A friendlier, more relatable Speak Good English Movement

Mr Jason Leow, chairman of the Speak Good English Movement steering committee, with the campaign's colourful posters. As an ambassador for the movement, Mr Leow - who grew up speaking Hakka, Hokkien and Mandarin - uses his own life experiences to con
Mr Jason Leow, chairman of the Speak Good English Movement steering committee, with the campaign's colourful posters. As an ambassador for the movement, Mr Leow - who grew up speaking Hakka, Hokkien and Mandarin - uses his own life experiences to connect with Singaporeans.ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

Revamped campaign aims to promote use of standard English without a preachy image

It has been almost 20 years since the Speak Good English Movement was launched by then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong over concerns that widespread use of broken English would affect Singapore's ability to do business and communicate with the world.

But the movement has largely been perceived by Singaporeans as pedantic, preachy and even anti-Singlish.

This is something that the chairman of the movement's steering committee, Mr Jason Leow, hopes to change.

Mr Leow, 47, was appointed as the committee's chairman in July last year by the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth. He also heads corporate affairs and communications at sovereign wealth fund GIC.

He said he is repositioning the movement as a friendly one to which Singaporeans can relate.

"I am Singaporean. I live here. I've heard people talk about the negative perceptions, I've read about it," he told The Straits Times.

KNOW THE DIFFERENCE

Singlish, text-speak, Net-speak, millennial-speak and Gen Z-speak all exist outside standard English. You don't have to choose... but we do hope that people can tell the difference between Singlish and standard English. And our role is to have resources ready to enable that. Other than that, we don't make a value judgment on who has good or bad English.

MR JASON LEOW, the Speak Good English Movement steering committee chairman.

"So the approach is: We admit and acknowledge the misconceptions, and then create a conversation around it."

The Speak Good English website states that the committee recognises Singlish as a cultural marker for many Singaporeans, Mr Leow added.

"Singlish, text-speak, Net-speak, millennial-speak and Gen Z-speak all exist outside standard English.

"You don't have to choose... but we do hope that people can tell the difference between Singlish and standard English.

"And our role is to have resources ready to enable that. Other than that, we don't make a value judgment on who has good or bad English," he said.

The committee's nine other members include Ms Catherine Lau, assistant chief executive of public library services at the National Library Board, and Singaporean poet Pooja Nansi.

The committee conveys the movement's message through posters with slogans that urge Singaporeans to speak standard English that can be understood from "Eunos to Edinburgh" or "Marsiling to Melbourne".

The posters also encourage Singaporeans to spread the message on social media using the hashtag #LetsConnect.

"In this refreshed movement, we are trying to emphasise the use of standard English as one way of connecting with others, not just with people in Singapore, but across borders and cultures," Mr Leow said.

"There is personal as well as practical value in speaking good English - practical because it's useful at work and in business; and personal because it's human to want to be understood and connect with others."

The committee works with various partners to develop audio lessons and language tips, and to organise programmes such as workshops and seminars.

Perhaps more effectively, Mr Leow is using his own life experiences and personal stories to connect with Singaporeans.

"The most immediate step is to go out there and be a good ambassador for the movement," he said.

The former journalist recently penned a heartfelt article on media website Mothership.sg, detailing how he had grown up speaking Hakka, Hokkien and Mandarin.

After being placed in a school where teachers spoke English, he had difficulty with classes and homework every day, with his poor English even affecting subjects such as mathematics and science.

Said Mr Leow: "It was a struggle, but I was determined to make something out of it. Eventually, I got my first job in the newsroom."

He joined The Straits Times as a political reporter in 1996, working his way up to becoming a foreign correspondent and then bureau chief in China.

He also worked as a correspondent at The Wall Street Journal.

On the Speak Good English Movement, Mr Leow said that although the approach is different, the objective remains unchanged.

Back then, the movement was launched to raise awareness of the importance of standard English and to encourage people to use it, especially as a language of commerce, said Mr Leow.

English also served as a common connector in Singapore's multiracial and multicultural society.

"It's been almost 20 years, and those two reasons continue to be relevant," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 13, 2019, with the headline 'A friendlier, more relatable Speak Good English Movement'. Print Edition | Subscribe