Yawning Bread. March 2007

Race, religion and the sinicisation of Singlish




This essay is a reaction to some of the things I've heard in the last month or so. There were at least two recent occasions (and more instances previously) when people have mentioned in passing that the Singapore blogosphere is relatively free so long as bloggers stay clear of some topics, such as race and religion. I disagree that these two topics should be avoided; I think it hurts our maturing as a society to quarantine these subjects. That's why I insist on writing about them.

The other thing that I am responding to is Alfian's comment to the essay Incredible wife makes disappearing act. In it, he said that I was remiss in not mentioning that Malay was a factor in the formation of Singlish. Of course he's right. I was remiss and Malay did contribute to our local version (or bastardisation, if you wish) of English.

But you'd notice the way I emphasised the past tense -- Malay did contribute. The argument I will make here is that it is (and will likely be, in the foreseeable future) Chinese that will influence the further development of Singlish. But in so arguing, I will unavoidably be talking about race. And that's how these two topics come together. But let me begin with a word or two more about Singlish.

* * * * *

In the earlier essay, I made only the most passing mention of Singlish. "A mangled mix of English and Chinese", I said, and in a footnote to boot. To my surprise, readers picked up on it and engaged. One comment said Singlish was a contact language with its own grammar, which is not something I disagree with [1]. But giving it a neat label -- "contact language" -- does not preclude it being a mangled mix of English and Chinese. Depending on how far back one wishes to look, many languages start off as contact languages, mangling bits and pieces from antecedent languages. See the yellow box, about English.


However, the thing that struck me about the way readers seized on any mention I made about Singlish was how it indicated its iconic status to Singaporeans. People seemed to get riled at the merest hint that I have belittled the language.

The other danger -- and I'm sure I'm going to rile some more people with this statement -- is the tendency to perceive of Singlish as unchanging. In a way it is understandable as national icons are supposed to be fixtures in the firmament by which we can know our position. But no language is ever unchanging.

Anecdotal observations suggest to me that the more recent changes are due to Chinese influences. A few months ago, I overheard a group of young men talking among themselves. One of whom said, "Do we really need to bring it along? It's so mah-fahn." His point was that it -- whatever "it" was -- would be troublesome or inconvenient. It struck me that this construction was new. 30 years ago, the same idea would have been expressed in Singlish as "It's so lay-chay" where the word would have been taken from Malay. Clearly, a new generation of Singaporeans have lost the Malay-sourced word and replaced it with a Chinese-sourced word, "mah-fahn".

Consider too the way "meh" has come into Singlish. As far as I can recall, this sense-modifier wasn't found in Singlish as recently as 20 years ago, i.e. the mid-eighties, but it's extremely common today. (For those who are not familiar with Singlish, "meh" is something that is added to end of a statement to express scepticism about the truth of the statement, e.g. "She qualify for university, meh?") I am told that its most likely origin is Hokkien Chinese though the specificity of its meaning in Singlish is unique.

What stumps me is where "lor" comes from. It too is a relatively recent feature in Singlish. It's another sense-modifier added to the end of a statement, to emphasise a given state of affairs and suggest an attitude of resignation. "Like that lor. The roster say I must work this Sunday, boh bian lah." This one may well be an organic development within Singlish rather than an import, perhaps a budding off from "lah" to impart a more heightened sense of immutability and resignation. But I could be wrong; if anyone has any ideas about its origin, do write in.

On the other hand, consider how rarely we now hear "alamak" or "susah". And here's a test: ask young Singaporeans whether they understand the term "pechah lobang". All these had Malay origins, but now seem to be reaching obsolescence in Singlish.

These trends shouldn't be surprising. Indeed, Singlish started off as a common attempt by both Chinese and Malays in equal measure to approach English-speaking colonial masters in both Singapore and Malaya. However, after 1965 when Singapore was politically and socially separated from Malaysia, the further development of Singlish reflected the demographic profile of this island rather than the peninsula. Since there are more Chinese here than Malays, influences have quite naturally been more from Chinese than other languages. 

Furthermore, the fact is - and I say this without passing any value judgement -- Malay is by now no longer a mainstream language in Singapore. Its ghettoisation means that in future, it will play little part in the common exercise of the making and remaking of Singlish, even as Malays themselves speak Singlish.

