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World Englishes, Vol. 20, No. 3, pp. 341355, 2001. 08832919

Creative destruction: Singapore's Speak Good English movement


ABSTRACT: The increasing use of Singlish in the media, in early schooling and other everyday domains
reflects its growing importance as a symbol of social identity and cohesion in Singapore. However, this
trend runs counter to the country's avowed economical goals of becoming a knowledge hub in the region,
which it seeks to achieve by developing a highly skilled service sector that is proficient in (Standard)
English. Thus, paradoxically, despite a new policy initiative to loosen their traditional tight grip on society
in the interest of developing a nation of creative risk-takers, the authorities have recently launched the
Speak Good English movement, spawning a slew of editorials, cartoons, skits and commercials in a
vigorous attempt at generating awareness among the public of the need to promote the use of Standard
English. This paper attempts to show that this move to stem the popularity of Singlish is yet another
manifestation of the notion of ``creative destruction,'' currently being proposed as a strategy to improve
the efficiency of corporate and industrial businesses in the country. ``Creative destruction'' entails the
partial destruction of existing economic ideas and structures which rapidly obsolesce with the emergence of
new ones. Drawing a parallel with the Speak Mandarin campaign, which has successfully resulted in the
dispersal of the local Chinese dialects, the paper argues that this attempt to replace Singlish by Standard
English, while throwing up valid issues of social identity and cohesiveness, which are prone to get
subsumed by the more urgent pragmatic and economic rationalizations proffered, can then be seen as a
triumph of the relentless, hegemonic forces of globalization.

The emergence of new varieties of English, such as Indian English, Nigerian English and
Singapore English, has come to be seen as an important development that can, on the one
hand, help neutralize the powerful colonizing force of global English and, on the other,
serve to forge bonds of cultural identity and social cohesion locally (Bamgbose, 1982;
Kachru, 1984, 1996; Kandiah, 1994a, 1998). However, an interesting interplay of precisely
these two forces global and local as they act upon language and identity can be seen at
work in the context of The Speak Good English Movement 2000, launched in Singapore
last year to promote and maintain the use of Standard English among Singaporeans, which
forms the focus of this paper.
The accelerated use of Colloquial Singapore English (CSE) or Singlish, as most
Singaporeans call it, in everyday domains of use has resulted in a clarion call for an
increased competence in Standard English. The initiative taken by Prime Minister Goh
Chok Tong himself to undermine the burgeoning use of Singlish in the media and in some
domains of early schooling in favour of the standard form is perfectly in line with the
country's goals of economic survival in the region and of Singapore's aspirations of gaining
an edge over its competitors in a highly competitive global market. What is both fascinating
and instructive about the entire process through which language policy and planning is
managed in Singapore is the socio-political nature of the enterprise, which leads us to look
beyond merely the effects of language policy on language behaviour to a consideration of
the ideological and discursive nature of language planning (Bokhorst-Heng, 1998).

* Department of English Language and Literature, National University of Singapore, Block AS 5, 7 Arts Link,
Singapore 117570. E-mail:

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The language policy that has evolved in Singapore is one of ``pragmatic multilingual-
ism.'' The linguistically diverse situation in Singapore, which has derived from its history,
was initially tempered by a policy of bilingual education, introduced in 1956 as a result of
the recommendations of the All-Party Report, that the four languages designated as
official languages English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil be available as media of
instruction (Gopinathan, 1980: 181, cited in Pakir 1994b). Bilingual education in Singa-
pore schools has undergone several modifications since then with successive stages
according increasing emphasis to English. Today, however, there is no longer the choice
of a main medium of education ``English is the language of instruction in all schools, with
one of the other official languages being followed through as the second school language.
`Bilingualism' in Singapore has thus come to be uniquely defined as `proficiency in English
and one other official language' '' (Pakir, 1994b: 159). In effect, this policy of bilingualism
made English the lingua franca of Singapore, giving the policy the name ``English-knowing
bilingualism'' (Kachru, 1982: 42). Therefore it can be said that there is multilingualism at
the national level and bilingualism at the individual level in terms of official policy
although most Singaporeans speak a variety of languages to varying degrees of pro-
The bilingual policy, one of the first policies to be instituted by the government at the
time of independence, has been essentially premised on what Pendley (1983) calls the
``functional polarization'' of language, and Kuo and Jernudd (1994: 30), ``the division of
labour between languages.'' In Singapore's official terminology, English is a ``working
language,'' while the other ethnic languages are called ``mother tongues,'' each serving to
re-ethnicize and consolidate separate ethnic communities. Thus, on the one hand, English
needs to be used for instrumental and pragmatic reasons for employment and the
transfer of technology and exchange of information with the broader global community.
In this view, the English language is seen as neutral and cultureless. On the other hand,
mother tongue is a demarcation and embodiment of culture, acting as a cultural ballast
and anchor for the Singaporean. English is for new knowledge, to keep the nation abreast
with its economic and development objectives; mother tongue is for old knowledge, to
keep the people anchored and focused amidst the changes around them (Lee Kuan Yew,
The Straits Times, 24 November 1979).1
Language planning is very visible in Singapore society although there is no official
language planning agency or body (Pakir, 1994b: 160). The official languages are guided
by exoglossic norms that are established at international centres of language development
and management, (Kuo and Jernudd, 1994) notably the UK, China, Malaysia and India.
Language policies usually appear in ministerial statements, translated into Ministry of
Education guidelines, which are then implemented in schools. In addition, the media are
regularly used for public service announcements, to promote and create an acceptance of
government policies and to influence language behaviour (Gupta, 1996).
An obvious example of deliberate language change is Mandarin, a major official
language. Traditionally, the ethnic Chinese spoke one or more of the following dialects:
Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hainanese, Hakka, Foochow, Mandarin and other less
known Chinese dialects. ``Mandarin Chinese, while not the mother tongue for the majority
of the Chinese in Singapore, was chosen to represent the largest ethnic community owing
to historical and political considerations. A `Speak Mandarin Campaign' was launched in

