In 2015, the BBC reported the following about the colloquial variety of English used in Singapore (Wong 2015):
Over time, Speak Good English campaigns have evolved from trying to stamp out Singlish, to accepting that properly spoken English and Singlish can peacefully co-exist. The language has even come to be seen as part of Singaporean identity and heritage—it appears in advertising campaigns for SG50, the big celebration of Singapore's Jubilee Year, and will feature on floats in Sunday's National Day Parade.
The quote paints a rosy picture of a peaceful co-existence between ‘proper’ English and Singlish. However, in The Singlish controversy, Wee shows us that this relationship is a complex one beset with ideologically loaded assumptions. As he says in the introduction to the book, ‘Singlish represents a highly contested concept that has provided very open and public disagreements amongst Singaporeans as to its legitimacy and desirability’ (19). In fact, contrary to the peaceful co-existence illustrated in the BBC article, Wee shows that the Singapore government still views Singlish as a negative influence on the use and learning of standard English (138). There is also tension between the commodification of Singlish (indicated in the BBC article) and the government's ‘anti-Singlish stance’ (138). The Singlish controversy is clearly debated in public spaces and Wee's book dissects this controversy in relation to competing and shared ideological assumptions being made about Singlish as an entity and its relationship to culture and identity within a globalizing world. Wee demonstrates and discusses how these assumptions affect language and language education policies in Singapore as well as the use of Singlish in a variety of contexts.
This book begins with an introductory chapter about issues surrounding the Singlish controversy that sets the tone for the following seven chapters in the book. Wee chooses to leave the question of what constitutes Singlish to the final chapter in order to focus on the key issues surrounding the Singlish controversy. By doing so, he provides readers with a better understanding of the ideological complexities upon which assumptions about the very nature of what constitutes a language, language learning, and language practice are based. This understanding then leads into the question of how Singlish might be defined beyond linguistic features and a reference to a native or exemplar model of English.
A brief historical background of Singapore is provided in ch. 1. This is related to the language and language education policies in Singapore. In this chapter, Wee discusses the rationale behind the choice of the four official languages and the bilingual policy advocated by the Singapore government. One of the issues raised in this chapter is the refusal to accept English as one of the mother tongues (along with Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil) despite the fact that it is the declared home language of more than a quarter of Singaporeans (46). Another is the need to conform to ‘exonormative standards’ of English (63). In light of this, Singlish is seen as a threat to the learning of a standard variety of English. This good versus bad dichotomy is common in former British colonies (e.g. see Mohd Don 2016) but as Wee points out in ch. 2, debates surrounding this dichotomy often fail to critically examine the assumptions underlying particular points of view and policy decision. This is something that the following chapter goes on to do. Wee argues that despite arguments for and against Singlish, the fundamental assumptions about what Singlish is remain the same—in other words, belonging to the same ‘ideology pool’ (72). Because of this rather ironic situation, these assumptions tend not to be critically evaluated and tend to be ‘uncontested’ by the parties involved in the debate about the legitimacy and merits, or otherwise, of Singlish. Wee goes on to talk about how this ideology pool results in ‘meta-discursive convergences’ (75), where both sides base their arguments on what are essentially the same premises. One of these is the use of the term Singlish for both what is considered to be the colloquial variety of English used in Singapore and the ungrammatical form of English. This is an assumption that is not confined to Singlish as this also occurs with ‘Manglish’ (Malaysia) and ‘Taglish’ (the Philippines).
The extent to which experts play a role in critically examining and unpacking these ideological assumptions is the focus of ch. 3. The Speak Good English Movement (SGEM) illustrates contexts where policy decisions are made without necessarily taking into account expert opinion. In fact, Wee points out that impact of expert opinion is likely to be limited when top-down decisions are made based on other rationalisations. The Speak Good Singlish Movement (SGSM), by contrast, is seen as ‘a good case study of linguistic chutzpah’ (109) because of the way in which it refutes some of the claims made by the government. These include rebutting assertions that the use of Singlish makes it difficult to learn ‘proper’ English, and the stereotyping of the typical speakers of Singlish. In relation to the latter, such speakers are seen to be disadvantaged by their inability to switch to a standard variety of English. Yet, as Wee shows in ch. 4, ‘they may be spoken about and spoken for, but they do not themselves directly speak’ (139). This chapter provides an in-depth discussion about the concept of ‘voice’ in terms of representations of Singlish in public discourse by both sides of the Singlish debate, and again, Wee rightly suggests a re-examination of assumptions about Singlish.
The quotation from the BBC indicates the commodifying of Singlish through advertising for Singapore's Jubilee Year. This appears to be a paradoxical situation that goes against the government's contention that Singlish has no social and economic value. Ch. 5 on language, commodification and human capital discusses the commodification of Singlish from a theoretical standpoint and illustrates the various forms of commodification that have taken place. With the presence of non-Singaporeans in the Singlish ‘market’, questions about ownership and authenticity arise. In a globalising world, this is bound to happen as Singlish goes beyond the island state of Singapore through films, books, and online platforms.
This question of ownership resurfaces in ch. 6, which looks at Singlish, migration, and mobility. Singlish is generally considered as a lingua franca cutting across social and ethnic boundaries among Singaporeans both within (e.g. in the National Service) and outside of Singapore (e.g. those living abroad). In view of inward migration, this chapter also shows how Singlish can become an in-group marker to distinguish ‘real’ Singaporeans (187) from non-Singaporeans. Another important aspect that this chapter deals with is the notion of hybridity in Singapore and its effect on language choices that may not coincide with the problematic official policy on mother tongue assignment.
An important point that emerges in this book is that globalisation has already blurred geographical and socioethnic boundaries and is continuing to do so. Thus, Wee asserts that ‘(t)transformations in spatio-temporal arrangements and reflexive modernity clearly have significant effects on language, culture and identity (212). In relation to this point, he discusses in the final chapter static and dynamic attempts to define what Singlish is. Considerable attention is given in this chapter to an ‘assemblage’ approach, which is ‘patently an entity whose boundaries are semiotically constructed and demarcated by making use of various resources’ (227). It is posited that this approach may be the way forward towards a theoretical understanding of Singlish (and other languages) that goes beyond trying to fit it into a neat package with clear linguistic boundaries and use and user-related boundaries. Perhaps using Wee's explanations and discussion as starting points, this approach will be further explicated and tested in future research.
In sum, The Singlish controversy urges readers to move out of their comfort zones when talking, not just about Singlish, but about any language. It calls for a more critical examination of existing ideological assumptions, even to the point of questioning the naming of a language. This echoes the point that Mahboob & Szenes (2010:582) highlight about how ‘nation-based naming practices and nationalistic orientation of World Englishes’ placed the focus of research on linguistic features of a particular country-based variety rather than on its uses. This, they lament, has resulted in a lack of contribution to theories of language. Wee's book, which combines theoretical discussions with relevant examples, is therefore a welcome reality check for language researchers, educators, and policy makers to reassess their claims and positions beyond narrow linguistic descriptions, evaluative discourse, and linguistics prejudices.