On the Record: Kirpal Singh, poet, literary and cultural critic

On the Record: Kirpal Singh, poet, literary and cultural critic

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Kirpal Singh speaking at the Singapore Writers' Festival. (Photo: SWF)

SINGAPORE: Poet, literary and cultural critic, and university lecturer, Kirpal Singh recently retired from his position as Associate Professor at the Singapore Management University, but remains a powerful voice in Singapore’s creative and literary circles.

A presence in the local literary scene since the 1970s, Singh has written and published several collections of poetry and books and articles on creative thinking. He also has the distinction of being the first Asian director of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1993 and 1994.

A long-time proponent of literature, Singh also has long-held views on the quality of political discourse and the Singaporean identity, and today works with private education players in Singapore to improve the quality of teaching and learning.   

Singh went “On the Record” with Bharati Jagdish about why Singaporeans still resist embracing creativity, what needs to be done in the education system to promote maturity of thought and why we need to be more proud of identity markers like Singlish. 

They first discussed his primary influences – his grandmother and uncle, who brought him up after his parents’ divorce.

Kirpal Singh: My grandmother basically brought me up from the age of about eight months to about six years and she was a woman who was very highly educated, though not necessarily literate.

I'm using the word “educated” here in the broadest sense of its meaning. Essentially, she knew what the world was. She said: “Son, as you grow up, you’ll realise that there are three kinds of countries in the world. One: Countries that have seen mostly nights. Two: Countries that have seen mostly days. And three: Countries that have seen both nights and days.”

So based on her definition, America would be a country that has seen mostly light, not many dark days. Russia, China and India, she always saw as nations that have been through nights and days, so when someone from Russia, China or India spoke, she gave a lot of attention to it. She was not capable of actually listening to the radio and deciphering what was being communicated but when she spoke with her friends and the message was passed to her, she was very sharp at analysis.

So from young, I grew up with that kind of cultural inheritance from my grandmother in terms of really trying to understand and analyse acutely what was being said, and more essentially, what was really being communicated.

The second influence was my uncle William, who was a voracious reader and he would decline an invitation for dinner, or lunch or breakfast or parties and actually just console himself reading a novel or a biography. He was very big into reading novels and biographies.

Bharati: He felt that that was more valuable than interacting with people?

Singh: Yes, quite often, because he said: “I interact enough with people while I'm at work.”

My uncle belongs to that generation of Singaporeans and Malaysians - or Malayans, as they were called then - who, for reasons of economics did not have the opportunity to actually go to university, because he had to earn a living from the age of 16. But he had a mind that was nimble, flexible and actually far-sighted.

Many of the things that he told me about are coming true. He was very confident about his predictions and many of the problems that urban societies faced. For example, the phenomenon of living in a real multi-religious, multi-racial and multi-lingual society and at the same time say that it is harmonious. I think he drew very early distinctions between tolerating somebody and someone's culture and actually understanding it and liking it and even trying in some ways to imitate it. These were areas where my uncle and my grandma did me a great service by educating me because no school that I went to talked about these things.

Bharati: How did this result in you making literature your life?

Singh: My uncle always wanted me to be an engineer because he saw himself as a failed engineer. He never really went past being a good technician and he thought that in me, he would find somebody that would really have an engineering degree.

But the more I studied, the more I realised that language acquisition and being good at a language, any language, is a very, very rare distinction. I fell in love with words. From very young, I played around with words. I always give the example of a poem I wrote in 1958 when I was in Primary 2.

I had to write a composition about my teacher and I learnt a very early lesson in the cross-cultural understanding of meanings.

My form teacher’s name was Miss Lau and I remember till today the first two lines of that poem:

I have a teacher called Miss Lau,

Whose face is like tau sar pau

Now to me, tau sar pau was absolutely wonderful. I enjoyed eating it. It was so beautiful, round, smooth, sweet. But to her, it was: 'You think I'm fat, rotund?'

Bharati: Yes, it’s a matter of interpretation, isn’t it?

Singh: That intrigued me even more. I learnt a very early lesson that what you say may not be what other people think you mean and I think that drove me even further and harder to really go deep into the nuances the language was trying to share.

I think language yields itself if you love it enough. Because if you make love enough with words, words begin to actually play with you and that's where the creative side comes in. 

The more I delve into it, the more I realise we can actually all be creative if we devoted time and energy to being so. The problem with many of us is that we have a lot of self-doubt.