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Singapore's Speak Good English movement 343

1979 by the then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, which has continued with unabated force
to promote the use of Mandarin in place of dialects among all Singaporean Chinese'' (Kuo
and Jernudd, 1994: 28). The campaign is also conducted in coordination with the moral
education of the youth, to counter what is felt to be an erosion due to ``Western'' influences
on the Chinese traditional value system (often expressed in terms of Confucian ethics). In
addition to its sentimental appeal as a language associated with Chinese culture and
traditions, Mandarin is also promoted for its increasing importance as a trade language
which facilitates access to the expanding market in China. Since 1979, an annual month of
intensely focused campaigning gives continuous visibility to Mandarin, as do the posters
and stickers displayed in public places and taxi cabs. The Singapore Broadcasting
Corporation ceased television broadcast of Chinese dialect programmes and commercials
at the beginning of the campaign.
As a result of the influence of the vigorous pro-Mandarin campaign, the use of
Mandarin has replaced the use of other Chinese dialects, Hokkien in particular (said to
be understood by 97 percent of the Chinese and 77.9 percent of the total population
originally see Kuo, 1980), for intra-ethnic communication in some domains, especially
among the younger generation of Chinese speakers. According to a Ministry of Education
survey, 68 percent of all new entrants into primary school in 1987 came from homes in
which parents used Mandarin with their children compared to only 25.9 percent in 1980.
Similarly, a 1987 survey by the Ministry of Communications and Information revealed
that 87 percent of the Chinese spoke Mandarin as compared to a bare 0.1 percent who
spoke it as a mother tongue in 1957. Such figures clearly reflect changing patterns of
language use, ample evidence that the campaign is a huge success.
Of the four official languages, English is the only one which is not Asian in origin. It is
hence regarded as ``neutral'' for in-group relations in Singapore, if not so in terms of its
external existence and use. As the language of the colonial rule, English has been retained
as the administrative language in independent Singapore. Moreover, its perceived impor-
tance for, and actual use in, higher education, international trade, and modern industry
and technology have strengthened over the years.
It has been suggested that the role English has come to play in Singapore makes it quite
unique in the world since no other former colony has gone on to officially adopt English as
the working language. As Catherine Lim (cited in Pennycock, 1994) observed in 1989:

While the status of English in the post-independence Third World declined or was reversed vis a
vis the native languages, in Singapore it went from strength to strength, until today it is the
language that enjoys the highest status and support among the nation's 2.6 [now 3.2] million
people. There are four official languages in multi-racial Singapore English, Chinese, Malay and
Tamil but in practice, English dominates, both in the institutional and private life of the nation.
It is language of government, of administration and employment. It is the medium of instruction
in all schools and tertiary institutions. It is the only one of the four official languages whose
informal use extends across all ethnic groups and socio-economic levels. Hence by any indicator
official status, social prestige, extent of use, number of speakers English is the dominant
language in Singapore. (Lim, 1989: 1)

Pennycook (1994: 224) notes that much of this spread can be explained by the pragmatic
implementation of the language policy in terms of its usefulness and neutrality in serving
Singapore's practical needs. But Chew (1999) suggests the reason may well be that the
ownership of the world's foremost auxiliary language is widely viewed as ``linguistic

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344 Rani Rubdy

capital'' in Bourdieu and Passeron's (1977) sense of the term, easily convertible into other
forms of capital such as educational qualifications and higher income. She observes that

it was a conscious decision on the part of the Singapore government not to indulge in the linguistic
nationalism of many post-colonial countries but rather to concentrate on economic survival. . . .
To ensure its survival, it was deemed imperative that it should have a dominant language which
would enable it to survive politically, socially and culturally. English was seen as a language which
would attract foreign investment and give the society the leading edge in education, academic
achievement, international trade and business. The policy of economic nationalism, which had
characterized many post-colonial states, was therefore eschewed for one of pragmatic viability in
a rapidly changing world. (Chew, 1999: 40)

