The Agency and Post-Colonial Consciousness in Singlish

Length: 1005 words

Singlish is a creolized language, drawing mainly from English but also supplemented by words and expressions from Malay, Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese and Tamil. Having evolved and still in currency in Singapore, Singlish is not highly regarded by Singaporean elite society, which prefers and promotes Standard English. In many ways, this cultural conflict is reminiscent of several such linguistic dialectics witnesses over the course of imperialist history. The most famous being the subservience of English to the French language during the three centuries of Norman rule of the isles. Even in that historical case, it was the peasants and other underprivileged who kept English alive amidst elite preference for French. Hence, it is interesting to study the development and significance of Singlish in the backdrop of its sociological and socio-economic dimensions. This essay endeavours to inquire in those lines with an emphasis on ascertaining Singlish’s contribution postcolonial agency and consciousness in Singaporean society.

Despite half a century of Singapore’s independence from British colonial rule, the country has not asserted itself culturally and linguistically. Singlish, which holds the greatest potential for authentically articulating postcolonial agency and consciousness of its people, is set back by numerous challenges. The linguistic, historical

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and psychological heritage of the nation will depend upon how indigenously evolved hybrid languages like Singlish are allowed to thrive. The following quote captures the primacy of native voice to the maintenance of national sovereignty – in both the colonial and postcolonial experience:

“A people’s cultural identity is related to three major factors–historical, linguistic and psychological (the last of which may include the people’s specific forms of religious observance). These factors vary in importance in different historical and social situations; when they are not fully present in a people or an individual, the cultural identity is flawed. Awareness of a common history is the most solid rampart a people can build against cultural or any other form of aggression from outside. Thus in contacts between civilizations– during the colonization process, for example –the colonizer tries to weaken if not destroy the historical consciousness of the colonized people. The exercise of national sovereignty is by far the best school for a people’s mind and soul, and the only way to keep alive its greatest virtues.” (Diop, 1986, p. 58)

The salience of Singlish is enhanced by its ability to serve building national unity. After all, previous to the development of Singlish, it was British English which bridged the language barriers between various ethnic groups in Singapore. What British English was able to achieve in a limited way (as the language was primarily confined to official communication) Singlish is able to achieve over and above. Singlish’s base in grassroots Singaporean society made colonialists see its inherent threat. Hence it was projected as ‘the other’, with connotations of deviancy and inferiority. But the irony is that British English is quite correctly ‘the other’. In contrast, the Singlish pidgin, with its inherent spirit of resistance and lack of deference to authority is unfairly labelled ‘the other’ till now. But, with its ability to bring together disparate and historically hostile ethnic communities together, Singlish truly remains the only legitimate medium of agency and consciousness in postcolonial Singapore. (Morgan, 2012)

For all the elite contempt directed toward Singlish (both during and after the British colonial era), the language is rich, diverse and has ingenuous features. Proving Noam Chomsky’s theory of universal structures of grammar, Singlish assimilates with ease words, phrases and grammatical rules of a discrete set of languages. The achievement of Singlish is its ability to weave together languages from different continents and different language groups. It is also a testament to the flexibility and dexterity of the English language to accommodate and morph as needed. (Bhabha, 1994)

The Singlish language offers value as an instrument for national social integration and collective expression. This is especially so for the language is predominantly used and developed by the working class. Considering that the British colonial experience has had a greater impact (mostly negative) on the working classes than the elites, it makes a case for how Singlish can be an apt medium for expressing the post-colonial consciousness. Detractors of Singlish only need look at the success of Indian-English literature, which has produced several outstanding writers and scholars both during and after British presence in India. Having adapted British English to their own local cultural sensibilities and aesthetics, Indian English is now a vital part of world literature. Indeed, in what is an interesting reversal of role, English literature emerging from India has revitalized and renewed interest in the written word across Anglophone countries. A leading champion of this cause, Sir Salman Rushdie, makes this salient observation:

“What seems to me to be happening is that those people who were once colonized by the language are now rapidly re-making it, domesticating it, becoming more and more relaxed about the way they use it–assisted by the English language’s enormous flexibility and size, they are carving out large territories for themselves within its front…. The children of independent India seem not to think of English as being irredeemably tainted by its colonial provenance. They use it as an Indian language, as one of the tools they have to hand … English literature has its Indian branch. By this I mean the literature of the English language. This literature is also Indian literature. There is no incompatibility here. If history creates complexities, let us not try to simplify them.” (Herther, 2009)

What is true of Indian English is also true of Singlish. Rushdie’s observation can even be extended to Spanglish (a combination of English and Spanish) and Chinglish (the emerging creolization of English in China). While Singlish can be studied in the postcolonial discourse, Spanglish and Chinglish are apt for study in the backdrop of globalization, which creates a subtle form of cultural imperialism. As Rushdie contends, “these new Englishes are a therapeutic act of resistance against the dominance that English has imposed over the years through past colonization and, now, through globalization.” (Herther, 2009)

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