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Kirpal Singh with Argentinian writers, Shelley Berc and Alajendro Fogel, founders of the Creativity Workshop of which Kirpal is a lead trainer. (Photo: Kirpal Singh)

Our education system doesn't really help, because very often in school, teachers say, “I don't really want to know what you feel. I want to know what the facts are.” So long as we have “a” right answer, it becomes a problem and I use the word “a” here in a very deliberate way because most often, all answers are only “a” right answer, they are not “the” right answers.

In some ways, it smacks of arrogance to say that this is the answer because we’re finding out, in very simplistic terms, what was the answer yesterday is no longer the answer today.

So how can we even be sure that it'll be the answer tomorrow as well? So I think with that kind of appreciation and with that kind of background that I was brought up in, I very early learnt about the legitimacy of multiplicity in terms of perspectives.


Bharati: You talked about teachers. The Education Ministry says that teachers in schools today, in fact, are doing more of what you just described.

Singh: Absolutely, but I think we can afford to be bolder. People still have trouble embracing creativity. I can speak on the tertiary education scene.  I'm very happy to go on record to say that when the Singapore Management University (SMU) began, the senior management invited me to join them in 1999, it was a very different SMU than it is today. I was put in charge of creative thinking as a core module. SMU is the first university in the world to have made creative thinking a mandatory module for all students. Today it is not so. There are modifications to that because some of my colleagues were not always convinced that creative thinking is the best way to go.

Bharati: Why were they not convinced?

Singh: Because creative thinking, or at least the way I taught it, and the way I coordinated the programme, meant that I got a lot of adjuncts to come in - people who are not obviously in the academic domain but people who are very, very distinguished in their own fields of endeavour - architecture, or engineering, or business and all of that.

Academics, I think, are very, very possessive of what they think are rightly theirs by achievement and they want to have a say in everything that pertains to academia.

I crossed swords with my superiors at SMU when they told me that my creative thinking outlines were lacking. I asked why and they said, “Well, for example, there are no set texts.”

Bharati: They thought it wasn’t structured enough?

Singh: Yes, not structured enough. I looked at my boss and said: “You can't be serious. You want a set text in creative thinking?”

That, in itself, cancels the whole idea of creative thinking. Once there is a text, you merely follow the text. It’s an oxymoron. They told me the university had decided that I needed to have set texts. I needed to have recommended readings. I've got recommended readings, but the best thing is to have free play. But this was how they reacted. So I have a little theory, that all new universities in Singapore enjoy a ten-year honeymoon period, and after that, very often this type of thing can happen.

Bharati: But now more and more, there is a need for creativity and innovation and this is being acknowledged at the very top levels of business and political leadership. Should the methods used to encourage it be crystallised better? Perhaps the key lies in the way all classes are conducted – in terms of encouraging independent thought and generating discussions, rather than having a separate creative thinking module?

Singh: I think it's a very complicated issue and I would say that if I were to put myself in the position of senior management, they see from what they call “the bigger picture” and the bigger picture is always one which is full of information that suggests that you need to either fear, or you need to instill a sense of reverence for the majority to behave themselves.


Bharati: So are you saying that they think creativity is inconvenient? They are threatened by it?

Singh: I'm using words fairly deliberately, but also, in a sense, loosely.

The more freedom you allow the majority of human beings, the more complications you're bound to get, even in terms of say, building a road.

In that sense, our first Prime Minister was quite ruthless. If there was a obstacle in building a highway or a road, he would remove the obstacle because the goal was to build a road. Nowadays, in terms of the ethos of democratic consultation, people might say well, we might leave that little house, little temple, mosque or church over there and build the road around it.  There will be that option and it might take some time to come to a decision. In the old days, I remember Mr Lee Kuan Yew used to say that we don't have options. "This is the way we are going to do it and we are going to do it that way. If you don't like it, too bad." He was quite open about it, which is fair enough because then you knew exactly where he’s coming from. That might have been the right approach and even needed in those days. But you can’t keep doing this today. You need to be able to listen and have those discussions and those who complain can maybe come up with creative solutions.

Bharati: But those who believe that encouraging such things is inconvenient or introduces inefficiencies may not be entirely wrong. Do you believe the inconvenience is, in fact, necessary?

