beng is cool, singlish a signal

A very interesting article taken from TodayOnline.

It's written by a Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Ah, no wonder that it takes into account the different layers of society and what Singlish means to them. After all, I don't think you can be a Fellow by commenting like ah pehs in coffeeshops. Cannot be so easy right? Must have some power before publishing such insights.

Ever wondered why the English-proficient are its biggest backers?

Terence Chong

THE presence of Singlish in everyday life is undeniable. From HDB coffeeshops to corporate boardrooms, it is deeply entrenched in the psyche of Singaporeans from all walks of life.

It is thus no surprise that everyone has an opinion on Singlish. The Singlish debate so far has, however, been confined between those who wish to celebrate it as an icon of Singaporean-ness and those who believe it will only hinder our global connectivity.

But the Singlish dilemma is more deeply layered than that.

Singlish is, firstly, a marker of postcolonial identity. In promoting Singlish, we are in fact campaigning for English, a colonial heritage, to be accepted and understood on Singaporean terms. In this sense, Singlish is transformed into a source of national pride and identity because it alludes to the broader way Singaporeans have successfully adapted colonial apparatuses for our own needs.

Singlish becomes a potent symbol of who we are, how we think, and how we speak. This is especially so for many overseas Singaporeans who are able to instantly recognise fellow citizens with Singlish. It is thus no surprise that many want to celebrate it as an icon of local culture.

Singlish is, however, also a means of class differentiation. Although many argue that Singlish should be celebrated as part of national identity, in reality, this argument comes only from the English-proficient middle class.

We revel in its down-to-earth factor and wear it like a badge of honour to show how unashamedly Singaporean we are. Meanwhile, we overlook the many Singaporeans out there who cannot speak anything else but Singlish. In doing so, we erase the harsh realities of these Singlish-speakers such as economic marginalisation in our search for symbols of national identity.

Furthermore, being able to code-switch effortlessly between Singlish and grammatically-sound English, the English-proficient middle class demonstrates its cultural capital vis-à-vis Singlish-speaking heartlanders. This explains why the English-proficient middle class is, by large, the most vocal champion of Singlish.

Singlish is also appropriated by the English-proficient middle class for certain desirable characteristics. Take the Ah Beng culture, for example. The Ah Beng is a caricature of the local working class youth and personifies failure in Singapore's elitist and capitalist society.

Recently, however, local sociologists have observed that the local media's popularising of the Ah Beng in sitcoms and through fashion-sense has led some in the young English-speaking middle class to claim that they have a "little bit" of Beng in them.

It's gradually becoming cool to be Beng. Likewise, it becomes useful for us to slip into Singlish to sound "real" and "authentic". We throw in a lah or meh as a reaffirmation of our heartlander status, to avoid being perceived as rootless or un-Singaporean.

Hence, in professing affection for the Ah Beng and Singlish, the English-proficient middle class has co-opted the Ah Beng and Singlish for its own interests. We seek from Singlish and the Beng the imprimatur of heartlander authenticity to counter accusations of cosmopolitan pretensions, while we continue to look beyond our shores for cultural consumption.

Lastly, championing Singlish allows us to safely challenge the Government's economic rationale. The Government's stand on Singlish is clear — it is not a trait to be celebrated because we cannot be a first-world economy or go global with Singlish.

A Singlish-speaking population, the Government argues, would be an obstacle to the wooing of global capital and the transnational elite.

Meanwhile, the more "liberal" members of the English-educated middle class are generally less concerned with the potential economic consequences of Singlish, given their mastery of English and their globally applicable skills. In defending, celebrating and using Singlish, they carve out new discursive terrain on which to safely confront the state's ideology of economic pragmatism — that which would otherwise be difficult to challenge given the widening wage gap between the haves and the have nots.

Singlish, more than any other language, has created pathways across the borders of class and ethnicity. However, the ease with which we cross borders depends on our class, cultural capital and the specific nature of power distribution in society.

The ways and context in which we use Singlish is indicative of our class, education and cultural capital, as well as the cultural politics that play out in-between.

The writer is Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. This is a personal comment.

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