Indeed, ``the unique usefulness of English to Singapore at every stage in the history of its
development,'' suggests Catherine Lim (1989: 2), ``has been and continues to be the raison
d'etre in pragmatic achievement-oriented Singapore'' (p. 3).
Another important issue is the government's desire to develop a new national identity in
addition to and above and beyond the identity and loyalty at the ethnic and sub-ethnic
levels, one which serves the government's vision of economic, social and cultural devel-
opment. ``The development of this supra-ethnic Singaporean identity, for a population
who speak different mother tongues and who come from divergent traditions, is the
pressing question'' (Kuo and Jernudd, 1994: 28). From this point of view, English educated
Singaporeans are seen as being potentially less ethnocentric and demonstrating greater
loyalty to Singapore (Tan and Chew, 1970), as some kind of ``social brokers'' (Murray,
1971). Kuo and Jernudd (1994: 26) also observe that key among the reasons that Singapore
society has been able to sustain a high level of communicative integration are the evolution
and adoption of several lingua francas and the presence of bilingual social brokers.
The use of English, therefore, has been very closely tied to the basic needs of
communication in a multilingual nation. In Singapore, the question of language diversity
needed to be addressed. English was one of the answers. In competition with Mandarin,
English has rapidly replaced Bazaar Malay and Hokkien among younger educated
Singaporeans as a result of schooling. Thus as Bokhorst-Heng (1998: 290) notes, English
plays a role at three levels: At the national level, English is the pragmatic choice to meet the
government's larger economic objectives. And economic viability has always been equated
with the viability of the polity. At the community level, English is seen to be the obvious
choice for inter-ethnic communication. And at the individual level, since all members of
society would have access to English, the gap between the English- and Asian-language-
educated would narrow.2 All individuals would have equal access to the benefits that a
knowledge of English offered.3
This status of a language of wider communication (LWC) (Fishman, 1968) accorded to
English in Singapore has been challenged by several scholars (Pennycook, 1994; Gupta,
1994; Kandiah, 1994; Pakir, 1994; Tan, 1995; Bokhorst-Heng, 1998) in recent years, who
claim that given that the language is embedded in a system of meritocracy in Singapore and
given the view of education as human capital development, English has not only unifying
but also divisive possibilities. The 1990 census showed that English is directly associated
with social mobility and socio-economic status. Furthermore, recent trends are showing
that this language-based social hierarchy is beginning to reproduce itself. Because
educational streaming occurs very early and because English is a crucial feature of this
process, students who come from homes where English is used extensively have a strong

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Singapore's Speak Good English movement 345

advantage over others (Kwan-Terry, 1991). Children from disadvantaged homes, on the
other hand, lack the necessary financial resources to avail themselves of help in learning
the language.


Meanwhile a counter trend is emerging that pits the ideology of the policy makers
against the realities of practice in Singapore, particularly among the younger generation of
Singaporeans. As Singapore has grown more modern, more developed and more prosper-
ous over the years, inevitably the use of English has expanded from formal to informal
domains. Consequently, and owing partly to its bilingual policy, which allows English to
be used alongside one or other mother tongues, there has emerged a home-grown, spoken
vernacular English unique to Singapore4 (labelled Colloquial Singapore English or CSE by
academics, but known as ``Singlish'' among most Singaporeans. My own use of this term
for the purposes of this paper is to signify this close identification of Singaporeans with it).
In recent years, an increasing number of young and middle-aged Singaporeans have begun
to accept and even expect the use of vernacular English in the in-group. Peer usage
incorporates and thus legitimates deviations from the school (and ``official'') norm (Kuo
and Jernudd, 1994: 33). Thus though English is the language of government and business
in multi-ethnic Singapore, many of the 3.2 million citizens of the former British colony
speak Singlish at home and with friends and enjoy local TV comedies featuring Singlish-
speaking characters.
That Singlish is increasingly being foregrounded in the consciousness of English speak-
ers in Singapore with some show of pride and ``a new confidence'' in its value5 (Pakir,
1994b: 177) is evident from a recent report in The Financial Times, London. It states, ``In a
country that only came into being with independence in 1965 and consists of three ethnic
groups Chinese, Malays and Indians Singlish is an important unifying force. It draws
its roots from several Chinese dialects, Malay, Tamil and English. Academics have studied
it. Books have been written about it. And many Singaporeans consider it the only cultural
trait uniquely Singaporean'' (6 July 2000).
However, the region's financial crisis emphasized how important the ability to speak
Standard English is to Singapore's future. It revealed that the island-state had grown too
expensive for it to continue competing with its neighbours for labour-intensive manufac-
turing investment and needed to develop a highly skilled service sector to boost its human
resource development in helping it grow into a knowledge-based, and technology-smart
hub within the region. There is a fear of falling standards because Singapore wants to
maintain international intelligibility in English.6
``The fact that we use English gives us a big advantage over our competitors,'' Prime
Minister Goh stated in a speech given at the National Day Rally last year, exhorting
Singaporeans to speak standard English. ``If we carry on using Singlish, the logical final
outcome is that we, too, will develop our own type of pidgin English, spoken only by 3
million Singaporeans, which the rest of the world will find quaint but incomprehensible.
We are already there. Do we want to go all the way?'' (The Straits Times, 23 August 1999).
And such complaints are not taken lightly in this closely run Southeast Asian nation
when they come from the city-state's most influential politician. Senior Minister Lee Kuan
Yew, who was Prime Minister for 31 years, sparked off the debate by calling Singlish a
``handicap'' that is stifling the country's economic development. He lambasted TV