Singh: Yes, it is, so that we can frankly acknowledge problems and come up with solutions. But there needs to be a balance of course. You do need to also get things done. As I grow older, I’m starting to become a little bit more cynical myself. I’ve begun to realise that people who are creative and think for themselves really have this terrible habit of not seeing the other person's point of view.

We sometimes become so full of ourselves, we think that only we are right and therefore, we ignore the bigger picture. On the other hand, the danger of a collectivist mindset is that if it becomes foolish, then the entire population could pay a very heavy price for that. Collectivist thinking can go wrong too.

Bharati: To what extent do you think talk of encouraging creativity and innovation is perhaps merely lip service? Or is it a case of people, whether it’s the political establishment, schools or businesses, sincerely wanting to encourage innovation, but who can’t handle the inconveniences that come with it?

Singh: I think the question is manifold. It’s complex. Part of the problem is that parents are very, very anxious when their children show more signs of being creative than they are comfortable with.

Creative people, as I said earlier, tend to be full of themselves and want to do things at their own pace, in their own manner, in their own way. So you find for example in advertising agencies, the creative directors, the creative people dress differently, come to work when everybody is about to leave the office - that kind of thing. So they take liberties with rules and regulations.

Now, of course you need people like this, but if all of us were like this, society cannot work. Any society needs rules and regulations in place too.


Bharati: But not all creative people exercise their creativity that way. It's never black or white. A very disciplined engineer could be creative with solutions to problems that are related to his field. That qualifies too. Fear is natural though when it comes to new concepts. We've been talking about this in Singapore for a long time. What will it take for a stronger culture of courage to set in?

Singh: Absolutely, because real creative ideas tend to be radical, they throw away what is current, what has been there for decades, or even centuries, and they come up with a new solution.

It takes a lot of time and effort and a lot of real in-depth understanding for a human being to say: "I'm prepared to go with you. I'm prepared to put money where your mouth is." We know that, nine out of 10 times, creative ventures may fail because the world is not ready, people are not ready and so people might say it’s a waste of money, time and all of that. That is one dimension.

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Kirpal Singh moderating a dialogue session with Malaysian socio-political activist and writer, Marina Mahathir. (Photo: Singapore Management University)

Secondly. I don't think we really give a premium to creative thinkers in Singapore. We give a premium to so-called successful entrepreneurs and all that. They may be creative in small ways. But in terms of those who might be so in exponential or radical ways, we don't actually do that often.

We are very, very anxious, very, very nervous. It’s about simple things like when I told some of my colleagues at the university to experiment with doing literature a particular way. They would say: “When you're the boss, you can tell me to do so, but for now, I'm not prepared to do it.” In other words, they’re saying they listen to directions coming from the top. They are not prepared to exercise our own imaginations. 

This, again, is a problem with education because, if we don't, from very young, stimulate the child's imagination in ways which are different from the norm, we are never going to get creativity working very successfully. Most of the time everything is geared towards making you conform and comply.

It is also still the case that if a professor from Harvard flies in to Singapore and says something, the media and other people get very excited. Whereas if professors from our own universities say the same thing, people would say: “You sure, or not? You think this will work? I'm not very sure. Who are you anyway?”

Bharati: Why do you think we are so doubtful of ourselves in such instances?

Singh: I think it’s the post-colonial syndrome. 

I think we haven't recovered from our colonised history at all and of course, the coloniser has always, throughout history, made sure that even at point of exit, the dependency syndrome is so intense that it takes close to a century or more for the people to realise themselves.

Singapore would probably need another 30 - 40 years to arrive at that sense of self-confidence that we are okay and we can do well.

I think, in some ways, things are changing. There are enough enlightened educators around us, in schools, in kindergartens, in universities, that allow for individual expression of creative thinking. I think the more we talk about standardisation, the less we actually encourage creativity. So it's good to see our Housing & Development Board, for example, innovating architecturally.  

We are getting a lot of new very exciting architects coming up with wonderful designs. But by and large, they still operate in a very small stratosphere. The majority are not there yet, but the majority will never be there unless we give them the confidence to experiment. Now, this always is a bit of a risk.


Bharati: To what extent do you think our society may not have much of an appetite for that?

Singh: We don’t. Larger countries like America may be able to absorb the shocks.

But we worry that we are small and things can go very badly wrong and we may be very badly hurt.

Bharati: Some might say there is merit in that sort of thinking.

