The Straits Times says

English to help us connect to the world

The debate over Singlish is hard to put to rest, it seems, even though it's conducted almost entirely in English, which by default puts the latter on top. At the heart of the debate is the fact that while some might be chuffed that a small set of Singlish words has been accepted by an established lexicon, this does not validate the wholesale use of broken English in all areas of life.

Highly competent users of English are often the ones who believe that Singlish nourishes the idiomatic soil on which English itself flourishes in Singapore. Others view it as a threat to how well Singaporeans can operate in an English-speaking world which sees Singlish as barely intelligible. Often, the two sides appear to talk at cross purposes.

It is not wrong to see Singlish as an affirmation of Singapore's linguistic identity, one rooted in but not foreclosed by the great traditions of English, Chinese, Malay or Tamil. Singlish is a vernacular variant whose colloquial vitality and popularity enable it to take its place among the "Englishes" of the world, like Hinglish or Taglish.

When one has a leaning towards local culture, there is a tendency to encourage linguistic latitude. Allowing the growth of an autonomous Singapore culture, however, is different from sanctioning the rise of a linguistic form that to the rest of the world sounds like "manglish" - mangled English. In celebrating Singapore's cultural diversity, one should be mindful that not everyone is equally adept in separating standard English from home-grown Singlish. The risk is that the young, in particular, might mistakenly believe that all can make sense of Singlish expressions, when in fact many listeners would be " blur like sotong", or utterly lost indeed.

Hence the deciding factor in this perennial cultural war is the ability to switch codes when conversing with others. Those proficient in standard English can switch effortlessly to Singlish when talking to local friends. But a less competent language user would not be able to hold his or her own when expected to communicate clearly with foreign customers, job interviewers and business associates in international markets. Thus, Singlish advocates would not be doing the young any favours by opening the doors wide open to all forms of broken English. Against this backdrop, the authorities, educators and mainstream media must uphold functional proficiency in standard English. This is especially so given that keeping up standards of spoken and written English is a constant struggle for parents and educators in the face of the loose grammar and spelling practised online and in social media.

Singaporeans often take pride in being able to communicate effectively in English in most social contexts in today's interconnected world. But they should not assume this comes naturally or without effort.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 22, 2016, with the headline 'English to help us connect to the world'. Print Edition | Subscribe