Singapore Government Press Release

Media Division, Ministry of Information and The Arts,

36th Storey, PSA Building, 460 Alexandra Road, Singapore 119963.

Tel: 3757794/5



We are meeting in happier time this National Day. The quick turnaround in our economic situation is good news. Everyone had expected a much slower recovery, but we are all glad to have been proven wrong.

It is now time for us to look beyond the regional financial crisis, set new goals and plot our strategy to achieve them.

Our new goal is to become a first-world economy and a world-class home. In simple terms, this means a place where businesses thrive, where good jobs can be found and where the people enjoy a developed country's standard of living. It means we are able to compete with the best in the world in high-tech industries and sophisticated services. It also means a home which Singaporeans are proud of and an oasis where talents from around the world want to come.

English is important

At the National Day Rally last Sunday, I spoke about what we should do to attain our new goal. One important way is to make sure that our people speak standard English. English is important because it is the language of commerce, science and technology. It enables us to break out of our small geographical confines and reach out to the rest of the world. English is the lingua franca in such developed countries as the US, UK, Canada and Australia. It is also the main language in the 54 member countries of the Commonwealth. In non-English speaking developed countries (eg France, Germany and Italy), English is widely used in political, business and academic circles.

I converse with the French President and many other European leaders in English. Likewise, we do not need interpreters when I meet the Mexican and Peruvian Presidents. It is a big advantage for us if we speak standard English. We can communicate and do business with millions of people around the world.

Foreigners do not understand Singlish

Singlish is not English. It is English corrupted by Singaporeans and has become a Singapore dialect. I am not referring to accent here. Our Singaporean accent is acceptable. We do not need to fake an American or British accent. Singlish is broken, ungrammatical English sprinkled with words and phrases from local dialects and Malay which English speakers outside Singapore have difficulties in understanding.

A friend of mine, a banker, told me this story. He was having an animated discussion with some friends in an aeroplane one day. A Caucasian (an ang moh) turned to them and politely asked where they came from. When they told him Singapore, he asked what language they were using. When they said "English", he was surprised and remarked "How is it that I could not understand you?" Then they realised that they were speaking Singlish.

This indeed is the kind of problems that will arise if we use Singlish rather than standard English. Like any other languages, English has its own structure, form, grammar, pronunciation and idioms. If we don't stick to the rules of common usage or if we mix English with other languages, then it is no longer English as it is understood throughout the world. Problems in communication will arise.

This is true not just of English, but other languages too if we corrupt their usage. Take, for example, Hokkien. Singaporean Hokkien is not totally understood by the Taiwanese and Hokkiens in Xiamen. For example, they could not understand words like mata, roti, pasar, buay tahan and go stan. But at least for Hokkien, the grammar, sentence structure and pronunciation are correct.

And it is precisely to minimise such problems of communication that some years ago, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Singapore agreed to standardise the Malay language. We now teach standard or baku Malay in our schools. This will facilitate communication between us and our Malay-speaking ASEAN neighbours.

We should, likewise, improve the standard of our spoken and written English. Let us not go in the reverse direction with Singlish, or to use Singlish, let us not "go stan".

Our Next Generation should speak standard English

Let me emphasise that my message that we must speak standard English is targeted primarily at the younger generation, especially those who have studied in English schools or are in school now. It is not my intention to discourage adults from non-English speaking background from learning and speaking English. It cannot be helped if they continue to speak Singlish. For many of them, learning some English words is already difficult enough. To pronounce words accurately and speak them grammatically may well be impossible. But we should ensure that the next generation does not speak Singlish.

My friend, Lim Bak Hee, (fishmonger) attended BEST classes to learn English. He now speaks some English, not Singlish. Another friend, Tan Seng Peng, Chairman of the Geylang Serai CCC, now makes speeches in English. He has been learning the language for many years now. Let the non-English speaking adults not be shy about learning standard English. For those who now speak only Singlish, why not go one step further and learn to speak English?

We will do all we can to improve the standard of English in Singapore. In the schools, we should teach good grammar and pronunciation. It is good to start the kids early on phonetics. It is important to emphasise the rules of grammar.

At home, let us discourage the younger generation from using Singlish. Let us challenge them to use standard English.

The media should play a part by having creative programmes that make learning standard English fun. TV, radio and the newspapers can highlight common errors in English in Singapore. I propose we do this through an annual Speak Good English Campaign. I have asked MITA to launch the campaign next year. All these and other efforts will help us create an environment conducive for expanding the use of standard English and decrease the use of Singlish.

By encouraging each other, we can help each other improve the standard of English. It may take us 10 to 15 years to raise the level of English in Singapore, but we must succeed. Then, truly, we will be a first-world economy and a world-class home. For our people will speak a world language in addition to their own mother tongue.

. . . . .