Singh: There is absolute merit in that, but if you look at the human experience, for example, what would you call a successful marriage? Would you call a successful marriage one where there has never been a heated argument? I think a good marriage is one where the partners occasionally disagree, perhaps even vehemently and maybe disagree vehemently even in front of the children, because then the children are brought up to be realistic about expectations of life, of human beings, of human behaviour.

So we need to be able to understand that it won’t always be without chaos. So give a bit more space to those who think differently. Give a little bit more space to those who are bored with what you're doing in classroom and try something different to engage them. And don’t just wait for instructions from the top to do this. Take your own initiative even if it means being rapped on the knuckles.

I’ve been punished, been rapped on the knuckles many times, but I think I'm the better for it in the sense that I realise where the perimeters are. I realise where you can’t take too much liberty, where you can and where you have a chance at pushing boundaries or showing people that it can be done. I also realise if you don't actually push, nobody's going to pave the way for you. You need to carve your own pathway. 

Bharati: I want to go back to something you talked about earlier. Some societies might find it easier to deal with the chaos that sometimes comes with innovation and creativity because they are large enough to absorb the failures and the shocks. Some might say Singapore does not fit that bill. So how do you sell this idea here?

Singh: There is no magic formula for this. The other day, I read to my horror, and exasperation and bitter regret that if I had put a S$100 into bitcoin in 2010, I would be S$400 million richer today. That’s a big payoff. You take a risk, and you go in.

Everyone might laugh at you, but the result would have been great. The calibration would have been modest too. Positive outcomes cannot happen if you don't let go. If you watch your child every second and make sure that he or she doesn't fall, the child is going to grow up thinking that falling is so unnatural, or if he or she falls, he wouldn't know how to pick himself up.

In the SMU model, we had a series of core modules in which we had creative thinking and to balance creative thinking, we had critical thinking. The creative person would also be taught logic and also taught that, you know, don't dream and fantasise things that probably are illogical. On the other hand, we are finding out that yesterday’s fantasies are today’s realities.

When I first gave a lecture on technology, I think this was in 1974, or 1975 at the University of Singapore.

My students in their feedback, told the dean to tell me that I shouldn't talk cock-and-bull in class. One of the things I was telling them about was self-driving cars. It sounded unlikely then, but it’s a reality today.

I said the time is going to come when you're just a passenger and the cars would drive themselves. 

Now, some of these students have been meeting me and emailing me to apologise for the terrible feedback they gave me. 

I think the decision will have to be made by us and by every society as to how we want to conduct education, but I think our educational system in Singapore should really be a little more confident of itself and allow for greater experimentation.

In some ways, the early leaders of Singapore were bolder because they had to ensure our survival. I think somewhere along the line, we began to feel that survival was no longer an urgent issue. We feel that we are going to survive. For some reason, we feel that tomorrow is going to be as good as today. We have become complacent.

Bharati: Do you see complacency still being present today, considering the economic headwinds we are facing?

Singh: I think a few persons are genuinely worried, especially in terms of economic progress. But more of us have to realise this. We believe that somehow, somebody at the top is going to solve the problem for us. That may not happen. We need to encourage lot more space for the young to experiment and even fail, but pick themselves up and move on.

Complacency is very hard to get rid of once it has settled in us. It’s going to take something quite punishing for us to wake up to the reality that actually nobody owes us a living. We have to do it ourselves in the end.

I think a serious economic recession would go a long way in checking that because if you think about the 2008 crisis, you think of the 1997 crisis, thanks to our reserves we managed it quite well, but the private stories of the many suicides that we had, the many dislocations that took place, that wasn’t talked about too much.

But while economic survival is important, it’s not everything. Life needs to also have meaning beyond that and while you’re working on economic survival, you need to have meaningful learning too. We need to encourage our young to be really adventurous and explore the world.

I also think that literature should be brought back as a mandatory subject.


Bharati: Well, the number of schools offering upper secondary school literature has actually increased from 85 per cent in 2015 to 90 per cent this year, but you're not saying that it’s not good enough and we need to make it compulsory.  Why?

Singh: The subject that insistently plays with a child's imagination is literature because literature deals with words, deals with language. Languages all around the world are so colourful. Language is so rich. You can make meaning and you can create meaning by a certain configuration of words, and by that you can act as a very powerful influence.

