One major difference between a contemporary proponent of the government’s language policy and Lee Kuan Yew was that one was a pedant and the other was a pragmatist. One worried about the correctness and orthodoxy of the English language, the other was concerned about the ability to be understood in a globalised world.
As Stephen Fry loves to quote, “Language is the universal whore that I must make into a virgin”, to assert that there is a correct English is a problematic position to take.
English as she is spoken in Singapore today is varied:
Standard English that the government sanctions and the snobbish JC kids use. Business Singlish that an averagely-educated Singaporean would use when speaking to his ang moh client. Hawker-centre Singlish that all Singaporeans revert to with relief if not almost relish when ordering their plate of char kway tiao. Heavy Malay-accented Singlish that a gang of Malay ITE students use. No holds barred Singlish that the warrant officer has used ever since he donned his green uniform 30 years ago. A barely intelligible Beijing-accented Singlish that the new citizen recently-migrated from the People’s Republic uses when he tries to fit it (a similar narrative would suffice for an ang moh expat trying to go native).
Some can’t even speak English, let alone Singlish: The woman begging in the streets having once been a samsui woman in the 70s. The cleaner who took his very first plane ride in his life, from Hubei to Xin-Jia-Po. The construction worker from Tamil Nadu who patronises the beer stall at Veeraswamy Road on Sundays. And the ones who dwell in the one-room flats. These are the underclass.
Class and stature is demarcated by the type of Singlish (and by extension, language) that you speak. Consumer products are no measure. The number of rooms in your HDB flat is not as conspicous. Take an example. An upper middle class Malay who speaks largely English at home hangs out with his nerdy Chinese classmates. They are more of compatriots to him than his fellow Bahasa-speaking Malay classmates who lepak at the void deck. While lifestyle and interests could be blamed, the greater underlying factor is language. I mean I can take up smoking and DOTA but for the fact that I don’t speak Hokkien, I doubt it will be easy to cosy up to my ah beng army mates.
The ability to code-switch thus also enables one to interact with multiple demographics of Singaporean society. With the spectrum of code-switching ability comes the spectrum of capacity for social mobility. The underclass thus, for their lack of ability to code-switch face serious structural limitations in social mobility.
Thought experiment time.
Let’s imagine a distant future where the social marker role of language in Singapore is further concretised, stratified and institutionalised.
Let’s say some global catastrophic event had shaken the world some time in the 21st century. And the natural trend of cultural convergence of globalisation is hijacked.
The year is 2515. The world is now barely recognisable. The world is one of Pax Sinae, a la Pax Britannica with a preponderance of Chinese political, economic and cultural power. Singapore is yet again a densely-populated megapolis, but of the 26th century. While it had been a crown jewel of the British Empire in the 20th century, it was now presently a prized protectorate of the People’s Republic of China – prized for its strategic geographical location and its financial might.
Against the wishes of her Chinese overlords, variants of Singlish are the lingua franca of Singapore, or more accurately, languages that now bear only etymological resemblances to Singlish. Singlish after all in the 26th century Singapore has been pulverised into a dozen fragments of hardly mutually intelligible creoles after five centuries of the confluence and impulses of immigration and cultural insurgency. 26th century Singlish is no more similar to the Singlish of 2015 than is Standard English similar to 7th century Anglo-Slaxon Old English. Singlish spoken in the 21st century has largely been lost and unrecorded. Anthropologists have termed it early Singlish or Index Singlish.
26th century Singlish is Singlish only in name and written form. It is but a mere legacy of geography-specific cultural history that has dominated etymological endeavours. In this new world, a few main tongues have emerged Vernacular Singlish, High Singlish, Pidgin Singlish and Abridged Singlish. All of which are barely mutually intelligible.
Let’s take a look at Vernacular Singlish. Somewhere in the ancient evolutionary development of the language, Index Singlish was the ancestral language that it was based off but it sounds nothing like it. While it borrows grammar and syntax from the Chinese language (as Index Singlish does), it is essentially a creole hot-pot of crisp internet-speak, Mandarin, Hokkien, Bahasa, Tamil, Bengali, Tagalog, Thai and Vietnamese in descending order of influence. It is also a highly dynamic language, born and grown and still morphing in the slums and the streets of the heathen lower streets of Singapore.
The 26th century Ah Bengs are masters of them. So are the hawkers, the cleaners, the mechanics, the office clerks, the home-makers, the merchants, the accountant, the computer systems developer, the nano-biologist. It is vulgar, it is unrefined, it is the vernacular and the lingua franca of the streets.
The upper classes, whom regardless of their despise for the vernacular, see the language as important for communication and control of the ground. The mid-ranking civil servant seconded from Beijing and his community of mandarins (pun intended) are fluent speakers of Vernacular Singlish, albeit with a heavy Shanghainese accent. The Dhaka-born merchant, richest man in Singapore, speaks an almost unintelligible Bengali-influenced dialect of Vernacular Singlish along with his diaspora.
Where Vernacular Singlish is the common speech, Sanctioned Singlish or High Singlish is conversely limited to the upper classes and the literati. The religious clergy of the mega-churches and mega-temples are unsurprisingly adept users of the language as well. It is termed “sanctioned” for it is the sole recommended form of the language by ruling classes, but such a policy has been undermined by the inaccessibility of Sanctioned English. Unlike the vernacular, it is refined and highly formalised with dogmatic sets of grammatical rules and linguistic orthodoxies. Regional languages of Bahasa Indonesia, Thai, Vietnamese and Tagalog have influenced the development of Sanctioned Singlish but to a far more limited degree than the Vernacular.
Seen as necessary for access to former education and wealth, it is also the main medium of instruction in venues of higher education. This was largely due to the capacities of the language to express a broader range of abstract thought and ideas, as a result of its complexity.
On a geopolitical stage, a hybrid creole of Vernacular and High Singlish, termed as Pidgin Singlish is a popular vehicular language that is widely spoken throughout the Southeast Asian region, favoured for its intelligibility across the diverse Southeast Asian languages and dialects and is hence a favourite among traders. It is subject to local variations.
In complete contrast to the above-mentioned variants, Abridged Singlish is spoken by the underclass who lack the intellectual capacity to process and internalise the complexities and nuance of even Vernacular Singlish, which to them is a formidable language constructed around a perplexing diversity of languages and linguistic origins. It contains limited vocabulary and simple grammar with a heavy slant towards Bahasa and Mandarin loanwords.
The linguistic state of 26th century Singapore would be a rather uncanny resemblance, wouldn’t it?