I’ve made a video to share my impressions of the languages, sights, sounds (and tastes) of Singapore with you. It’s what I’ve called a “smash and grab”: a quick raid on the linguistic landscape of this cultural melting pot.
To jump straight in to the film, scroll down to the bottom of this introductory post.
I just had a few days in Singapore before and after my “Minimmersion” Indonesian taster project in Yogyakarta, a two-hour flight south to Java. It was enough to leave with some great pictures (and memories!).
Singapore is a tiny island state at the southern tip of Malaysia. It’s just east of the large Indonesian island of Sumatra. It’s home to about five and a half million people (about 60% are citizens, the rest are foreign nationals). The current linguistic breakdown (citizens and permanent residents) is:
|Other Chinese languages||12.2%|
(Main home language of citizen or permanent residents, source, Singapore Ministry of Statistics, 2015 General Household Survey)
The figures simplify the picture. Many of the population are bilingual in English. There are various creoles which have developed and are still spoken.
The territory’s fascinating past seems to me the best way into its linguistic landscape.
A British colony was founded here in 1819 by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. You’ve probably hear of the famous Raffles Hotel. I (inevitably) called by for a “Singapore Sling” cocktail, just like I did on my first visit, the year before last. A cliché, I know 😳
The statue of Raffles in the video stands in front of the Victoria Theatre and there are lots of other traces of British influence. You can see British-style electricity sockets, hundreds of streets with English names, British-style road signs. As in Britain, zebra crossings are market by distinctive flashing “Belisha beacons” (orange globe-shaped lights on black and white poles).
The English language must be the biggest legacy that the Empire left behind when the British left in 1963.
Its significance has even expanded since independence.
Varieties of Malay
When the British arrived in Singapore the main language was Malay. Malay is one language with many varieties. The one often spoken in Singapore in the nineteenth century was known as “Bazaar Malay” (a creole of Malay and Chinese languages).
Today there are still about 5,000 speakers of “Baba Malay”. That’s another creole (mainly Malay/Hokkien) which developed among the Chinese who settled between the 15th and 17th century, the Peranakans. These “Straits-Chinese” were a local elite under the British (and, in Indonesia, the Dutch).
At independence, in 1963, Malaya and Singapore were both part of new Federation of Malaysia. Singapore was expelled two years later.
Standard Malaysian (Bahasa Melayu) enjoys special ceremonial status in Singapore (national anthem, in certain state and military ceremonies). It is otherwise mainly spoken in the Malay community.
As you’ll see in the video, the language was much less in evidence than English or Mandarin on signage, except in traditionally Malay areas such as Kampong Glam. There, I visited several Mosques and the Malay Heritage Centre.
Varieties of Chinese
There are today many Chinese in Singapore. Mandarin is the main Chinese language.
There are also speakers of other Chinese languages, especially Hokkien, Cantonese and Teochew, These languages have lost out over the years due to lower status and the promotion of Mandarin by the government. They are often classed as “dialects” (as is usual with these things, for political, rather than genuine linguistic reasons).
I visited the colourful Chinatown district on my first visit the year before last, but didn’t make it there this time.
Nevertheless, I heard and saw a lot of Mandarin.
It was the second most evident language on signage in the main shopping and business district. Chinese food seems very widespread, too, and it makes up for the lack of local “Chinese colour” (think red paper lanterns).
Varieties of English
“Singlish” is a very widespread local form of English. It’s used by locals (mainly the Chinese community) in an informal context. It has stripped down grammar, borrowed words and particles from Chinese languages. Is also has influences from Malay and from other Asian languages.
Singlish is very much discouraged in public life and it often simply dismissed as “bad English”. I think most linguists would regard it as a legitimate creole language in its own right, though.
I heard it quite a lot when I was buying food and speaking with taxi-drivers.
I found some Singlish dictionaries and phrasebooks, often with a not-quite-serious or slightly humourous feel. The tone felt similar to that you often sense in German dialect guides for the popular market. Look out in the video for the children’s books in Singlish, too.
It is standard English that is the lingua-franca, the main language on signage, in business, commerce, the administration and the courts, the arts and in the education system. As you’ll see in the film, you also see the odd sign in non-idiomatic English (perhaps Singlish or literal translations from Chinese?).
English is only the native tongue of about one third of Singaporeans but it has the advantage that it is a “neutral” language, not associated with just one major ethnic groups. For much the same reason, the Indonesian form of Malay was chosen as the national langauge of Indonesia (rather than Javanese, which has far more native speakers and is the language of the dominant ethnic group).
There are far fewer speakers of Tamil than of the other three national languages (and only about a third of the Singaporeans of Indian origin are Tamil). As to whether what I was hearing was Tamil or other Indian languages, I’ve no idea!
On my first visit to Singapore I never made it to the “Little India” district. I made up for it this time, as and the language was very much in evidence there.
Outside Little India, Tamil was very much in fourth place in terms of visibility, as you’d expect from the overall numbers of speakers.
The beautiful Tamil script did play an equal role with Chinese and Malay on the signage in the underground (all three widely to be seen but “token” in the sense that much of the key signage and information was in English only).
I didn’t see much Tamil in the airports or on ATM screens.
Singapore – well worth a visit!
I think you’ll agree from what you see in the video that Singapore is a fascinating place for those who love history and those into languages, the intermingling of tongues, socio-linguistics, language planning and linguistic policy.
If that’s you, Singapore is well worth a visit.
It’s not cheap (the country jumped from under-developed to first world living standards in a generation and has prices to match).
Some visitors find it too orderly, but I was certainly not at all bothered that it felt very safe and clean.
If you’re not a lingua-tourist ((c) – I think I’ve just coined a term) 😉 , it’s a great place for flora and fauna too, with beautiful botanic gardens and rain forest spilling in. It’s also a good place for outdoor life. Old friends of mine from Britain who live there enjoy serious cycling on the island.
On a short visit from grey London in November, I loved the humid, thirty degree climate, even if I did get caught in rainy-season downpours a couple of times and even if my glasses (and the camera lens) kept steaming up when I left harshly air-conditioned buildings.
I gather that the year-round humid 30 degree climate can get a bit much for long-term ex-pats (your leather shoes will start to go mouldy!).
If you’re in Singapore for a longer period, it’s a great base for exploring the rest of South-East Asia, too.
Click on the YouTube screen below to watch, and if you’d like to give me a bit of a boost, please subscribe to the H2GF channel at the end! 🙂
I hope that watching the video will whet your appetite for discovering more, just as making it did mine.