|August 28, 1999||atimes.com|
| Southeast Asia|
Quick Quick: 'Singlish' is out in re-education campaign
By Mohan Srilal
SINGAPORE - One of Singapore's most popular television characters is about to be sent back to school to help this tiny island republic become a First World economy - one that speaks correct English.
And no less than Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong is responsible for the impending re-education of Phua Chu Kang, the headliner of the most watched local television comedy show in Singapore.
PCK, the actor's nickname and also the show's name, embodies the Singaporean everyman - unpretentious and down-to-earth, and possessing a rollicking sense of humor. The trouble is, Goh has pointed out, PCK uses too much ''Singlish'', the island's version of English that is actually a mix of English and Chinese or Malay phrases often befuddling to non-Singaporeans.
Both Goh and Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew now say television shows like PCK are largely to blame for the decline in the standard of spoken English in Singapore. That, they say, may be detrimental to the country's ambitions to be ''world class'', since no one from outside Singapore will be able to understand what the locals are saying.
Lee gave a few examples from the local television comedy shows such as ''Quick, quick. Late already. You eat yourself, we eat ourself'' - which translates to ''Hurry, we are late. Let's eat separately''. Another popular Singlish-ism is ''I became boring'', which means ''I became bored''. According to Goh and Lee, popular television shows have made the speaking of Singlish trendy, especially among the young people who make up most of their audience.
In his National Day speech on August 22, Goh said the Education Department is having difficulty in getting children to speak standard English partly because they often hear Singlish spoken around them, including on television. Lee took up the same topic when he spoke later that day at an official dinner. The former prime minister said Singaporeans are learning English ''so that we can understand the world and the world can understand us. It is therefore important to speak and understand standard English''.
He added that the more the media makes Singlish socially acceptable by popularizing it in television shows, ''the more we make people believe that they can get by with Singlish''. It will put the less-educated half of the population at a disadvantage, he argued, and they will end up suffering economically and socially.
Lee recalled that when Singapore decided to upgrade its Mandarin skills 25 years ago, officials decided that it could not be done by encouraging people to speak the language with local Hokkien, Teochew or Cantonese or even Malay words thrown in. ''To set the standard, I had our announcers on radio and television and school teachers retrained by teachers from Taiwan who spoke standard Mandarin,'' he said. ''We also hired a few announcers from Taiwan to set the pace.''
Because the government used television and radio to promote standard Mandarin, now Singapore has a generation of young people able to speak the language well, said Lee, noting that ''the Chinese-speaking world outside Singapore can understand us''.
Goh, meanwhile, clarified in his televised talk that the use of proper English does not mean that the locals must start speaking English with US, British or Australian accents. What he wants, said Goh, is for the proper use of grammar in speech.
Goh was partly-joking when he said in his nationally televised speech that he had asked Television Corporation of Singapore (TCS) to send PCK to basic English classes for adults, run by the Institute of Technical Education on the weekends and evenings. But TCS had apparently taken him seriously, as Goh disclosed that it had agreed to do just that in a month's time.
This week, Andrea Teo, the assistant vice-president of TCS's entertainment arm, Production 5, announced that the last episode of PCK's current season, which ends September 14, will have PCK's university-educated architect brother Chu Beng challenging him to speak better English. ''We can make PCK sound like PCK without resorting to Singlish. It's a fine line. It's about capturing something familiar yet acceptable.'' Teo has assured PCK's loyal fans that the madcap contractor with a bad perm will still be recognizable after his linguistic make-over. Gurmit Singh, who plays the role of PCK, also said, ''Chu Kang will still be Chu Kang, the guy who didn't pass PSLE [high school]. He will not start speaking like an Oxford graduate.''
In real life Singh, who also hosts a TV talk show, speaks perfect English - with a Singapore accent, of course. ''I grew up speaking Singlish but I can converse in proper English,'' he says. ''The problem arises because of a lack of guidance from parents and teachers. Parents should monitor what their children are watching and tell them: 'This is Singlish, it's for fun, it's a sitcom. Just watch it to see Uncle Gurmit having fun'.''
But TCS's promise to tone down Singlish and use ''standard colloquial English'' in its future entertainment programs may not be welcomed by viewers in Singapore. Another top-rated local sitcom, ''Under One Roof'', was criticized last year by viewers for not using enough Singlish. Its producer had argued, though, that this was because the show was being marketed overseas. ''Under One Roof'' is now shown in Australia and Canada, while the local box-office movie hit ''Forever Fever'' is finding it difficult to get released in the United States because the actors in it speak Singlish.
Singapore aims to become a media hub in Asia and the government believes its media and entertainment industries have reached a state of sophistication to take on the world. In truth, because of its small population of only four million people, the industry needs to tap into the global market.
''Singaporeans are well-equipped for the knowledge-based economy of the new millennium,'' observed the daily Strait Times. ''But it will not be able to do business with the rest of the world with Phua Chu Kang's Singlish. The government is right to recognize the problem and deal with it now because ultimately, Singlish will be a handicap.''
(Inter Press Service)
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