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comedies for popularizing Singlish, saying that they wrongly lead Singaporeans to believe
they don't need to speak proper English. Within days of his criticisms, the wheels of
Singapore's media and education system were set in motion against Singlish. The chief
target became the popular sitcom, Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd., whose liberal use of Singlish
humour has made it the most widely watched show on Television Corporation of
Singapore's Channel 5. The show centres on a crude and uneducated but endearing
Singlish-speaking contractor named Phua Chu Kang, played by popular comic Gurmit
Singh, who is set against his better-educated brother and his snobbish wife. Phua and his
catch phrase, ``Don't pray, pray'' (a mispronunciation of ``Don't play, play'' which
translates as ``don't play around or tease me''), which has since been excised, were
blamed for the less than perfect English of young Singaporeans.
In his 1999 National Day Rally speech on 22 August, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong
remarked, ``In trying to imitate life, Phua Chu Kang has made the teaching of proper
English more difficult. . . . We cannot be a first-world economy or go global with Singlish.''
He urged television character Phua Chu Kang to clean up his act so that students would
not think it ``fashionable'' to speak English that way. As a consequence of taking his
criticism directly to Phua's creator, the Television Corporation of Singapore (TCS), the
series ended its season with its protagonist, Phua promising to take classes to learn
Standard English and TCS announcing that Phua Chu Kang would tone down his use of
Singlish in the coming season. Said Mr. Goh, ``If Phua Chu Kang can improve himself,
surely so can the rest of us.''
Making Phua Chu Kang the focus of attention was a masterstroke, for this immediately
served to capture the attention of readers in the press and provoked a number of reactions
both in favour of and against Singlish, helping, in the process, to generate public debate
and sensitize Singaporeans to the government's point of view. Wrote a reader to The
Straits Times, the country's leading newspaper: ``Children and even some adults who
follow this sitcom tend to think it is okay to speak like this, since it is telecast on an official
television station. We should consider removing such programmes from public viewing,
just as we removed Cantonese dramas on television years ago'' (Douglas Chua Hock Lye,
The Straits Times, 27 July 1999).
The issue of falling English language standards was picked up by The Straits Times in an
editorial that echoed the concerns expressed by the Prime Minister:

In one of those curious expressions of cultural politics, Singaporeans fluent in English find it
fashionable sometimes to speak Singlish in order to affirm their solidarity with the linguistic
working class. However, this fraternity plays upon but does not resolve, the real problems faced
by those who are stuck with English. That is why, just as the Education Ministry is addressing
part of the problem by sharpening its focus on English, the media need to prevent Singlish from
being legitimized as an acceptable alternative to English. (Editorial, The Straits Times, 27 July

A series of letters in The Straits Times appeared following this, highlighting the issue,
some arguing against the use of Singlish in clearly market-oriented metaphors: ``Instead of
being the language of last resort for those who cannot use standard English, it may one day
become the language of choice among the young. Just as bad money drives out good . . . the
widespread use of Singlish may cause a slide in English proficiency among the young'' (The
Straits Times, 29 October 1999 italicized for emphasis).
Yet others urged a more tolerant view towards Singlish: ``Phua Chu Kang has become a

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Singapore's Speak Good English movement 347

national icon and his popularity attests to our cultural maturity we can laugh at
ourselves, especially the way we speak English . . . After all the English language, being so
tolerant of changes is not the preserve of the intellectual elite. It has been and will always
be the tongue of the common man'' (Chan Kwai Sum, The Straits Times, 14 September
The headlines of the letters to The Forum section of The Straits Times (see Appendix)
reflect the conflicting views of the readership regarding attitudes towards Singlish as well
as the role of the sitcom, Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd, in all of this. Some of the letters clearly
reveal the gatekeeping orientations of sections of the Singaporean society. However an
even larger number vociferously defended the use of Singlish.
Around this time, a report by the Ministry of Education, assessing the status of English
in Singapore, announced that although most students were able to function in Standard
English, the use of Singlish in schools was more widespread than it was five years ago and
could erode students' competence in English. It highlighted problems faced by students
from homes with little or no English support and warned that the use of Singlish would
hinder the learning of English (The Sunday Times, 25 July 1999).
The report provoked a lively debate in the newspapers as readers' views poured in. Many
took issue with the key area of concern expressed in the report: The growing status of
Singlish as an icon of national identity.
Wrote one reader, ``Singlish is a mark of how we have evolved as a nation and should
surely have a place in our culture. Embracing Singlish as part of our heritage is not self-
deception'' (Michelle Lee, The Straits Times, 31 October 1999).
Several others argued that Singlish helped to generate social cohesion, to connect the
different races and bring them together as Singaporeans:

I agree with The Sunday Times editorial that the ``Phua Chu Kang'' syndrome is unlikely to be
expunged from national consciousness.
In fact, it would be a grave mistake on the part of our Government to even think it can and should
be done.
Singlish is Singapore. It is part of our national consciousness. Social cohesion, which our leaders
are attempting to foster, is already there for us to exploit in Singlish. (Anthony Yeo, The Straits
Times, 7 September 1999)

