In this article, one of my fellow countrymen says she doesn’t feel proud to be a Singaporean. “Everyone here is so small minded, everyone here is so submissive, everyone here don’t know how to think outside the box, no one here is creative, everyone here just thinks the same way, full of the same rules, and it’s too rigid for my taste,” she said.
All that sounds like to me is a girl with a serious superiority complex. It’s simple, really: She thinks she’s better than everybody else. She’s open minded, aggressive, creative, an independent thinker, a leader – clearly, she’s different. But, she doesn’t realise that if more Singaporeans were like her, I too, would not be proud to be a Singaporean.
No, no, I get it, really I do. I’m different.
I was just telling my friends the other day that I was sitting in a bistro with a bunch of strangers (locals) I had just met, and how much I struggled being there. I struggled with trying to “get” their conversation, which was pretty much the usual dose of lame slapstick jokes Singaporeans are fond of. When I realised I had started faking laughs, I excused myself and left. I just couldn’t continue.
A part of me longed for witty banter, something clever, and challenging… I stopped myself right there. Oh no, you didn’t, I chastised myself. Did I think that their conversation was “lower class”? Did I think it wasn’t “good enough” for me? Actually, I realised, no. Instead I felt a surge of jealousy. I wish that I could “get” it. I wish I could be happy with that. Yet I was very aware that I thirsted, not necessarily for something more, but something different. Just a different kind of conversation, a different kind of humour.
I’ve noticed this pattern all throughout my life. When I first started school, I only spoke the Queen’s English, and in proper, grammatically correct sentences, and was very conscious of the way certain things are pronounced, like “won” is really “one” and “almonds” are more “armen” than “elmen” (why my father felt it was important I know these things is unclear to me).
This alienated me from most of my classmates in my neighbourhood school. I felt like an outcast. I never knew that even growing up in the same country, would language and culture be such a huge barrier to my developing a sense of belonging here. So in that moment, at aged six, I made a choice. I would have to learn to adapt. I picked up Singlish on my own, from scratch. I learnt to drop articles and pronouns in sentences. I tried to listen to Mandarin songs because my friends did. I ate fishball noodles and mee soto with my friends in the canteen, although most of the time what I really wanted was a Coney dog (note, this despite me never having ever been to Coney Island).
Thankfully, in Primary and Secondary school, I had a bunch of really great friends who would translate everything for me, pretty much the way we would for ang mohs visiting Singapore. But even then, as I sat there watching them talk, I would envy the easy, flowing conversation. I wanted to be a part of it; I wanted to feel like I belonged. But even as my Singlish got more “powderful”, I still felt like an outsider.
As I grew older I noticed my accent becoming more distinguishable. So many people have asked me where it comes from, assuming I’ve lived abroad. My answers have included “American television” and “my dad” and “pop music”, but in all honesty, I don’t know what to put it down to. My theory is that as children we pick up sounds we are exposed to that we like, and imitate them.
Sadly, this again alienated me from people who felt I was “being fake”, that I was putting on an accent in a bid to sound more “atas”. To counter that, I think I’ve put in enough effort over the years to earn myself a “Most Improved Award” in sounding Singlisher – just ask my colleagues. But it’s a constant challenge; I’m always cognizant of how I’m sounding. Occasionally I slip, and it goes back into default American-British mode. It helps a lot to be in the company of Singlish speakers, because it helps me imitate them and sound like them.
But I’m proud of Singlish. I’m proud of not only the fact that we have developed a language that can rightly be called a language on its own, even if it borrows words from various languages, but also, I’m consistently amazed at how brilliant it is. Let’s face it, we’re a lazy people, we don’t even speak with much modulation or intonation. So, talk so much for what? Say so long for what? Got money take? Anyway, in this country, who got so much time to talk so much? Cho kang lah!
If anyone thinks Singlish is easy, they are so wrong. There are so many layers and complexities to the language. Have you ever tried explaining to someone how “Can lah!”, “Can meh?”, “Can hor?”, “Can, not?”, “Can, leh!”, “Can, seh!”, “Can, sial!” differ and the different situations in which you deploy which?
That said, Singlish is just one part of our culture that I’m proud of. I’m also proud of what a brilliant idea it was to build HDBs to solve the squatting crisis in the sixties. (Note: Even now, I am very conscious that it should actually be “HDB flats” and not actually “Housing Development Boards”, but Singaporeans say “HDBs”!) Whomever invented pepper crab and salted egg crab (and sambal stingray and ohluak and satay and nasi biryani and roti prata and…) deserves a Nobel food prize. And I love how much greenery there is in Singapore everywhere you look, even if it really does not explain why we are all myopic.
I love so many things about Singapore and about being Singaporean. This will always be #home, #truly. Even if I will never truly belong here. Even as I continue my search to find a little corner of the world I can truly feel I belong.
But I am certainly not better than anyone else. I’m just different. I hope this girl gets a dose of reality. I hope she manages to get out into the world and find herself in difficult situations where she’s completely stripped of all her comforts and that she gets to meet a gazillion people who are so much more brilliant than she’ll ever be. I believe the lessons she’ll learn in humility will make her such an amazing person that I will be proud to call my fellow Singaporean.