It goes without saying that the Singlish that Malays speak among themselves may be slightly different from that that Chinese speak among themselves. In the former, Malay influences will continue to persist. But where the different Singlishes come together, it is more likely for the Chinese variant of Singlish to be understood by Malay Singaporeans than vice versa, and thus for the Chinese variant to be seen as normative.

* * * * *

Looking ahead, this trend will continue, if not be reinforced. After all, where will the extra 2 million people come from, as Singapore's population climbs to 6.5 million? I don't think I'd be unusually prescient if I said,

1. China 
2. India, and 
3. Elsewhere, mainly Europe/Australia/America, but with some from Korea, Philippines, Vietnam, Burma, Sri Lanka, Africa...

Those coming from India and elsewhere would mostly be those already able to speak English, even if it's not their first language. However, we can expect that many coming from China might not. So Singapore will continue to be a place where English and Chinese bastardise each other.

But at this point, I'm no longer talking about language, but about race. You'd notice that I haven't named Malaysia and Indonesia as countries that would be sources of immigration for Singapore. It's one of those unsaid things, but for strategic reasons, the government here will always be wary about large-scale migration from adjacent countries. It's similar to how the Russians in Siberia are extremely sensitive to migration from China, despite the fact that Siberia is being steadily depopulated through the Russians' low birth-rate and high mortality rate.


English grew out of the polyglot England of the 11th to 13th centuries. The originally Celtic population had barely coped with Viking invasions before the Angles and Saxons (and other Germanic peoples) made their way to the country. Then they got conquered by the Norman French in 1066, who brought in a new group of elites with a different language. All this while Latin was still in use in ecclesiastical circles.

I've read that the reason why English nouns have no gender, for example, was that as a mix of Norman French, Saxon and other Germanic languages each with their own system of noun-gender, conflicting with each other, the bastard tongue that was early English just gave up and abandoned gender altogether.

English also has Celtic roots, and from there, or its Germanic roots, English has inherited nouns that describe the essence of the object, e.g. "bread", "cattle, "fish" rather than the discrete units the way most other nouns do, e.g. "bun", "cow", "eel".

Now, Chinese and Malay nouns too have an essential rather than countable nature, thus they often come into conflict with the more typical English nouns that compel a clear distinction between singular and plural. As a result, Singlish has this tendency to give up and abandon the distinction as well as the consequential subject-verb agreement that English demands. Examples are: "wah lao, all my campmate don't want to do housekeeping one" and "my mother, she nag me every time I stay out late."


Interestingly, in 1989, a year before he became Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong said in a speech, in which he touched on immigration, "Nor do you need to worry about the ethnic balance being upset. It is the government's policy to maintain the present harmonious multi-racial balance of our society. Whether the population is 2.6 million, 3.2 million, or 4.0 million, the present ethnic balance will be maintained. If the Chinese percentage goes beyond 76 per cent, we shall increase the numbers of the Malay and Indian [Permanent Residents] from the region."

(This also shows you that immigration is not a new subject in Singapore's political discourse.)

Eighteen years on, if we consider the racial composition of just Singapore citizens and Permanent Residents ("Singaporeans") alone, this is still roughly the case [2]. But going forward, non-Singaporeans will become a large part of our demographic landscape. When we reach a total population of 6.5 million, we may well have only 4 million citizens and Permanent Residents. The racial composition of the total population then will be quite different from the "template". By sheer numbers, non-Singaporeans, i.e. those outside the neatly-percentaged template, will also impact our linguistic landscape. [3]

In any case, how do we expect the government to control the ethnic ratio of Singaporeans if present practice is to offer citizenship or Permanent Residency to just about anyone with some qualifications who is already here? Won't demand determine the ultimate ratio rather than any a priori formula?

Secondly, do we hold Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to a promise made by Goh in 1989, so far in the past, even before Goh became Prime Minister himself.

Thirdly, should it matter what the racial balance is? Why do we insist on seeing national identity through the prism of race? Shouldn't we learn to see as Singaporean others who equally identify with Singapore, whatever colour or creed?

* * * * *

I am more than aware that talking about race and religion can be sensitive -- can be, though it doesn't have to be. Unfortunately, the fact is, there are many people out there who get very atavistic whenever such topics come up. They feel threatened by ideas that do not accord with their worldviews and it takes little provocation before they start swinging their paleolithic clubs at all perceived opponents.

The discussion quickly descends into name-calling. Intimidatory words soon appear, in an attempt to silence the other side. Eventually, more heat than light is generated by such discussions.