Acknowledging the significant role of Singlish in establishing group identity and

solidarity, regardless of racial, linguistic or cultural differences, yet another reader
asserted, ``Speaking standard English in this era of globalization is absolutely essential,
but Singlish identifies us and bonds us as Singaporeans. This special `language' should not
be forsaken but instead, [referring to the letter cited above] as Mr. Yeo suggests, be
exploited as a tool for social cohesion'' (Harry Chia Kim Seng, The Straits Times,
8 September 1999).
These kinds of positive valuations of the indigenous variety clearly reveal the existing
discrepancy between precept and practice.7 As Singlish increasingly becomes for Singa-
poreans a cultural possession of their own (Kandiah, 1994b: 297) and begins to assume a
symbolic function as a language of solidarity, identity and pride, the contradiction between
the agenda of the language planners and the perceptions and preferences of the people
becomes evident. At a local writers' festival, several poets and playwrights affirmed that
the local literature is enriched with Singlish and its subtleties. Poet Alfian Sa'at pointed out
that the anti-Singlish crusade ``smacked of a colonial mentality'' which deigned to

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appropriate the American slang of Hollywood movies but frowned upon homegrown
expressions (The Straits Times, 7 September, 1999).
In a further effort to eliminate Singlish, the authorities have urged schools to maintain a
higher English language standard. The government, which has successfully affected public
attitudes in a series of campaigns promoting kindness, courtesy, health and cleanliness,
announced the launching of ``A Speak Good English Campaign'' by early 2000 and has
doggedly taken steps to implement it with great vigour.8


The official launch of the Speak Good English movement (SGEM) took place on
29 April 2000, in a determined and vigorous effort to promote the use of Standard English
among Singaporeans and decrease the usage of Singlish. The latter was categorically
defined as English corrupted by Singaporeans:9 ``Singlish is not English. It is English
corrupted by Singaporeans and has become a Singapore dialect . . . Singlish is broken,
ungrammatical English sprinkled with words and phrases from local dialects and Malay
which English speakers outside Singapore have difficulties in understanding.''10
Speaking at the launch of the movement Prime Minister Goh urged: ``They (Younger
Singaporeans) should not take the attitude that Singlish is cool or feel that speaking
Singlish makes them more Singaporean. If they speak Singlish when they can speak good
English, they are doing a disservice to Singapore'' (The Straits Times, 30 April 2000).
The launch of the movement was meant to kick-start a week-long festival packed with
more than 100 events including plays, story telling competitions, seminars, debates, skits,
and a speech marathon. The highlights included the launch of a book giving practical
advice on how to make the switch from Singlish to English and a website, a performance
by two members of the cast of Phua Chu Kang in their character roles in a live cross-talk
and the release of the findings of a survey commissioned by the Ministry of Information
for the Arts (MITA) to determine the standard of spoken English in Singapore.
Following this a year-long programme is being organized by the public sector, which
includes a number of activities at schools, national libraries, community clubs and other
public places to drive home the message: ``Speak Well, Be Understood.''
Alongside these developments, the Education Ministry has taken several measures to
raise the standard of English used in school. These include revising the English language
syllabus to make the teaching of English more rigorous; a sixty-hour course for 8,000
teachers leading to certified skills in teaching English, courses on the latest methods of
teaching grammar and campaigns to promote the use of proper English in schools all in
a pre-emptive move to prevent an erosion of English language standards among the
The slew of editorials, cartoons, skits and commercials all work to show Singlish in a less
prestigious, less attractive light than standard English. The primary aim is to convince
viewers/readers of the high opportunity costs of Singlish in terms of occupational,
professional and socio-cultural prestige and power as against the benefits of speaking
Standard English. The humour and the light-hearted format adopted in the skits and plays
reflect a deliberate attempt by the Speak Good English Movement Committee to adopt a
persuasive rather than a coercive approach. This is further reflected in the committee's
assurance that it would not disparage Singlish speakers nor impose a fine on those who slip
up on their English.

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Singapore's Speak Good English movement 349

In the following section, I shall go on to argue that the implementation of the Speak
Good English movement can be likened to the Speak Mandarin campaign, motivated by
the same kind of economic rationalizations, shaped by similar market forces, which have
successfully resulted in the dispersal of many of the local Chinese dialects. The threat faced
by Singlish of being replaced by Standard English can then be seen to mark the triumph of
the relentless and unstoppable forces of globalization.
Indeed, from this perspective, it would not be far-fetched to say that the move to
undermine the popularity of Singlish, if possible to eventually eliminate it altogether,
particularly among the ``heartlanders,'' is yet another version of the notion of ``creative
destruction,'' the economic rationale currently being proposed in referring to strategies for
improving the efficiency of public and private sector corporate, banking and industrial
businesses in the country.


