The infiltration of Singlish into the different contexts of cultural production in Singapore

Singlish in cinema, theater, music, marketing and advertising Singapore

In spite of the huge efforts and the strenuous campaign aimed to the promotion of the correct use of English Language in its standard form put into effect by Speak Good English Moviment (SGEM)1 since in April 2000, the population of “Lion City” didn’t seem to be willing to abandone the use of Singlish.

In that period, as stated by Eugene Keng Boon Tan, assistant professor of law at School of Law in Singapore Management University2, although the most influential political leaders as Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew and Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong have showed in several occasions their disappointment with reference to the spread and the excessive use of Singlish among local population3, this linguistic reality, in addition to finding its own confirmation as the most important and indispensable icon of Singaporean cultural identity4, it progressively entered into various contexts of Singaporean cultural production.

From comix to cinema, from music to marketing and advertising communication field, the fast growing trend toward the use of Singlish is really unstoppable.

Singlish within film industry in Singapore

Not for nothing, Jahn Uhde, professor of cinematographic studies at the department of fine arts at the University of Waterloo (Canada)5, asserts that:

“Filmmakers who reflect the way Singaporeans speak in real life have often had to defend the use of Singlish and dialects in their films. In fact, the local vernacular plays an important role in identifying a film as Singaporean.” (6).

In facts, the cases in which the dialogues of many legendary movies about Contemporary Singapore have been intentionally enriched and maked particularly authentic through the integration of several Singlish expressions are ather than sporadic.

We can find shining examples in the famous comedy Chicken Rice War, authentic protrait of Singaporean multi-ethnic society, directed by the young filmmaker Cheah Chee Kong released in cinemas in 2000 and The Noodle Seller by Eric Khoo, a captivating comedy of 1995 in which the main character, a sort of retarded noodle seller, falls in love with a prostitute.

It was just this movie to launch Singaporean film industry, episode that marked the beginning of a long series of successful cinematographic productions based in Singaporean multi-ethnic and multicultural society7.

The incidence of Singlish in Singaporean theatrical production

Even in contemporary Singaporean theater the infiltrations of Singlish, also known as Singapore Colloquial English are particularly tangible. We can detect a very strong evidence of this phenomenon in the famous monodrama Rosnah, composed by the Singaporean playwright Haresh Sharma, in which it is possible to observe an impressivecode-switching betweet Singapore Standard English, Singlish e and Malaysian Language performed by the main character8.

The spread of Singlish in humoristic carton comics

Besides having pervaded or, depending on the different schools of thought, “contaminated” the chatrooms of the most popular social networks, the infiltration of Singlish results to be widely tangible even in several humoristic cartoon comics.

Sifting through the various forums and blogs in the internet, especially those whose curators are particularly intollerant toward the dissemination and promotion of Singapore Colloquial English, it is not difficult to come across some funny cartoons or cartoon series with whole dialogues in Singlish.

In order to provide all my readers with a pragmatical demonstration of the irrefutable evidence of such infiltration, I decided to post a couple of cartoon comics where it is possible to see a strong presence of Singapore Colloquial English.

Vignetta Singlish, Fumetto Singlish

Fig. 12

Umorismo Singlish

Fig. 13

In image 12, a funny character, talking in Singlish, arouses perplexity of his interlocutor9. In the comics series in figure 13, a teacher even refuses to use Standard English after an explicit request by a student who doesn’t understand Singlish10.

The impact of Singlish in the musical production of Singapore

Already since the early Eighties, the undeniable vibrancy of Singlish began to appear on the local pop music scene, especially thanks to the inexaustible creative genius of the Singaporean Singer Dick Lee, who, in addition to being the forerunner par excellence of Singlish pop, characterized by an unmistakable typically Singaporean songwriting taste both in topics and linguistic register 11, he has also revealed an unyelding promoter of pan-Asian sentiment not only among the young population in Singapore but also in almost the whole Asian continent12. In the music of this multifaceted artist the rhythms of various western styles (rap, pop, disco, techno, lounge music, rock etc.) perfectly blend with the traditions, culture and linguistic identity of “Lion City” as you can immediately perceive listening to Rasa Sayang, a “Singlish Rap” reinterpretation of a traditional Malaysian folk song released in the album The Mad Chinaman (1989). As stated in the verse: “[…] we work, then makan [eat], watch a film, enjoy the fruits of tourism.” (13), the word makan is intentionally used for replacing the Standard English verb to eat with the purpose of making the song authentic and far more familiar to the ears of local listeners and fans.

