He has attracted the wrath of no less than Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for his love of Singlish – or as he would put it, he kena buak goo yoo (being criticised) – but that has not stopped poet and academic Gwee Li Sui, 47, from writing a new book about the language so beloved of Singaporeans.
“Spiaking Singlish: A Companion To How Singaporeans Communicate”, Gwee’s “personal love letter to Singlish” is a collection of columns and cartoons about, and written entirely in, Singlish. Most of the columns were written during Gwee’s 2016 stint as a weekly columnist for news site The Middle Ground, which he has expanded on in the book.
The book includes explanations of popular phrases such as “last time is last time, now is now” and “wah piang”. It also begins with a cheeky dedication to the late former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who was no fan of Singlish, “Ah Kong, we miss you!”
Gwee’s New York Times column in May 2016, entitled “Do You Speak Singlish?”, traced the evolution of the Singapore government’s attempts to quash Singlish. It provoked a huffy written response from PM Lee’s press secretary Chang Li Lin, “Not everyone has a Ph.D. in English Literature like Mr. Gwee, who can code-switch effortlessly between Singlish and standard English, and extol the virtues of Singlish in an op-ed written in polished standard English.”
So why write a book about Singlish now? Is Gwee not afraid that he will kena whack (get told off) again?
He told Yahoo News Singapore, “I do this not to kacau (disturb) the gahmen (government). If the gahmen feels like it’s political, then it’s not my problem.”
“Because I think most people who speak Singlish, we’re not thinking about those things…we’re just speaking it as an ordinary thing. So what I’m doing is to represent that reality, that’s all. Gahmen cannot always be so serious about this.”
Gwee, who has written numerous books, pointed out that the Prime Minister himself uses Singlish regularly. “Like when he goes out for his walk with Ho Ching, he says he go jalan jalan (stroll)…he calls Lim Swee Say sua koo (country bumpkin). He uses these words and these words trigger something in Singaporeans.
“The moment you say it, you feel like you are one of us. And you cannot pretend that that is not an important aspect of Singlish. It brings Singaporeans close to each other.”
Speaking at the launch of Spiaking Singlish at the Arts House on Thursday evening (19 October), Gwee was feted by no less than columnist and writer Sylvia Toh Paik Choo, who was the first to write books about Singlish, back in the 1980s. Or as the host at the launch labeled her: the queen mother of Singlish.
Toh told the crowd of about 40, “Bravo to Gwee Li Sui: this is the definitive book on Singlish.” She then added, “I am happy to come here, because book launch means got food.”
As Gwee explained, it is not so much about Singlish as it is the amount of cultural baggage behind it. “It’s not so much that Singaporeans speak it, but Singaporeans understand what is the context behind some of these words. Like un-un-un-un-unbelievable. We all know what it comes from…So things like these are interesting, tell us about what binds us together, a history of us being together.”
Spiaking Singlish: A Companion To How Singaporeans Communicate is available in major bookstores now. It retails for $24.98 (after GST).
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