The term ``creative destruction'' refers to the way that economic advances make existing
economic capital ideas obsolescent to enable continual quality improvements to be
brought about in the market. Therefore these ideas are partially but systematically
destroyed (in value terms). From this point of view, economic progress is largely the
consequence of the processes of creative destruction.
The notion of creative destruction was recently applied by management guru Lester
Thurow to describe the wave of radical change heralding the transition from an industrial
to a new digital and knowledge-based economy that has set Singapore in a state of churn.
``The financial sector has been revamped in the last two years. The telecommunications
industry, reborn as the infocommunications industry is frothy with change. The electricity
and gas markets are being deregulated. The process of `creative destruction' is underway''
(The Straits Times, 1 April 2000).
Since the economic crisis in the region two years ago, one of the questions raised time
and time again has been, should Singapore jettison its safe old ways in order to prosper in
the age of globalization. And ``creative destruction'' has been the new buzz word applied to
the strategies it must adopt if it is to become a serious player in the New Economy.
``Asia needs to embrace the New Economy,'' Singapore's Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew
declared at the Singapore Techventures 2000 Conference held in San Francisco, referring
to the exploding world of internet-enhanced enterprises. ``Failure to do so will mean
inability to compete.'' To Singaporeans the nation's founding father cautioned: ``If we do
not change fast enough, we're going to miss so many chances, we'll kick ourselves for it.''
The apparent aim is to recast the economy into one truly driven by private enterprise.
``Societies must be flexible in re-inventing and refining their economic system'' Senior
Minister Lee told his audience, referring to the Republic's determination to restructure its
economy for the new millennium. ``The strength of the American system is that it has
always embraced change and creative destruction.''
The initiative taken by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong to discourage the burgeoning
use of Singlish, in the media, educational, and other contexts with the recent promotion of
the Speak Good English movement can be said to represent an extension of this capitalist
market concept of creative destruction put to work in the realm of language issues and is
perfectly attuned to the country's economic goals of survival in the region by developing a
highly skilled service sector proficient in the language.

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350 Rani Rubdy

Creative destruction can be said to work in two ways. The first type occurs when a new
idea, model, framework or practice that has been introduced is so revolutionary that it
gradually supersedes an earlier one to take a very mundane example, as when a brand of
toothpaste that prevents tooth decay, or another that strengthens the gums, is eased out of
the market by the invention of a new brand which effectively does both. In this case one
might say that the displacement of the old brand, resulting from the invention of the new,
is not deliberate or premeditated, but an unplanned result of certain forces of creativity. Its
effects therefore may not be perceived as drastic or aggressive but as gradual, though
The second way in which creative destruction works is when it is deliberate and
consciously planned, as for instance, when a pharmaceutical company discovers that a
medication produces certain undesirable side effects and goes about systematically
subjecting it to rigorous analysis, eliminating component by component until a new
concoction is created that is free from all those ill effects. This is a more aggressive but
sure-fire way of making advances for quality improvement in a highly competitive market-
oriented setting. Creative destruction in this sense has been viewed as an efficient and
effective way of cutting the dead wood in the techno-industrial and corporate sectors in
Singapore and especially in overhauling the banking system which has currently drawn
much flak.
Without stretching the analogy too far, I would suggest that the Speak Good English
movement resembles in some ways the second type of creative destruction in that it is a
planned and deliberate attempt to root out Singlish before it takes complete hold of the
speech community. However, in terms of its implementation, the approach adopted seems
to be more like the first type. That is, by bringing in ``good'' English through a systematic
and determined effort at fostering consensus towards the policy makers' point of view,
supported by improved schooling, the hope is that the ``bad'' one will gradually go away.
Note that this is a very different approach from the one taken not so long ago in banning
the sporting of long hair or the use of chewing gum in the country. This stand comes from
the shrewd wisdom that any attempt to eliminate or destroy Singlish would be futile unless
there was something concrete to take its place. Hence a gentler, less intrusive approach that
eschews coercive and authoritarian measures is seen to work better where a sensitive
matter such as language is concerned.
There is also an astute recognition of the new turn that globalization has taken in a fast
changing world. While English has always served as an instrument of economic progress in
Singapore, the sources that helped achieve modernization have themselves undergone
change in recent times. Hence while yesterday's Singapore needed English to help it trade
in goods, to efficiently mobilize capital flow and manipulate the movement of cheap labour
to make it one of the most dynamic of Asian economies, within this scenario, both
standard English and Singlish had a place. Today, with labour having become more
expensive, Singapore's sources of modernization have changed. Today's Singapore aspires
to be a global city of a first world order that can hold its own in the forefront of
information technology and attract a highly skilled service sector that can compete with
the best in the world. Needless to say, Singlish has no place in the highly standardized
communication structures of the New Economy, within which the ``cosmopolitans,'' the
highly qualified people the government hopes to attract into coming to work for
Singapore, can scarcely be expected to understand the local language.
This new orientation is apparent in the political rhetoric of Singapore's leaders.

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Referring to the quick post-crisis turnaround in the economic situation, Prime Minister
Goh Chok Tong pronounced:
Our new goal is to become a first-world economy and a world-class home. In simple terms, this
means a place where businesses thrive, where good jobs can be found and where the people enjoy a
developed country's standard of living. It means we are able to compete with the best of the world
in hi-tech industries and sophisticated services. It also means a home which Singaporeans are
proud of and an oasis where talents from around the world want to come.
At the National Day Rally last Sunday, I spoke about what we should do to attain our new
goal. One important way is to make sure that our people speak standard English. (Marine Parade
National Day Dinner, 29 August 1999)

Given that within the Singapore establishment, the bias has always been towards what
works, this is but a small price to ask in adding to the Singapore success formula. As Neel
Choudhury of Fortune Magazine observes in a write-up that combines a nuts-and-bolts
view of Singapore with an evocative feel for the less tangible aspects of life on the island
state, ``Singapore's success hinges on this city state's almost neurotic obsession with
minutiae'' and on Singaporeans being ``tireless self-improvers.'' He then goes on to say,
``Global corporations like a city that can fine-tune its performance with such precision''
(The Strait Times, 10 November 1998).


