SPEAK GOOD SINGLISH
Or Why The Art Of Singlish Is An Evolution Of Styles, Just Like Your Writing Voice
Don’t be like that, lei.
You SABO me.
Singaporeans would recognize the above as examples of SINGLISH. It is English that’s liberally sprinkled with delightful rainbow sparkles of lingo that is unique to Singapore for example, No LEH, Got MEH?, Just eat LAH. It is the patois of the Common Man in Singapore. This week is the week of National Day in Singapore when we celebrate our country’s birthday. On 9th August 1965, Singapore separated from Malaysia and gained formal independence as a sovereign country in its own right.
From henceforth, we had to build our own economies, our own army, and our own infrastructure. We pretty much had to rely on our own resources and ingenuity to take care of ourselves.
In Singlish, the above would be roughly translated as — We ownself must take care. Or “Kah Kee Kor Kah Kee” — meaning “Every Man For Himself”.
Speak the language overseas to a fellow Singaporean and you will sense an instant kinship. An invisible handshake and arm grasp that tells you that you have found your tribe. Again, in the lingo of Singlish, we are “Kah kee nang”. On the other hand, you will encounter strange looks of bewilderment from your American and European and even your South Asian friends and colleagues.
For those people, I would recommend watching SPEAK GOOD SINGLISH (a play on a slogan in the year 2000 Speak Good English), a five-episode comedic documentary on the Making Of Singlish, written and directed by my good friend who is also my creative collaborator on our genre project Cucaracha Love, which we pitched recently in the project market at BIFAN.
SPEAK GOOD SINGLISH is currently streaming on a local online platform called VIDDSEE. It is shot in the style of ’90s television, replete with well-known taglines of that era. It is a spoof so gentle that it can only come from someone with a deep love of the language.
Is it language though? Well, it depends on your definition.
I grew up reading a lot of Enid Blyton, then Conan Doyle, then Edgar Allan Poe but my diet was largely comprised of popular British writers of fantasy and horror. Even in the domain of serious literature, I was a big fan of Somerset Maugham and Oscar Wilde. My idea of written and spoken English fell under the category of Proper Grammar, Full Sentences, Civilized Wit, and A Balanced Rhythm. When I got into American comics, I realized how narrow was my view of the language. That the English language could also be lithe, supple, bold, rebellious, and rambunctious.
My early short stories were gothic in style, clearly influenced by the stylistic flourishes of Edgar Allan Poe, who was my idol when it came to horror literature. Then I read Stephen King, and Richard Matheson, whose smooth and very contemporary prose conveyed the same emotional impact, but in prose that was accessible and yet invisible. The style did not get in the way of the storytelling.
I read Faulkner, whose prose reminds me of grand symphonies of words, and I read Cormac McCarthy, whose similarly long, convoluted sentences and archaic turns of phrase were spellbinding and several times, I caught myself just standing and leaning against a wall and muttering the prose under my breath, in the vain hope that by uttering the words, I could corral some of the magic into my bones.
Then I read Hemingway.
Vivid as the glare of bright sunlight on a cloudless day. Perfect for describing a thing as it is. A snapshot of reality that goes directly into the screen in your head. Which makes it an apt model to follow when one is learning how to write screenplays.
What is a screenplay but a document for production?
Actors, production designers, wardrobe people, cinematographers, and sound designers, read the screenplay to elicit information about the story, but a screenplay is not just information. It is also a story.
And a story is designed to deliver emotion. Since a screenplay is written in prose, it is also the desire of the writer that the style does not get in the way of the storytelling. That you are not distracted by flash and dazzle, signifying nothing.
I found my screenwriting increasingly leaning towards the Hemingway style. With an occasional break out of Faulkner-like prose. Early Beatles wrote songs that were like American rock and roll. But as they mastered the techniques, they moved on to other forms and other styles, and pretty soon they were incorporating Indian rhythms and instruments like the Sitar in Norwegian Wood and even inserting classical vibes into the mix, like Penny Lane. It was a combination that was uniquely Beatles as well as a natural evolution of their study and practice. More importantly, in its primary function of delivering emotion and story, it still worked.
I realized that it was helpful to read as many authors as possible, and let your style emerge naturally as a consequence of imbibing all the styles of these authors. I need not worry about any fear of not acquiring an original style of my own. As you mature, you will naturally find your prose acquire a rhythm and a voice that will recall your influences but nevertheless have something else that makes it unique. That makes it entirely your voice.
I think Singlish is a voice.
It’s a voice that recalls our history with the British. Our interactions with a multitude of cultures in Singapore. A melting pot of cultural influences and dialects. It combines all these influences and stirs them into a soup with a flavor that is sweet, sour, bitter, and in possession of a certain umami.
An Umami known as Singlish.
To find out more, like the Soul Of Singlish, its nuances, layers of meaning, and how a single Singlish expression can perform extraordinary accomplishments of linguistic gymnastics, check out the delightful five-episode documentary Speak Good Singlish. Links to the five episodes are below.
HO SAY LIAO!
(Or as the Oxford Dictionary puts it — EXCELLENT!)
https://youtu.be/_D7vJUShX8E (Episode 1)
https://youtu.be/lfnLRrIxYc0 (Episode 2)
https://youtu.be/fgFlgNOOEoE (Episode 3)
https://youtu.be/axOMgTpUOB0 (Episode 4)
https://youtu.be/eEHqI_iSgqs ( Episode 5, Finale)