Even the Government, namely Singapore Health Ministry (Ministero della Salute di Singapore), in 2003,  in order to avert the ominous advancement of SARS, was forced to revise its positions toward the use of Singlish in official television communication. In fact, in order to stem the spread of this terrible disease and inform Singaporean citizen about all preventive measures adopted by the Government, Singapore Health Ministry hired some TV celebrities. Among them, after the release of the song SAR-vivor Rap, the TV character Phua Chu Kang interpreted by the famous comedian Gurmit Sing had a considerable success. Pua Chu Kang, through the use of many popular Singlish expressions as: «Don’t kak-pui [spit]all over the place!» (14), extraordinarily shaked the upset minds of  local population and pushed them to adopt all preventive measures recommended by the Government of Singapore.

The effectiveness of Singlish in the localization of advertising slogans and marketing communication

It is not at all surprising the fact that, especially in the articulated world of advertising, the opening toward the use of Singlish an extraordinarely winning strategy, today more than ever. We can find an irrefutable demonstration in the countless advertising slogans in Singaporean market.

Here you are a couple of valid examples.

Singlish Slogan e Pubblicità

Fig. 14

Singlish Marketing e Comunicazione Pubblicitaria


Figure 14 shows the Singlish rivisitation of an awareness campaign on the respect and care for pets promoted by AVA (Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore)15. In figure 15, the scene of a commercial spot by the famus American fast food chain Long John Silver16.

Further readings and recommended books

3Tan K. B. Eugene in Guan Hock Lee, Suryadinata Leo, Language, Nation and Development in Southeast Asia, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, 2007, Republic of Singapore.


6Uhde Jan in Ciecko Tereska Anne, Contemporary Asian Cinema: popular culture in a global frame, Berg, Oxford International Publishers Ltd., Oxford, United Kingdom, p. 79, trad.: «I registi che riflettono il modo in cui i singaporiani parlano nella vita reale hanno spesso dovuto difendere l’uso del Singlish e dei dialetti nei propri film. Infatti, il vernacolo locale gioca un ruolo importante nell’identificare un film come singaporiano.».

7Kwock Juanita, McKnight Lucinda, Film Asia: new perspective on film for English, The Access Asia, Curriculum Corporation, Carlton South, Victoria, 2002, Australia.

8Patke S. Rayeev, Holden Philip, The Routlege concise history of Southeast Asian writing in English, Routledge, Abingdon, Oxon, 2010, United Kingdom.


11Tan Marie in Maybin Janet, Mercer Nail, Using English from conversation to canon, Routledge, The Open University, Abingdon, Oxon, 1996, United Kingdom.

12Mitchell Tony in Iwabuchi Koichi, Muecke Stephen Thomas Mandy, Rougue flows: trans-asian cultural traffic, Hong Kong University Press, Aberdeen, Hong Kong, 2004, (PRC).

13Lee Dick cit. in Velayutham Selvaraj, Responding to Globalizzation: nation, culture and identity in Singapore, ISEAS Publishing, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, 2007, Republic of Singapore, p. 80, trad.: «Noi lavoriamo, poi mangiamo, guardiamo un film, godiamo dei frutti del turismo.».

14Powers H. John, Xiaosui Xiao, Hong Kong Baptist University, The social construction of SARS: studies of a health communication crisis, Volume 30, Discourses Approaches to Politics, Society and Culture, University of Lancaster, John Benjamin Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 2008, The Netherlands, p. 154, trad.: «Non sputacchiare dappertutto!».

Dr. Biagio Faraci, traduttore tecnico, interprete di trattativa ed international web business consultant

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