recent SGEM Festival, a hapless exercise in unintended comic surrealism. Driving home from work, I would hear ‘NSync-style pop jingles on the radio telling me to “speak clearly.” On the cartoonish http://www.time.com/time/asia/magazine/article/www.sgem.com website, I took a test to “Have Fun with Good English.” I didn’t – I failed the test because I wasn’t sure whether it was more proper to say: (a) “Please come with me, I will take you to the airport” or (b) “Please come with me, I will send you to the airport.” (According to the website, the right answer is a.)


Blur as sotong responses like mine won’t dampen Wong’s zeal for promoting good English. He dislikes Singlish because he thinks it’s crude. “If my son came back from school and told my wife that she was talking cock,” he says, “I would slap him.” He would have to. Otherwise, how would Cambridge-educated Wong’s son learn to jiat gentang?


Singlish is crude precisely because it’s rooted in Singapore’s unglamorous past. This is a nation built from the sweat of uncultured immigrants who arrived 100 years ago to bust their asses in the boisterous port. Our language grew out of the hardships of these ancestors. And Singlish is a key ingredient in the unique melting pot that is Singapore. This is a city where skyscraping banks tower over junk boats; a city where vendors hawk steaming pig intestines next to bistros that serve haute cuisine. The SGEM’s brand of good English is as bland as boiled potatoes. If the government has its way, Singapore will become a dish devoid of flavor. And I’m not talking cock.


Letter from Singapore

Cultural Capital?

Singapore’s government has decided that citizens must be creative – at all costs

Rarely have the cultural aspirations of a city been as neatly represented by one edifice as Singapore’s are with Esplanade, the new arts coliseum the city-state hopes will become the local version of New York’s Lincoln Center, London’s Barbican or, considering its harbor-side perch, the Sydney Opera House. Never mind the debate over what these animalized structures most resemble – hedgehog or scarab? Porcupine or mollusk? – the real issue is whether Singapore can remake itself as the “Renaissance City” the government hopes will flower on the banks of the Malacca Straits.
The ambitious plan, including the buildings that have become the boldest manifestations of that vision, has plenty of critics. The $338 million structures themselves, arguably over-designed and potentially underutilized, have about them the whiff of an architect trying too hard to be clever and a government straining to reinvigorate a slumping economy. The walls of the Vikas M. Gore-led project are lined with silk and hung with tapestries made from human hair, our guide explained, before helpfully adding that a Concorde jetliner could fit in Esplanade’s 2,000 seat theater. All this is an eager government’s way of saying it cares about art. But the best and brightest who manage Singapore have run that appreciation through a spreadsheet and come up with an economic justification for their patronage. “For every dollar spent on cultural activities, another $1.80 is spent on related activities such as food and hospitality,” notes the Ministry of Information, Communications and The Arts (MITA) in a paper promoting the “new paradigm” of art as cultural capital. After years of favoring maths and sciences over cultural education, it seems the only way the government can view the arts is through that same quantitative prism: in Singapore, art apparently sounds like a cash register’s ka-ching. “Singapore views culture as having economic value,” says MITA’s permanent secretary, Tan Chin Nam.


MITA’s paper reads like a prospectus intent on wooing tech investors. It details how earlier plans to make Singapore a Renaissance City have been upgraded; the new plan is called “Renaissance City 2.0”, and apparently a “SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) Analysis” shows that “cultural capital” working in “creative clusters” will turn Singapore into a “creative economy”. In May, the government actually revealed a mathematical formula for creating cultural capital:


A+B+T = CC

(Translation: Art + Business + Technology = Creative + Connected Singapore)


The government is poised to pour money into making that formula work, with MITA’s paper touting ambitious proposals like the construction of a new Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art modeled after the Bilbao Guggenheim. After years of being financially neglected by the government, however, artists are skeptical. The National Arts Council only spent $840,000 on artist training grants last year. “The government spends a lot of money on hardware and very little on software,” says actor Glen Goei.


But is it possible for creativity to be cultivated in a country not known for its freedom of expression? A few months ago, theatre group Spell#7 was told performers wouldn’t be allowed to interact with bystanders in public spaces. More recently, a bar named after the Hollywood film Coyote Ugly opened up. The movie featured supermodel Tyra Banks dancing on top of a bar; when some local girls tried emulating Tyra Banks they were told to knock it off. In Singapore, it’s illegal to dance on bars. Then Prime Minister said the government might consider allowing people to dance on bar tops. It might, he suggested, encourage creativity.


With the government this eager to generate cultural capital, it seems there’s never been a better time to be an artist in Singapore. Maybe I’m young and naive. I love the idea of more money coming to artists like myself. People might stop looking at me like some Enron stock and treat me like a blue chip investment. That thought makes me really happy. I think I’ll go dance on a bar top.