Judging People On Spoken English: Fair or Faux Pas?
Top image: Stephanie Lee / RICE File Photo

On paper, George Goh made sense as a presidential candidate: Decades of private sector experience as the founder of Harvey Norman Ossia, and a stint as Singapore’s non-resident ambassador to Morocco. 

Once he opened his mouth, however, all that was overshadowed. His standard of spoken English became the main story when he declared that Singapore needs “chain” (instead of “change”).

The moment sparked parodies and remixes. The excitement of having a serious contender for Tharman Shanmugaratnam (before Ng Kok Song and Tan Kin Lian did the same) faded swiftly for some. 

Video: Ratemymp / TikTok

The man even had to respond to criticisms over his ‘poor’ English, which he explained makes him appear more “authentic”. To his credit, he seems to be a good sport about the ribbing, at least judging from the TikTok clip of his working on his English pronunciation with a private tutor. 

Alas, Goh’s presidential bid didn’t pan out, though not because of how he speaks. 


Part of the president’s job involves representing the country at diplomatic events, so it’s easy to see why Singaporeans would expect Goh to speak well or, at the very least, pronounce words correctly. 

It’s not just a matter of communication. After all, he is still intelligible and clearly speaks well enough for him to excel in the business world. 

But there are (valid) concerns that a president speaking halting English would be mortifying on the international stage. 

One Reddit commenter said: “Imagine him speaking at global events. My god, Singapore is going to be the laughing stock of the world. He’s just going to be an embarrassment.”

George isn’t the only public figure who’s been judged for the way he speaks. Even among our parliamentarians, PM Lee’s British-accented English is seen as ‘proper’, while Chan Chun Sing’s decidedly more Singlish affectations are frowned upon by some. And Heng Swee Keat’s bizarre “East Coast plan” speech was certainly consequential. 

While criticism of a public figure’s public speaking skills is fair, it’s arguably less justifiable for us to openly mock them for misspeaking or how they pronounce certain words. 

Expecting a public office holder to have public speaking chops is one thing. Turning a mispronunciation into a meme is another. Consider also the Singaporeans who might speak the exact same way. We’re essentially telling them that the way they speak is wrong and deserving of mocking. 

George Goh speaking
Image: Eudea Tan for RICE Media

What Is the Singaporean Accent?

Judging and criticising the way others speak is pretty much ingrained in us, thanks to some 23 years of Speak Good English campaigns and the sidelining of Singlish, our local patois. 

The expectation for Singaporeans to speak proper English is clear. The campaign’s very first slogan was ‘Speak Well. Be Understood’.

“This only reinforces the point that if you can’t speak standard English, you don’t actually speak well, and you can’t or won’t be understood,” one colleague opines.

“If we go even earlier than that, learning English during our parents’ or grandparents’ time was a luxury. So therein started the us versus them mentality.”

To be perfectly candid, I find myself falling into the same judgy patterns as the keyboard warriors mocking Goh. 

When I come across egregiously poor English online from a business, another social media user, or even on dating apps, my first reaction is to screengrab it, show it to a friend, and laugh about it. 

It only struck me that we were being slightly mean-spirited when we were poking fun at one man who said his irrational fear was “bee”. Yes, bee—singular. 

Singapore speaking english singlish
Image: Hinge screengrab

Another honourable mention is the guy who likes to spend his weekends “bench watching” Netflix. 

Singapore speaking english singlish
Image: Hinge screengrab

It’s easy to default to making fun of people, but doing so disregards very valid reasons that they might have for their lack of proficiency. Perhaps they’re more comfortable speaking a different language at home. Or they’re influenced by how the people they grew up with speak. Or they didn’t have access to language resources like books or tuition. 

English literacy is pretty high here, though not uniform across age groups and socioeconomic classes. Speaking English at home is generally more prevalent among younger cohorts and those with higher academic qualifications.

According to an IPS study with over 4,000 respondents. A majority (71 percent) also feel that English should be the main language used in public. 

With these statistics, you’d expect a country full of fluent English speakers. But the reality is a smattering of different speaking styles and varying levels of fluency. What we speak here isn’t just divided into ‘proper’ English and Singlish. There are different varieties. 

There’s proper Singapore English, an acrolect based heavily off British Received Pronunciation. Think television presenters, media personalities, or the MRT announcement lady. This is also what most of us use when we’re presenting a project in school, chairing a meeting at work, or speaking to foreigners. The acrolect, according to scholars, is most commonly spoken by the most educated factions of society. 

