A beauty queen shocked Singaporeans with her poor diction in English, triggering a storm of online debate that indirectly reflected on the city state’s education system, writes SEAH CHIANG NEE.
EDUCATED Singaporeans who consider their spoken English as world-ranking have been jolted by a controversy over a beauty queen’s interview. The centre of the storm was 19-year-old Miss Singapore World 2009 Ris Low, who shocked Singaporeans by speaking in dismal English, with poor diction as well as mispronunciation.
Ironically, it coincided with the government’s annual “speak good English” campaign that began nine years ago. Former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew believes that Singaporeans need to speak standard grammatical English to allow them to plug into the global economy.
In her interview, Low spoke in a mix of local pidgin English that was splattered with slurred or mispronounced words. She would say “preens” instead of prints, “rad” (for red), “pis” (piece) and “begini” (bikini), and used a distorted word “boomz” to describe a glamorous outfit.
Critics also say her answers were contradictory and of low quality, leading to calls to stop her representing Singapore in a televised international event. (Low, however, will not compete for world glory in South Africa, where she would have to face tough questions in a live worldwide broadcast. She withdrew after her conviction for credit card fraud became public.)
“Her English is atrocious. She can’t even speak a proper sentence,” said one of the 100,000 viewers who watched the recorded interview online.
“It will disgrace our country. The world will think that all Singaporean girls speak like that,” another critic said.
The angry discussions soon took on a national dimension. A reporter wrote: “(It) triggered a storm of online debate, complete with hand-wringing over Singapore’s education system (and) the state of intelligence of today’s youth ….”
Some writers rallied to her defence, saying the criticism was overblown. Low, they say, is no more than a product of Singapore’s education system; she talks the way many educated Singaporeans do, including graduates.
She has a very Singaporean background. She hails from a Mandarin-speaking family, grew up in the heartland and attended a neighbourhood school. Now, her mangled English and poor communication skill have become a national issue.
Goh Eck Kheng, chairman of the speak good English movement, told The Straits Times that Singaporeans should be the last people to be mocking her. “How many people are you laughing at, if you laugh at Ms Low?” he asked.
Another official, Jennifer Yin, reportedly said: “Lots of Singaporeans speak this way. She is not unusual.”
So, if many of the nation’s youths, even graduates, speak like Low, why single her out?
Singaporeans were recently like a community looking at itself in the mirror and seeing one problem: deteriorating language skills in a place that is renowned for its education standards.
“Most of us are competent in neither English nor Mandarin,” a community representative said. “We have become a nation of half buckets, as the Chinese saying goes.”
One letter to The Straits Times stated: “We only have to open our ears in food centres, shopping malls and school canteens, and we get a constant aural assault of sub-standard English and Mandarin.”
While the republic’s secondary schools rank top three in the world in science and mathematics, its level of English is below par. Many teachers and students speak a casual, sub-standard language. Misspellings are widespread.
“I often hear train station employees, TV presenters and newscasters stumbling over their sentences and digging themselves into holes of garbled grammar,” a newspaper reader observed.
This has been aggravated by two factors. First, the extensive use of short handphone messages (SMS) or email that routinely ignore capital letters, drop verbs and shorten words – a virtual sub-language. Second, the massive, rapid inflow of foreigners from different countries who bring with them their own languages (and dialects) has diluted Singapore’s own.
The demographic changes are causing a dent not only on Singapore’s English-speaking skills but also on the national language policy itself. This calls for the use of English as the common lingua among the races as well as for business and work, but the various mother tongues – Malay, Mandarin or Tamil – are encouraged to be used at home.
Many Singaporeans speak a local patois of ungrammatical English with a sprinkling of Hokkien and Malay words that foreigners cannot comprehend. Many people are against eradicating Singlish because it is a part of Singapore’s identity but concede that it should not be used when dealing with foreigners or in business.
“I need Singlish to express a Singaporean feeling,” Catherine Lim, a prominent novelist who switches easily from one level of English to another, said.
For the broad majority like Low, however, who lack the basic grounding, switching is almost impossible and they are stuck with a half-baked language.
* Seah Chiang Nee is a former newspaper editor and now writes a weekly column.