Singapore's twin goals towards nation building have been economic survival and the
maintenance of racial harmony. ``In multilingual Singapore diversity has been seen as an
obstacle to these goals and hence `problematic' for several reasons. Conflicting language
loyalties could lead to ethnic strife and language diversity could weaken communicative
integration and efficiency in the management of economy and polity. This is thought to
hinder the social, economic and political development of the nation'' (Kuo and Jernudd,
1994: 42).
In response to such perceived problems, a pragmatic approach to multilingualism has
developed over the years. From this perspective, the most common rationale for the
dominance of English by Singaporeans has been couched in terms of its usefulness and
neutrality in serving Singapore's practical needs, depoliticizing the language issue here in
the process. However, there has always been a tension between the pragmatic view of
English as a neutral language and the discourse of multiracialism, which assumes a close
connection among race, ``mother tongue,'' culture and identity. In this context, English is
no longer the neutral medium of international communication and modern knowledge, but
is viewed as a carrier of Western decadent values and undesirable influences to which
Singaporeans, especially the ``heartlanders'' are particularly vulnerable. Hence the impor-
tance of the mother tongues which are argued to be the bearers of traditional Asian values.
As Pennycook (1994: 252) points out, the discourses of meritocratism, pragmaticism and
multiracialism combine here to support a policy of language standardization, aimed
predominantly at working-class Singaporeans. Hence the pro-Mandarin campaigns
encouraging the Chinese population to ``Use Mandarin, Not Dialects.''
Thus from this point of view, taken as a whole, the bilingual policy, the pro-Mandarin
campaign and the discourse on Asian core values, can be seen as a strategy used by the
government in the management of English and the effects of English on Singapore.

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352 Rani Rubdy

However, while the expected outcome of the pro-Mandarin campaign was successfully
achieved in terms of wiping out the different Chinese dialects by Mandarin to make it the
intra-ethnic tongue, a totally unplanned effect has been the way English has begun to
supplant Hokkien, the dialect of the numerically dominant Chinese group in Singapore in
its intra-ethnic lingua franca role. It has been hinted that the promotion and acceptance of
Mandarin may have represented an added linguistic burden to dialect speakers which
hastened language shift in younger members towards English (T'sou, 1988). It is likely that
a shift in identity too is already in progress. The current ubiquity of English suggests that
its use may now be a key definition of Singaporean identity.
However, the choice of English as a symbol of identity is a complex issue that is steeped
in ambivalent divides. For instance, as Pennycook asks, ``How can one deal with a
language that is both a neutral medium for development and the bearer of foreign and
undesirable values? How can one develop an attachment towards a national language
(which English unofficially undoubtedly is) which is linked only to economic success?'' In
addition to Western vs. Eastern value systems, science and technology vs. culture, which
English symbolizes for Singaporeans, is the divide recently referred to as that which exists
between the ``cosmopolitans'' (i.e. those who generate wealth and extend the country's
economic reach) and the ``heartlanders'' ( i.e. those who form the core of Singapore's social
values and stability).
Speaking of the need for cohesion between these two groups, Prime Minister Goh
recently said, ``The challenge is for us is to get the heartlanders to understand what the
cosmopolitans contribute to Singapore's and their own well-being, to get the cosmopoli-
tans to feel an obligation and sense of duty to the heartlanders . . . If cosmopolitans and
heartlanders cease to identify with each other, our society will fall apart.''
Yet currently the one variety that provides both cosmopolitans and heartlanders with a
sense of Singaporean identity and social cohesion is Singlish rather than Standard English.
Singlish has a fairly strong potential for expressing cultural identity, given the opportunity
to thrive, as it might well do if the media were allowed a free hand. It has the vibrancy and
the vitality that comes from being grounded in the local culture in a way that is integral to
the Singaporean speech community, as a number of creative writers have already
discovered. And in the words of my colleague, Peter K. W. Tan, on the topic, ``One
way of giving people their own identity is by giving them their own version of the
language'' (cited in The Financial Times, London, 7 July 2000). Yet while realizing that
Singlish is the glue that binds Singaporeans into a distinct group that can be identified as a
unique speech community in its own right, what is clear is that the authorities would rather
Singaporeans used a different ``brand'' of glue one that is closer to either British or
American Standard English.
Based on the impressive gains of the Speak Mandarin campaign over the years, one may
venture the prediction that the push for proper English will no doubt be as successful. The
use of Singlish in Singapore is unlikely to disappear into oblivion, but it will be effectively
stemmed. One of the outcomes of the pro-Mandarin campaign in Singapore today is that
many grandparents are unable to communicate with their grandchildren as a result of the
loss of the mother tongue. It is possible that the Speak Good English movement might
likewise widen the gap between the cosmopolitans and the heartlanders, as the former are
forced to minimize their use of Singlish in the face of exonormative pressure. Alternatively,
the heartlanders might be driven to give up speaking English altogether, thus perpetuating
and reinforcing the divisive possibilities that already exist. For a majority of the Chinese

