Top image: Zachary Tang / RICE File Photo
Which makes you a more valuable Singaporean? Knowing your ‘lah’ from your ‘leh’ and ‘lor’, or knowing your adverbs from your verbs?
It isn’t so easy to co-relate our merits with our proficiency in English, especially since our ‘official’ languages are all over the place.
There’s Malay, our national language. There’s English, the lingua franca since British colonial rule. Mandarin and Chinese dialects are widely spoken among the majority population.
And, of course, there’s Singlish, the local patois commonly spoken and understood here among all who grew up here. Or at least, lived here long enough.
But should knowledge of any of these languages determine whether a person is eligible to be a Singapore citizen?
Leader of the Opposition, Pritam Singh, recently sparked some debate when he called for an English test to be part of citizenship and permanent resident applicants.
Speaking in Parliament on February 27, he asked the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) if English proficiency was considered part of the current assessment process, pointing out its utility “as a tool to improve integration between Singaporeans and new citizens”.
As it stands, the government reviews citizenship and permanent residency applications on a case-by-case basis. The specific criteria it uses are not public knowledge—a mysterious process that can cause heartbreak among deeply-rooted foreigners who face repeated rejection.
He also cited data from the 2020 Singapore Census, which showed that nearly half of Singapore’s resident population spoke English most frequently at home.
To that, Second Minister for Home Affairs Josephine Teo said she was “quite surprised” over the ask. An English proficiency test would be redundant for those who’d been living and working here for a number of years, she explained.
Teo also raised doubts about the utility of an English test, pointing out that most of those who struggled with English appeared to be spouses of new citizens or permanent residents.
“Unless we’re saying that we therefore do not welcome such foreign spouses, I’m not sure to what extent a test of English that could be applied to prevent them from being considered would be helpful.”
What’s in an English Test?
Now, we highly doubt Mr Singh was approaching this from a xenophobic perspective. We’re also not saying English proficiency isn’t important. But we’re a little sceptical about how useful a language test really is.
After all, passing your Chinese language exams doesn’t exactly mean you can speak it well. I’m looking at all my fellow ‘bananas’ who jiak kentang.
The first question we should be asking: How do we adequately assess a potential citizen’s command of English?
Even among countries which require English tests as part of their citizenship applications, the type and difficulties of such tests vary.
In the UK, applicants have to prove their knowledge of English by passing a secure English language test (SELT) consisting of listening, speaking, reading, and writing components.
There are several versions of the test depending on language ability, from A1, the easiest level, to C2, the most advanced.
To apply for UK citizenship, you need to at least pass the B1 test, which includes essay prompts such as “Describe the advantages and disadvantages of working from home and how this might change in the future.”
Meanwhile, over in the US, things are much simpler. Applicants are given a list of vocabulary to study, which includes words and phrases like ‘Thanksgiving’ and ‘American flag’. (Perhaps a Singaporean version might involve memorising things like ‘Marina Bay Sands’ and ‘Merlion’.)
All they have to do to pass the English test is read aloud one of three sentences correctly, and write one out of three sentences correctly.
The trouble is, most citizenship language tests are “unscientific” in application, say Matteo Bonotti, a lecturer in political theory at Cardiff University and Louisa Willoughby, a Senior Lecturer in linguistics at Monash University.
33 of 40 Council of Europe member states include a language test in their citizenship application process, according to a 2018 survey. The same survey found that only eight member states’ language tests were based on research. Even then, the research usually involved consulting language professionals, rather than empirical data.
Citizenship and permanent resident applications are often high-stakes affairs, with the power to affect everything—from the country an individual chooses to reside in to where their kids grow up.
It’s not exactly fair for success or failure to hinge on a language test. But we completely understand where Mr Singh is coming from.
An adequate handle on the English language is the common denominator among Singaporeans of different races. Having basic verbal proficiency in a language that most people utilise in daily life here is the bare minimum for new citizens to integrate, and most importantly, communicate with locals of any ethnicity.
