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 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)