MOE: No penalty for using Singlish appropriately

Ministry says it may be used in direct speech in compositions, not in formal communication

An online petition was started by freelance writer and translator Madam Goh Beng Choo to remove the term "Chinese helicopter" from the OED. ST PHOTO: MARCUS TAN

Using Singlish words like "sabo" or "kiasu" in your English composition assignments?

You will not be penalised if you include these terms "appropriately", said the Education Ministry (MOE).

Responding to queries from The Straits Times (ST), the ministry said for formal communication in general, students should not use Singlish in its written or spoken forms. But there are exceptions.

In composition writing, for instance, MOE said that "Singlish words should be used only appropriately, usually in direct speech".

For example, a student will not be penalised for writing sentences such as "I have decided to 'sabo' my friend and play a nasty prank on him"; or "She is by nature a 'kiasu' person and will wake up extra early to queue for the latest release".

ST understands that despite this, standard English grammar still has to apply.

MOE's clarification on when Singlish words are allowed comes as a number of Singlish words were recently added to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

Several parents interviewed are glad that students will not lose marks if they use Singlish terms in compositions appropriately.

Housewife Lydia Tan, 38, who has a six-year-old son, said: "Students sometimes express themselves better with Singlish.

"Singlish words may add colour to an essay and make it more interesting to read."

But others noted that the use of Singlish words in essays may create confusion.

Information technology manager Robert Tan, 46, who has two teenage daughters, said: "Some people who aren't familiar with our local culture may not know what the terms mean."

An MOE spokesman said Singlish may not be understood in certain contexts.

"Therefore, it is important that we continue to teach internationally acceptable English to our students so that they are intelligible, literate and articulate internationally, especially if Singaporeans continue to aim for greater global participation," she added.

The OED, in its March quarterly update, added to its lexicon 19 new "Singapore English" items, such as "blur", meaning slow in understanding; "lepak", to loiter aimlessly or idly; and "sabo", which means to make trouble for or play a prank on.

Other terms added showcased the country's love for food. These included local favourites like "chilli crab" and "char siu".

Experts, such as Dr Ludwig Tan, vice-dean at SIM University's School of Arts and Social Sciences, said the distinction between formal and informal usage - be it Singapore or British standard English - is usually quite clear.

Dr Tan said having Singapore words in the OED adds colour and expressiveness to the English language. "And who knows, some of these words may actually become widely used and internationally intelligible one day," he added.

Late last month, an online petition was started by freelance writer and translator Goh Beng Choo to remove the term "Chinese helicopter" from the OED.

The derogatory term, which was among the 19 added to the dictionary, refers to a Chinese-educated person in Singapore who speaks English poorly.

Madam Goh, 64, said the inclusion of the term in the dictionary gives the impression that it is acceptable, when it is actually insensitive.

"It carries a humiliating tone, especially when it is derived from a mispronounced term for 'Chinese-educated'," she added.

The petition has more than 480 signatures.

Madam Goh, a former ST bilingual section journalist, said: "My main concern is that young Singaporeans who come across this term in the OED may regard it as a proper term with which to address their Chinese-educated seniors."

She added that Singlish terms should not be in the OED in general. She said: "I am against the addition of Singlish terms to the OED because, to me, Singlish is colloquial English, not standard English, just like (how) there are colloquial terms in many other languages."

However, the OED said once a word is added to the dictionary, it is never removed.

The 19 Singlish terms were not the first to make it to the dictionary. Words like "lah" and "kiasu" were previously recognised by the OED.

The OED's world English editor, Dr Danica Salazar, told ST: "Any language community should be proud of their own words, as each is a reflection of their identity, which is shaped by their culture and history."

Dr Salazar, 32, added that the use of words is always determined by the context.

"If there is one thing that all speakers of English should be encouraged to do, it is to learn that mastery of the language requires knowing the right words to use at the right time and in the right place," she added.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 13, 2016, with the headline MOE: No penalty for using Singlish appropriately. Subscribe