An English test like reading and writing one of three sentences correctly seems cursory at first. But having a working proficiency in English boils down to a key concern: People who don’t speak English might not have as equal a chance to integrate into Singaporean society.
Sure, other markers are just as crucial—especially one’s potential contributions to the country. At the very least though, one would expect new citizens and permanent residents to be able to interact well with Singaporeans. And that begins with speaking a common language.
Knowing Your ‘Lah’ From Your ‘Lor’
Of course, a working proficiency in standard English is a great starting point. But a better litmus test, we half-jokingly argue, would be a living proficiency in standard Singlish.
A know-how of standard English probably integrates you well enough into any workplace on the island. A knowledge of Singlish carves a new home for you in Singapore.
When the work day for tireless Singaporeans ends, standard English clocks out along with them. It’s a subtle Singaporean trait—code-switching between English and Singlish is one skill all Singaporeans don’t give themselves enough credit for.
It’s much tougher than we think, especially when Singlish employs parts of the English vocabulary and shuffles them together with words from various local languages and dialects. And with most languages, it takes practice to get it just right.
Throwing a ‘lah’ at the end of a clause does not make you a fluent Singlish speaker. There’s a certain tone to the ‘lah’ which conveys as much information as the word itself. Use the wrong ‘lah’ and Singaporeans might mistake your annoyance for resignation. Plus, it just sounds awkward.
It doesn’t stop there. Sometimes the end of a sentence calls for a ‘lor’ instead of a ‘lah’. When asked why the ‘lor’ takes precedence, Singaporeans can only say it just sounds right. Again, only months of practice and socialisation with native Singlish speakers can sharpen your intuition for these sounds.
And if someone can pass a test for a living proficiency in Singlish, we can reasonably say that they’ve spoken to enough Singaporeans to have an instinct for our peculiar nuances. Not to mention it’ll help avoid awkward interactions when the intent is misunderstood.
It’s a test even a Duolingo streak couldn’t prepare you for. But isn’t that the point?
We say bring on the Singlish test. If there’s one indicator that you’re ready to make Singapore your homeland, it’s the fact that your brain is already wired to code-switch automatically for those who can’t speak good English. We’re all for verbal inclusivity.
The Singlish Test
What is Singlish?
a) A language spoken in Singapore
b) A Singaporean term of endearment for Billie Eilish
c) A dialect of Chinese spoken in Singapore
d) A type of fancy drink you order at Raffles Hotel
What does the word “lah” mean in Singlish?
a) A way to express surprise or disbelief
b) A way to soften a request or command
c) A way to end a sentence for emphasis
d) All of the above
What does the phrase “can or not” mean in Singlish?
a) Can you do it or not?
b) Is it possible or not?
c) Are you interested or not?
d) All of the above
Which of the following is NOT a common Singlish expression?
Which of the following sentences is in Singlish?
a) Can you pass me the salt, please?
b) Don’t anyhow park your car here, hor.
c) Hello, how are you doing?
d) That’s such a Capricorn thing to say.
What is the meaning of the Singlish phrase “steady pom pi pi”?
a) That’s great!
b) That’s terrible!
c) That’s confusing!
d) That’s annoying!
What do you call a dimwitted person in Singlish?
What does the Singlish expression “blur like sotong” mean?
a) To be confused or disoriented
b) To be lazy or unmotivated
c) To be a fan of seafood
d) To be untrustworthy or dishonest
What is the Singlish equivalent of the English word “very”?
What does the Singlish expression “act blur” mean?
a) To pretend not to know something
b) To be confused or disoriented
c) To be ignorant or clueless
d) To break a leg
What is the meaning of the Singlish phrase “chop chop”?
a) To hurry up or do something quickly
b) To be quiet or stop talking
c) To agree or give consent
d) To have your chicken rice finely minced