When I was growing up, which was around the early 2000s, there was a lot of good content made by and for Singaporeans. There was good comedy and TV (Phua Chu Kang; Police and Thief; Under One Roof) and some really good satire (The Noose). There were good movies (I No Stupid, Army Daze), both mainstream and more arthouse.
I swear I’m not being nostalgic about this. Singaporean media, especially the English-speaking kind, has gotten really bad, and none of them have hit the levels of the old days.
Except you, Ilo Ilo. You have all my respect.
There are a lot of flaws with current Singaporean films and TV shows, but the main one (and to me, biggest one) I’m focusing on is the writing of dialogue. The conversations that characters have with each other, down to the particular words they use. It’s often full of cringe and sounds really awkward. And I think to a non-Singaporean audience it’s harder to tell, but if you’re a Singaporean it’s very weird to see how oddly they speak.
I don’t have examples off the top of my head, but you can check any part of this random TV show episode for an example of what I mean.
Let’s momentarily shift focus to the Speak Good English movement in Singapore.
Singlish vs. Speak Good English
You might need some context. The main language spoken in Singapore is Singlish, which is a creole based on a largely English vocabulary frame but combined with influence from Malay, Hokkien, Cantonese, Tamil, and other Chinese and Southeast-Asian languages. You could describe Singlish as “an essential element as an inter-ethnic lingua franca in the community” (as Harada (2009) does). Some distinguishing features of Singlish include the absence of copula (e.g. “I go library” instead of “I am going to the library”), and the tonal inflection of verbs and nouns with an upwards lift (e.g. “upWARDS”).
Singlish has been the plague of the Singaporean government for decades. A year before the Speak Good English movement was implemented, in 1999, the then-prime minister Goh Chok Tong described Singlish as “English corrupted by Singaporeans”, saying that Singaporeans were unintelligible to foreigners if they continued to use Singlish instead of English. Efforts have been taken almost every year from 2000 in the form of marketing campaigns and neighbourhood drives to bring the people’s awareness to the horribleness of the language they spoke.
The campaign itself was a failure in that it didn’t actually decrease the usage of Singlish or increase the use of British English either. But interestingly, the campaign very effectively propagated to the public the idea that Singlish wasn’t a proper language. Market research from the campaign from 2002 to 2004 showed that 98% of Singaporeans did not consider Singlish to be a proper language. Although the campaign didn’t necessarily affect the language usage of Singlish in everyday life, English became idealised in people’s minds as the official language.
Now we can bring this back to TV.
Film and media in Singapore
For starters, there’s really just one main media production house in Singapore, it’s state-linked, and it’s called Mediacorp.
And the people who work in Mediacorp come from film school. For a while, Singaporean filmmakers came mainly from the film courses of Singaporean polytechnics, most notably Ngee Ann Polytechnic.
None of these institutions are bad in themselves. The problem is that inevitably with the idea that English is the official language of Singapore, the perception that English is cool and Singlish isn’t, as well as the monopoly of Hollywood on Singaporean TV sets and cinemas, we’re going to turn to Western media for the reference point of how to write stories and dialogue.
But ultimately we’re going to be writing scripts that ultimately Singaporeans are going to be acting for, in Singaporean settings, with Singaporean themes.
This creates a huge clash between the dialogue a writer writes or wants to write, and the actual dialogue that Singaporeans partake in. Add to this the fact that most Singaporeans who are educated enough to go to film school can write perfectly in English – in a way that they might never speak in real life. Filmmakers have an idea of an image in their head that they want to shoot, and when it comes out awkwardly it’s very easy to blame the badness on poor acting – when in fact the actors would do a lot better if they weren’t made to act someone who’d actually fit into real Singaporean society.
And if you’d just compare how Singlish the good ol’ shows were, maybe that would make my point even stronger:
Mediacorp might have a big part to play in this as well. The upper management, who has a stake in seeing that “good English” is upheld in mainstream media, might clamp down on things that seem to deviate from the expected norm. Furthermore that norm is based off Hollywood, or BBC, and there’s little out there defining what an Asian-English media show should look or sound like. Maybe you can’t really fault them for wanting to make a successful show, and modelling it off the scripts of successful shows from the Western world.
But ultimately, the reason why Singaporean shows have terrible writing is because the filmmakers/writers/management are stuck in their imagination that Singaporeans use English and not Singlish – that, or they are actively preventing Singlish from appearing in mainstream media.
The problems with awkward dialogue arise from the mismatch between who we want to be and who we actually are. We write things that we wish we spoke, we try to act in ways that our role models act.
Not all mismatches are bad. It’s good to aspire to be a better version of yourself, and to have role models. But I think the situation is very different when it comes to mainstream media. We are all looking for stories that we can relate to, and it fails if we can’t put ourselves in the shoes of the characters on screen. Young people aren’t watching Singaporean shows any more. Singaporean film is not sustainably making back its budgets. Which is terrible, because we need someone to tell our stories!
We can do a lot better. We need to. And it starts with taking a better look at who we really are.
Updated 02/03/2020 with a little more sympathy for Mediacorp.