Singlish: A Cornerstone of Singapore’s Culture

Rogan Yeoh/Unsplash
Rogan Yeoh/Unsplash

A ten-year-old boy once looked at his parents and his two siblings before proudly declaring with gusto: “I am English, not Chinese”. This boy was me many years ago, except if one were to look at my NRIC, one would clearly see that it reads “CHINESE” for race, and nobody in my line of ancestors have come from the United Kingdom. In truth, I was simply being a cheeky boy, trying my absolute best to avoid the Mandarin tuition classes which I found myself all too often in.

It took me until I reached adulthood before the intertwining relationship between our unique cultural identity and the languages we speak became salient. It is with this mindset that I came to appreciate our colloquially spoken language of Singlish as an important cornerstone of Singapore’s culture. So as a strong proponent of Singlish, let me give you several reasons why I think Singlish should not be abolished.

Singlish gives Singaporeans our identity

Singapore has all the trappings of a modern city and country with its glass skyscrapers, glitzy shopping malls, and world-class airport. Yet many of those elements can be found in other modern cities too and the real points of difference lie in the people themselves and the culture that characterises them.

When abroad, it is not uncommon for Singaporeans to recognise other Singaporeans instantly and unmistakably when we hear phrases like “can meh” or “cannot lah”. This is proof that Singlish as a language forms part of our identity as Singaporeans.

Singlish truly represents Singapore

Singapore’s multi-racial society means Singlish has become a melting pot for the different races that make up society. Singlish has been known to absorb and use the words of all the different races to adapt to the needs of its users. Singlish is one of those marvellous cultural icons because it is made from our multi-racial people into one united language and one unique cultural tapestry. Furthermore, one of the reasons why Singlish is commonly used in informal settings is because of its efficiency. We require simply require fewer words to communicate our intended message. We as a country pride ourselves by our efficiency in numerous fields, it is therefore extremely apt that our colloquial language of Singlish mirrors that same ethos of being efficient. Singlish simply embodies the Singapore spirit and represents us in a manner that not many other cultural landmarks can.

Singapore has few things which are unique to our cultural identity

While many countries have accumulated and formed distinct cultures surrounding food, art, music, sports, music, and beyond, Singapore is a young country with not many traits unique to its culture. Apart from local food and our pragmatic approach to governance, Singapore has very few cultural landmarks. Thus, it is even more critical that we hang on to Singlish as a national treasure.

The need to preserve national culture

One must bear in mind that Singapore is a highly cosmopolitan city with a diverse mix of people from all over the world. According to Statista, in 2019 there were about 2.16 million immigrants (classified as people living in a country in which they were not born in) in Singapore out of approximately 5.7 million. That is almost 40% of the total population in Singapore. Moreover, in a city state like Singapore, we do not have secondary cities with the population numbers to absorb the influx of new people and with them the cultures that they bring.  It is therefore even more critical that local languages unique to our cultural identity should be preserved.

A language worthy of celebration

I think of that young ten-year old boy I once was. Except for perhaps my still poor command of Mandarin, I could not be more different from that boy now. Today, when Singaporean friends of mine based overseas return to Singapore, I cannot be prouder to welcome them back home with a healthy dose of Singlish. I know a part of me knows that seeing someone dear will always be an elated moment, but part of me also knows that hearing Singlish, conversing in a familiar language after being away for so long, is just as poignant. Whether we consciously or subconsciously recognise them, it is in those moments where I strongly feel this language that binds all Singaporeans are worthy of celebration. Or as they say in Singlish: “This one confirm must celebrate lah”!




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