The press secretary to our prime minister has been receiving quite a bit of flak on social media for her rebuttal of Gwee Li Sui’s op-ed in the New York Times, and I can understand why.
Yes, I agree that being able to speak good English is essential in the world today. But instead of discouraging or eradicating the use of Singlish, we need to be teaching people when it is appropriate to use it.
Singlish and English are separate entities altogether. The only way speaking Singlish is going to diminish one’s proficiency in English is when the person doesn’t actually know what proper English is.
I don’t think Gwee Li Sui was attempting to undermine the government’s efforts in promoting the use of “proper English”. He simply made some very valid points about how we have in recent years started to embrace this creole once more.
The need to issue a rebuttal – and from the press secretary, no less – seems to indicate that some of us Singaporeans don’t handle criticism too well, and are, dare I say, just too adept at sanitizing everything.
I recently went on a work trip to Suzhou. To be honest, I was not looking forward to the four-day assignment, primarily because I knew it revolved around interviewing people in the Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP). After all, the words “industrial park” certainly don’t evoke much excitement.
My first interviewee was (surprise, surprise!) a Singaporean from the National University of Singapore Suzhou Research Institute (NUSRI).
“Hello, ka ki lang (own people),” I said while shaking hands with him.
“Oh! Fellow Singaporean!” he replied, with a huge smile.
Singlish. A most effective icebreaker.
We had a great time chatting about the institute, its initiatives and upcoming programmes, how it attracts Singapore start-ups to set up shop in SIP, and what life in Suzhou is generally like.
I spent my second night in Suzhou in a rustic tea house where I watched a Kunqu Opera performance. Again, I was initially underwhelmed because I was really tired and had no interest in opera.
But boy was I glad to have experienced this.
The performer, Lui Chengfang, is somewhat of a cult figure in the city, primarily because of her infotainment style of opera. You see, she doesn’t just perform opera – she teaches the audience about the art form and Chinese culture at the same time. It also helps that she is painfully funny.
I have never liked history lessons, mainly because back in secondary school this subject was all about memorising key dates in history and whatever happened during those particular days. I have the memory of a goldfish and am utterly absent minded. Sometimes I leave home wondering if I remembered to put on my underwear.
But there I was, completely spellbound by the performance and the history of Chinese culture. I have never understood why so many Westerners can be so besotted with Chinese culture that they would leave their countries to settle in China. I think I finally understood why on this day. (I do think yellow fever is a factor to some people as well, ha)
On the third night, I had to attend one of those typical banquet-style dinners with some government officials and my other colleagues from Beijing. I was dying for a tipple after an entire day of running around, but was somewhat dismayed at the amount of red wine each person was served (two tiny pitchers that didn’t amount to a regular wine glass).
As expected, there was a lot of drinking. The top government guy would go around toasting all the journos while the editor would later go around toasting all the officials. Then the reporters would have to do the same. It was a merry-go-round and we should’ve been utterly smashed by the time this round robin was done. But we weren’t.
Because these people were toasting one another with fruit juice.
The PR lady later shared that Suzhou people are “a little more refined” when it comes to such functions and they certainly don’t gulp baijiu like their compatriots from other areas in China. She must’ve thought I was a hooligan judging from the speed at which I chugged my red wine.
In a nutshell, the entire trip was an eye-opener. It debunked some of the preconceived notions I had of China and Suzhou.
As already mentioned, not all banquet-style dinners in China involve getting inebriated with baijiu.
Also, the SIP is nothing like an industrial park. I mean, there are areas where there are lots of factories (in fact, it looks just like a very, very, very big version of Science Park Drive in Singapore) but that’s just one small part of the entire zone.
In fact, I wouldn’t even call SIP a park – it’s actually a freaking city that has its own lifestyle amenities and residential zones. There’s also a gorgeous theatre where the highly acclaimed Suzhou Ballet troupe is based. If you’re wondering just how big SIP is, it’s 2/3 the size of Singapore.
The people of Suzhou too are pretty unique. They seem more polite and their mannerisms are a little more like Taiwanese than many of the other Chinese I’ve met in.
I left Suzhou wishing I had discovered more about it. It also made me realise how ignorant I was at the beginning to think that the SIP is nothing more than an industrial zone.
This brings me back to the interview I had did earlier with the guy from NUSRI.
Toward the end of our conversation, when asked about the sort of challenges NUSRI faced, the first thing he brought up was that many Singaporeans still fear coming to China, probably due to the misconception that “China is sibei luan (very chaotic)”.
“The market here in China has so much potential. You know, Singaporeans just need to come and see how things are for themselves, lah. It’s really nowhere as bad as they think it is,” he said.
He couldn’t have said it better. I would’ve always had the wrong impression of Suzhou if it wasn’t for this trip.
Moral of the story? Get out. See the world. The truth is out there.
Also, as I watched Lui Chengfang passionately explain about the various Chinese musical instruments that date back to hundreds of years, as well as the different types of Chinese operas and their nuances, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “What culture does Singapore have?”
The first word that came to mind?
Chapalang (a mix of everything). And the one thing that encapsulates this?
Well, Singlish, of course.
It is a beautiful summary of how we, as a country of migrants, have so seamlessly integrated with one another despite the differences in race and language.
So, to those who are trying to put
baby Singlish in the corner, please stop.
Why so serious? Chillax tam poh, lah. You know Singlish is how special to us Singaporeans anot?
The country is sibei sterile already, lah, please don’t ban Singlish, can?