PM's press secretary rebuts NYT op-ed on Singlish

The press secretary to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has responded to an opinion piece on Singlish in the New York Times (NYT) newspaper, saying it makes light of the Government's efforts to promote the mastery of standard English by Singaporeans.

In a letter published in the International NYT yesterday, Ms Chang Li Lin said: "The Government has a serious reason for this policy.

"Standard English is vital for Singaporeans to earn a living and be understood not just by other Singaporeans but also English speakers everywhere," she said.

"But English is not the mother tongue of most Singaporeans. For them, mastering the language requires extra effort.

"Using Singlish will make it harder for Singaporeans to learn and use standard English."

Poet and literary critic Gwee Li Sui wrote the piece that was published in the International NYT on May 14-15 with the headline "Politics and the Singlish language".

Citing examples of common Singlish phrases like "yaya papaya" (a snooty person), Dr Gwee wrote that Singlish "may seem like the poor cousin to the island's four official languages, but years of state efforts to quash it have only made it flourish".

"The government's war on Singlish was doomed from the start: Even state institutions and officials have nourished it, if inadvertently," he added, citing its use in National Service and the tourism board showcasing it as a unique cultural creation.

Dr Gwee also cited examples of politicians using Singlish in recent years, saying: "Finally grasping that this language is irrepressible, our leaders have begun to use it publicly in recent years, often in strategic attempts to connect with the masses."

Ms Chang said in her letter: "Not everyone has a PhD in English literature like Mr Gwee, who can code-switch effortlessly between Singlish and standard English, and extol the virtues of Singlish in an op-ed written in polished standard English."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 24, 2016, with the headline 'PM's press secretary rebuts NYT op-ed on Singlish'. Print Edition | Subscribe