SINGAPORE » "Borrow me $5 can?" might not be the most graceful way to ask for a few dollars, but it’s music to the ears of many Singaporeans.
But as Singapore cements its position as a financial services hub and top regional tourist destination, the government is redoubling efforts to persuade locals to speak standard English. The government insists mastery of English is imperative to raise living standards as the economy shifts to services from manufacturing.
Some worry, however, that the island’s unique patois known as Singlish could be lost, and with it an important cultural glue unifying the multiethnic city-state of 5.1 million people.
"There are many people who champion ‘Speak Singlish,’" Vivian Balakrishnan, minister of community development, youth and sports, said in a speech yesterday. "But I appeal to you to think of our children. Put aside some of the more emotional elements that language always engenders."
The government revived yesterday a 10-year drive to get Singaporeans to speak grammatically correct English. Through partnerships with restaurants and shopping center food courts, the government plans to exhort patrons to "Get it Right" with posters showing examples of Singlish phrases crossed out and their equivalent meaning in English.
So "Got problem call me can" becomes "Please let me know if you need help." And "You ask me I ask who" becomes "I don’t know either."
Primary schools will increase teacher training in standard English diction and syntax.
"We need to remain relevant to the world," said Balakrishnan. "English is a portal to knowledge."
Singlish is a jumble of the nation’s four official languages – English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil – and vocabulary from several Chinese dialects. It often consists of English words used to directly translate Chinese phrases.
"It’s what makes us Singaporeans," said Fadilah Mohammed, a saleswoman at a food store in a mall near downtown.
"When I speak English, I have to think carefully. When I speak Singlish, it just comes out naturally."