How do we respond to such tendencies? The Singapore government's instinct is to deter people from even starting such conversations, thus the placing of "race and religion" outside the safe limits, whenever they talk about speech, both in real and virtual space. But there is a price to pay for such shunning. Issues don't get resolved; stereotypes are allowed to persist.

It should be possible to have a conversation about race and religion, though webmasters and editors should bear in mind the difference between a civil dialogue and a free exchange. A free exchange may be a bit too loose an arrangement when we know there could be participants out to harangue rather than converse. A civil dialogue is one where all participants must start with facts and supporting evidence and apply non-denominational public reason in forming or promoting their opinions. That is to say, to merely assert that such and such an authority/scripture/sage is right is not a valid starting point -- for the purposes of the conversation, no matter how much one believes it for oneself.

Editing standards may have to be different, just as if we're handling gunpowder or fireworks, we have to apply higher standards of safety, and we shouldn't have to apologise for that.

But what this article is really out to do is to demonstrate that there are ways to talk about race and religion, as I have done via the above discussion about Singlish and immigration. I contest the general implied prohibition against discussing such subjects. I do think that a careful, intelligent discourse is good for us and it would be absurdly timid for bloggers to stay away from what must surely be important subjects. We just have to be aware there are ways to do it right and ways to do it wrong.

Yawning Bread 


Excerpt from a Speech by then-First Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong to the Harvard Club, 29 July 1989

Liberalised Immigration Policy

It is against this backdrop of a population decline, both in numbers and quality, that we decided to liberalize our immigration policy, and to offer PRs (Permanent Resident status) to Hongkongers. Even if 25,000 do come over the next 10 years, at 2,500 per annum, they shall not make up for what we lose by emigration. Since Singaporeans are not replacing themselves, we have no choice but to immigrate others to make up, and to top up for those who have emigrated.

We should not be overly concerned with competition from the Hong Kong immigrants. We are losing better educated Singaporeans than the Hong Kong workers we hope to get, But, nevertheless, they bring along with them skills and enterprise which will enlarge our economy and create more jobs. Anyway, we will have to compete with them, whether they remain in Hong Kong, come to Singapore, or emigrate elsewhere.

There is no need to worry about overcrowding schools, housing, health care. We have considered all implications. We have done a long term land use study and the conclusion is that Singapore can comfortably accommodate a population of 4.0 million with good housing, schools, hospitals, leisure amenities, and plenty of open space and green areas. Nor do you need to worry about the ethnic balance being upset. It is the Government's policy to maintain the present harmonious multi-racial balance of our society. Whether the population is 2.6 million, 3.2 million, or 4.0 million , the present ethnic balance will be. maintained. If the Chinese percentage goes beyond 76 per cent, we shall increase the numbers of the Malay and Indian PRs from the region.



  1. However, strictly speaking, Singlish may be better described as a creole. What's the difference? A contact language, also known as a pidgin, is usually a very basic means of communication between two or more groups of people speaking different languages. The pidgin they use to interface with each other consists of a very limited vocabulary (often no more than a few hundred words) and extremely simple grammar. By definition, pidgin is never the first language for anybody. However, when an older generation passes pidgin to the next, and a subsequent generation uses what used to be pidgin as its first language, then it is known as a creole. Typically, a creole has a larger vocabulary and would have developed some grammatical rules too. By this measure, Singlish has gone past being a contact language (bazaar Malay may be a better current example of contact language) to become a creole.
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  2. As at June 2006, out of 3.608 million Singaporeans (defined as citizens + Permanent Residents) 2.713 million (75.2%) were Chinese, 0.491 million (13.6%) were Malay, 0.319 million (8.8%) were Indian and 0.086 million (2.4%) were "Others".
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  3. Here's an example of how even lowly guest workers have impacted our linguistic landscape. 20 years ago, before large numbers of Indians and Bangladeshis came here to take up sanitation and construction jobs, we could mostly assume that the Indians we met were either local or Malaysian. The language we would use to communicate with them, if they didn't look well educated, would quite likely be bazaar Malay. At the time, Singapore and Malaysian Indians could generally be expected to have a grasp of bazaar Malay for inter-ethnic communication. Today it is more likely, when we see an Indian-looking person, that he is from India or Bangladesh. We stand a better chance of being understood if we opened with English than with bazaar Malay (even if any of us non-Malays can speak it). Consequently, bazaar Malay has suffered quite a quick death, replaced by English.
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