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Monday with the Editor: Singaporeans sporting foreign accents


I happened to read Karl Ho's column Straight Talk in today's edition of The Straits Times and was quite taken aback to know he "was forced to speak with an accent" when he spoke to an American friend who visited him recently.

Karl confessed to having morphed his typical Singaporean version of "How's it going?" into "Hau's id GO-urn?"

He said he sounded Singaporean again when "I got to talking to my local friends later".

Now, I sure don't understand why on earth he needed to switch from his Singaporean English to his American English, except, of course, if his Singaporean English was too Singlish for his American friend to understand.

There's a thing with some locals who go overseas for an education and then come home to use their imported accent in conversations with other locals.

Karl, I gather from what I read in his column today, isn't that sort of a person. Perhaps, he reverted to an American accent because he wanted his friend to feel at home with him, for while he was studying in the States, he had most probably been speaking American- accented English and he didn't want his friend to have any problems understanding his English.

But, I think there are locals among us who are guilty of trying to sound American, British or Australian simply because they think, by doing so, others will look up to them as higher-class folks. 

So it appears they have that strange thinking that being able to speak with an American or English accent puts them on-par with the Americans and the English, and by virtue of our colonial roots, also places them above us normal Singaporeans.

We are no longer living in colonial Singapore. But, there's still this lingering perception that the Angmohs are higher class than the Malays, Chinese, Indians or Eurasians. I think it's perfectly alright for our Senior Citizens to have such thoughts for they were brought up under colonial rule in a time when the British Empire was great and Angmohs were superior beings.

But, it's 2004 and we are celebrating 39 years of independence from British rule this year. These chaps sporting foreign accents after having lived overseas for a mere three or four years certainly were not around during the British rule so they could not have picked up the perception thus. 

These people also were not likely to have learnt the tongue from their teachers at school, unless they were from convent schools and were taught by native speakers of the English language.

I guess, these locals using English with American or English accents when talking with their friends or colleagues in Singapore must have picked up the strange thinking through browsing magazines and watching television. This, coupled with the general perception that overseas-educated locals are exposed to a higher culture and lifestyle and so are of a higher class than others here who have not had the same opportunity, provides the perfect breeding ground for the proliferation of such behaviour. 

This is perhaps why these people think it so hip to use American- or English-accented English when speaking to other locals here in Singapore.

Is it wrong to do so? I see nothing wrong with it. It's a personal preference that we outsiders, as listeners, have no right to interfere in.

Can these chaps get away with it? I think not. Already when friends and I happen to hear American- or English-accented English coming out from some locals' mouths within Singapore, we look down on such chaps. We look down on them for sounding - not foreign, mind you - but rather false. Yes, sounding false. I am sure there are many amongst us who throw curious looks - certainly not of admiration - at such people when we come across them in public places.

So, instead of getting away with being thought of as someone belonging to a superior class, these chaps with this peculiar affliction have a label "culturally insecure" hung on their necks. And this is a label that only others can see - not the speakers themselves. Perhaps, because this label can only be seen by others, these chaps continue to spout foreign accents in their conversations with other locals, oblivious to the mocking taking place around them as they speak.

My wife's cousin who had been studying in the States the past four years returned to Singapore last month - with a Finnish wife, and a newborn son. He fell in love and got married overseas. Why am I mentioning him? It's certainly not because his son looks more like an Angmoh than a Chinese. It's because he speaks English without any foreign accents. It is almost as if he has never left Singapore.

Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew and his wife spent years in England. They speak English with a Singaporean accent. So do former United Nations ambassador Tommy Koh and Harvard-educated Associate Professor Ho Peng Kee, Senior Minister of State for Law and Home Affairs. These persons certainly have had the benefit of an overseas education and exposure to higher cultures and lifestyles of the West. Yet they are unassuming folks. 

So, you see, it's people who make the difference. It's their way of thinking, their mindset, that decides what comes out of their mouths.

Why are some of us culturally insecure? Aren't we proud of being Singaporeans?

Have a good week!

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26 July 2004