Poet and literary critic Gwee Li Sui wrote an opinion piece which was published in the International New York Times on May 14-15 with the headline “Politics and the Singlish language“. In his piece, Gwee chronicled how years of state efforts to quash it have not only made it flourish but also state institutions and officials, like National Service from Singapore Tourism Board, have nourished it.
In the article, Gwee pointed out how in 1999 Mr Lee Kuan Yew had declared war on Singlish describing it as “a handicap we must not wish on Singaporeans”, and how his son Mr Lee Hsien Loong seemed to have eased-up on this war. He pointed out how during a naturalization ceremony in 2012, the younger Lee had encouraged new citizens to integrate saying, “and if you can understand Singlish, so much the better.”
Gwee’s article also pointed out Workers’ Party MP Pritam Singh had popularised “ownself check ownself,” by mocking the People’s Action Party (PAP) for saying that the government was clean and honest enough to act as its own guardian.
He also referred to a funny podcast “Tur kwa” made by mrbrown during the 2006 General Election which recorded an argument between a bak chor mee man and his customer over a botched order. The podcast poked fun at the PAP’s demonising of WP candidate, James Gomez, for his blunder of not submitting his election forms properly and initially blaming it on an Elections Department official.
Gwee’s piece said how PM Lee Hsien Loong had misquoted the character in Mr Brown’s “Tur kwa” podcast as saying “mee siam mai hum”, and how many Singaporeans caught the error immediately because mee siam never contains “hum” (cockles), and how PM Lee’s blunder became Singlish for being out of touch.
PM Lee must have felt the sting from Gwee’s piece, especially since it appeared in an international publication. His press secretary, Ms Chang Li Lin, responded to Gwee’s opinion piece on the same newspaper, making it very clear that the Government was not easing up in its battle of Singlish and that it has a serious reason for this policy.
“Standard English is vital for Singaporeans to earn a living and be understood not just by other Singaporeans but also English speakers everywhere,”Ms Chang said.
Suggesting that English is not the mother tongue of most Singaporeans and how mastering the language requires extra effort Ms Chang said, “Using Singlish will make it harder for Singaporeans to learn and use standard English.”
In her letter to the NYT, Ms Chang could also not avoid taking a potshot at the poet saying, “not everyone has a Ph.D. in English Literature like Mr. Gwee, who can code-switch effortlessly between Singlish and standard English, and extol the virtues of Singlish in an op-ed written in polished standard English.”
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