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“Borrow me $5 can?” may not be the most graceful way to ask for a few dollars, but it’s music to the ears of many Singaporeans.
But as Singapore cements its position as a financial services hub and top regional tourist destination, the government is redoubling efforts to persuade locals to speak standard English. The government insists mastery of English is imperative to raise living standards as the economy shifts to services from manufacturing.
Some worry, however, that the island’s unique patois known as Singlish could be lost, and with it an important cultural glue unifying the multiethnic, multi-religious city-state of 5.1 million people.
“There are many people who champion ‘Speak Singlish,'” Vivian Balakrishnan, a government minister, said in a speech Tuesday. “But I appeal to you to think of our children. Put aside some of the more emotional elements that language always engenders.”
The government Tuesday revived a decade-long drive to get Singaporeans to speak grammatically correct English. Through partnerships with restaurants and shopping centre food courts, the government plans to exhort patrons to “Get it Right” with posters showing examples of Singlish phrases crossed out and their equivalent meaning in English.
So “Got problem call me can” becomes “Please let me know if you need help.” And “You ask me I ask who” becomes “I don’t know either.”
Primary schools will increase teacher training in standard English diction and syntax, so Singlish isn’t inadvertently taught to students.
“We need to remain relevant to the world,” said Balakrishnan, who is the minister of community development, youth and sports. “English is a portal to knowledge.”
Singlish is a jumble of the nation’s four official languages — English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil — and vocabulary from several Chinese dialects. It often consists of English words used to directly translate Chinese phrases.
“It’s what makes us Singaporeans,” said Fadilah Mohammed, a saleswoman at a food store in a mall near downtown. “When I speak English, I have to think carefully. When I speak Singlish, it just comes out naturally.”
The country’s widespread use of English distinguishes it from regional competitors and helps attract investment, said HSBC chief economist Stephen King.
“Singapore has lots of advantages like good rule of law, and a wonderful geographical location,” King said. “It also has the English language, which is a big benefit.”
The government wants to make sure it retains that edge, and fears Singlish could threaten it, but it insists it is not trying to eliminate the local dialect altogether.
“There is an awareness that Singlish is part of us,” said Goh Eck Kheng, chairman of the Speak Good English Movement. “But we’re trying to promote English so there aren’t people who can only speak Singlish.”