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Singapore's Speak Good English movement 353

heartlanders this could mean linguistic and cultural disorientation on two counts one
involving the shift away from the ethnic dialect to Mandarin, and the other from Singlish
to Standard English.
On a more optimistic note, the Speak Good English movement might well provoke a
collective rejection of the exonormative pressure in some kind of counterwave of solidarity
and thus become a site of resistance.11 But lessons in history tell us that a language needs to
have an economic basis if it is to survive; if a language has no market value it will in time
decline this could not be more true than it is of modern day Singapore in today's era of


I have attempted to examine the assumptions and motivations underlying the manage-
ment of language planning as reflected by the Speak Good English movement in
Singapore. I have shown how the Speak Good English movement in Singapore is a
direct response to the dictates of globalization, subsuming, or more accurately, often
compromising other priorities, preferences and aspirations that the speech community may
hold, such as social identity and social cohesion, in the interest of the larger goals of the
nation. Any potential tensions between societal preferences and techno-global forces are
efficiently managed by fostering/manufacturing a consensus towards the envisioned goals
of the language planning authorities, (co-)constructed as being for the greater good of the

1. Referring to this as ``ideologized diglossia,'' Tan (1994: 57) critiques the official discourse for treating the
official ethnic languages as evolving socio-historically separately from the ``modern world'' of technology.
This projection of the ethnic languages as unifying a ``tradition of ethnic collectivity,'' she argues, makes no
acknowledgement of ``the continuing co-existence and mutual adaptations of . . . cultural traditions . . . and
modernity'' (Singer 1972: 245, cited in Tan). No mention is made of the fact that all languages including
English are shaped by similar societal pressures within the same multilingual context.
2. Pakir (1994a: 92) calls this gap ``volatile in that it is believed to be capable of seriously separating the English-
educated from the non-English educated in the country.''
3. Tollefson (1991: 11) points out that the argument generally put forward, that if linguistic minorities learn the
dominant language they will not suffer economic and social inequality, is an example of an ideology reflecting
normally unconscious assumptions that come to be seen as ``common sense'' but often justify exclusionary
policies and sustain inequality.
4. Kuo and Jernudd (1994: 33), in fact, suggest that a vernacular norm may be in the process of being formed,
although it is as yet vague and highly variable.
5. Referring to this process as ``invisible language planning,'' Pakir (1994b: 179) even suggests that the major
goal of unity in diversity envisioned for Singapore is likely to be realized through informal Singapore English
rather than the formal type of English which the visible planners seek to promote.
6. It has been noted (Pakir, 1994b) that this fear is not entirely unfounded as the base population that speaks
English in Singapore today is different from the elite minority who previously studied and used it. As a
consequence of the universalization of education English is being used by the masses for a wide variety of
7. Descibed aptly by Pakir (1994b: 178) as follows `` . . . the gatekeepers of English in Singapore are daily
fighting a battle with the gatecrashers.''
8. Wiley (1996: 104), citing Leibowitz (1972, 1974) rightly cautions that ``the reasons stated for promoting
language change often sound noble and frequently cite the greater good that will result from the change.
However, there is usually more at issue than just language, because decisions about language often lead to
benefits for some and loss of privilege, status and rights for others.''
9. The official view is in marked contrast with that found in the literature where scholars have argued for the
recognition of Singapore English as well as its informal variety Singlish, as a systematic, rule-governed and

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354 Rani Rubdy

autonomous new variety of English. A number of models have been proposed for the description of Singapore
English, the most well known being that by Platt and Weber (1980), who see it as a lectal continuum, with the
standard variety occupying the upper end and Singlish the lower end of the continuum. Gupta (1994), on the
other hand, finds it more useful to think of Singapore English as diglossic, where Standard Singapore English
functions as the High and Colloquial Singapore English (Singlish), as the Low variety.
10. In a recent paper, Alsagoff and Ho (1998: 1278) demonstrate that Singapore English does indeed have a
grammar and that saying that CSE is bad or broken English is perhaps more of an opinion about its low
social status than its grammar.
11. Successful resistance requires the existence of certain conditions as well as a conscious and determined effort
on the part of a populace to take active steps to maintain the minority language/variety. If Singaporeans do
not see Singlish as offering their children any definite advantage that will motivate them to take such steps,
this is unlikely to happen, particularly within the context of a highly centralized and urbanized metropolis
such as Singapore. Pennycook is sharp though incisive in his critique of this logic of pragmatism that comes to
define everything in terms of economic-technical rationality when he remarks, ``it is tempting in some ways to
see this orientation towards pragmatism as a result of Singapore's position within the global economy and
hence as a result of exogenous incursions of rational/technological thought into Singaporean life . . . however,
it is more important to understand Singapore's agency in this process and thus to see the development of a
culture of capitalism and pragmatism not so much as an external imposition on Singapore but rather a local
development. Neither should English be seen as a cause or an effect of this process but rather as an integral
part of it'' (Pennycook, 1994: 241).

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Headlines of letters to the editor of The Straits Times showing conflicting views of the readership
towards Singlish.

Headlines arguing against the widespread use of Singlish:

Proper English, Use it or lose it
Using Singlish has a high opportunity cost
Forget Singlish, Use English
Moves to prevent erosion of English
No Singlish please, we're Singaporeans

Headlines arguing for the retention of Singlish:

Don't break Singlish bond
Don't heap blame on Singlish-speaking PCK
Let's speak up for Singlish
No shame in using Singlish
Singlish is part of bonding process here
(Received 10 January 2001.)

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