Singapore speaking english singlish
Image: Stephanie Lee / RICE File Photo

There’s also the mesolect. This is marked by some grammatical differences (the dropping of some indefinite articles and the lack of plural marking on some count nouns) as well as the use of some Malay and Chinese loan words. Someone speaking mesolect might use “lah” or “lor” but still stick to the rules of standard English grammar. It’s hard to pin down, but Oxford student and multilinguist Jonas Fine Tan defines it as the “elite school accent”.

The basilect is the most colloquial form of the language and the furthest away from the standard form of English—basically Singlish in its purest form. Even at this level, there’s variation. For example, native Malay and Chinese speakers might have different accents or use different slang (sial vs sia). 

Code-Switching for Success

In Singapore, a good number of people switch between all three based on the setting, so hearing someone use basilect in a formal setting (say an interview about your presidential bid) might be a little jarring.

We generally code-switch to ‘good’ English at work. Does this, however, intrinsically tie speaking ‘good’ English with success, prestige, and achievement? 

I personally have different accents depending on who I’m with. Though I tend to mirror my conversation partners for easier communication, I’ve never felt compelled to intentionally change the way I speak. But several Malay colleagues tell me that code-switching in the workplace is something they have to do. 

Khai, RICE’s managing director, offers: “Facing discrimination on various levels has taught me how to code-switch professionally.”

Yulianna, our social media manager, sheds some light on her own experience navigating Singaporeans’ stereotypes and preconceived notions of how Malays speak. 

On one hand, you’re expected to conform and speak standard English. But on the other, if you speak too well, you’re judged all the same. 

This often results in ignorant comments, Yulianna remarks.

“At workplaces, it can be: ‘You don’t sound Malay.’ Or random people would say to a Malay person, ‘You speak very good English.’” 

Singapore speaking english singlish
Image: Stephanie Lee / RICE File Photo

Judging Others’ English: Fair or Faux Pas?

Even outside of the workplace, there does appear to be some general disdain for those who speak the basilect. Is it really something to be frowned upon, though, if we all understand each other at the end of the day? 

Some people, though, are staunch about their countrymen speaking ‘good’ English. An attempt to use Singlish in bus signages was lampooned by one Straits Times Forum contributor. The writer asserted that promoting the use of Singlish was “unnecessary”. 

They also went so far as to say, “Singlish is used by people in Singapore who have missed the opportunity to master proper English”. May the person bruise themself falling from their high horse. 

On a less extreme note, I have friends who tell me that they get ‘the ick’ when a potential romantic partner makes grammatical mistakes. 

It’s curious that our language preferences are so innate to us that poor English can make our stomachs turn, and we somehow tend to respect people more when they speak well.

Perhaps we tend to associate English proficiency with intelligence. In reality, linguistic ability, while an indicator of how well someone communicates, is just one aspect of intelligence. 

Singapore speaking english singlish
Image: Helen Huang / RICE File Photo

For example, there are people who are perfectly intelligent but are non-verbal. There are also those who are more adept at other things, such as logical-mathematical intelligence or visual-spatial intelligence.

Another thing we might forget when we judge others for the way they speak is that it can be a product of class differences. 

The acrolect tends to command respect. Meanwhile, the basilect is usually used by the least educated people in society, say language scholars

Minority races sometimes bear the brunt of these judgements and biases. There’s a tangible impact to being unable to speak ‘good’ English. 

“Speaking as a minority, I think the weight of speaking ‘good’, ‘proper’ English holds more gravity for us. Growing up, you’re already hyper-aware of how much educated Chinese adults treat your parents or peers differently because they can’t communicate in ‘proper’ English, so it’s ingrained in you that you have to speak at that level to command respect,” RICE editor-in-chief Ilyas says.

“And we can definitely notice their patience with older Chinese people who can’t speak good English versus the frustration shown when speaking to minorities who can’t speak good English.”

Most of us would hesitate to call ourselves elitists. But when people mock or get annoyed with someone for not speaking as well as us, aren’t they doing the same thing as the forum writer? 

We’re essentially putting someone down for speaking the basilect or not being as adept at code-switching as us. 

Singapore speaking english singlish
Image: Tey Liang Jin / RICE FIle Photo

Cut Them Some Slack Lah

There’s nothing wrong with having standards. For example, if a hiring manager were to hire a fluent English speaker over someone who speaks haltingly—or if someone swipes left on Tinder because of a poorly written bio. It’s also perfectly reasonable to expect English as the language of choice in common spaces

But belittling or humiliating others for their language proficiencies (or turning their slip-ups into EDM remixes) shows a lack of empathy, a deepening of exclusivity. After all, what we might attribute to a lack of effort on their part to learn the language might be due to a number of factors outside their control. 

And what is good English anyway? As long as we can communicate effectively with one another, perhaps we should let our countrymen be as colloquial as they please. 

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