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The cover of "The Best of Kirpal Singh", a tribute to his body of work. (Photo: Epigram Books)

Literature stimulates one’s own thinking. I think that is what Singaporeans lack. We don't have enough creative stimuli. We don't often move into the area of “what if”. If you look at history, you’ll find that people who wrote literature have very often been very astute in terms of foreseeing challenges, or seeing issues and problems and perhaps also accompanying solutions to these. In a sense, we are facing those challenges that our poets and our writers were pointing to.

Bharati: Such as?

Singh: Living in a diverse world, living in a world where money may not be the measure of all things, living in a world where people are going to mature much, much earlier. At the heart of literature is the capacity not only to stimulate the imagination but to convey and communicate very, very effectively.

We know that one of the major problems around the world today is the inability of many to communicate what they mean. Literature expands your vocabulary, literature expands your range of thinking. And if you limit that by taking literature away, what are you left with? You’re left with the hard sciences, you’re left with basically a simplistic appreciation of language which will make sure you do not think differently, you don’t think alternatively, and therefore you become what I call a mono-individual.

Bharati: I understand the merits of this argument, but one of the reasons cited for people not wanting to take literature at O-levels is that it’s hard to do well in the subject. We clearly live in a very assessment-based society. And if that hampers one’s love for the subject, wouldn’t it negate what you’ve just described?

Singh: This is why it needs to be taught well and assessed based on independent thought and interpretation. So some of these things have to change.

Bharati: What about for people who are just not interested? Considering you’re a proponent of independent thought, why would you suggest anything being made compulsory, being rammed down people’s throats?

Singh: Can I counter that with a rhetorical question?

Why do we force our students to do so many other things? So many subjects have been forced down their throats. Mathematics, science. Why not literature?

Bharati: Sure, that is a fact, but considering what you personally believe in, I find it uncharacteristic that you would suggest making it compulsory.  

Singh: Maybe I need to modify that statement about making literature mandatory and compulsory because in a free society, a person should be free to study whatever he or she wants. However, I think there are certain freedoms that can be enjoyed more richly if the capacity for such enjoyment is there in the first place. And I’m saying one of the ways in which that capacity can be founded is to allow our young to be nurtured by literature. Nourished by literature.

Once you come to the university, you assume your years of education before that have prepared you for independent thought. But in Singapore very sadly that doesn’t happen. The one subject that actually encourages you to keep your point of view in class is literature because literature begins by saying: "What do you think of this character?" So there’s discussion. And in a way, you’re forced to think. My worry is that a lot of us have been nurtured in a very formulaic society with answers that are usually imparted rather than self-developed and self-explored. And I think we need that going forward more and more.


Bharati: Looking at the education system as a whole though, what changes do you think are needed? Many point to the fact that we’re doing just fine based on international assessments and that we are the envy of many countries.

Singh: We should sit back and congratulate ourselves on having created an educational system that is the envy of many countries, but we also need to sit up and ask the question: “Why is it the envy of only many nations? Why not all nations?” Many say we are doing great, but...

Why is there sometimes this “but”? I would think the next phase of glory for our educational system is to create a population which is mature. Mature in thinking. Mature in communicating. I think this is very, very fundamental. So a lot of what we would call out-of-bounds markers, territories that are taboo need to be discussed more openly in schools.

Bharati: Give me some examples of these.

Singh: For example, very simple observations of alternative lifestyles, the Pink Dot movement, or race and religion and some of the tensions there. We should expose children from very young to discuss very significant issues, like what makes a good living? It goes beyond money.

Bharati: Why do you think this is important?

Singh: I think discussing these issues openly will help our children mature.

We should not be afraid anymore of discussing qualities, values. We should be bold and confident to discuss these issues in an open, frank way, within the confines of mutual respect and politeness.

We make a lot of noises about this online, but in the school classroom, in the school environment, many of us are still very, very anxious not to touch upon these subjects. I think the more openly we can discuss sensitive issues in a safe environment, the more confident we will be as a nation as we grow up.

Bharati: But this is yet another example of what might be considered politically and socially inconvenient. In other words, opening up a can of worms.

Singh: But the worms are only worms so long as you perceive them as worms. We can see them as ribbons - if different sizes, different qualities and you can have a very happy discussion that increases understanding and maturity.

Bharati: You’ll need good facilitators for this type of engagement.

Singh: Absolutely. I think this is very, very critical. They have to have the capacity to tolerate other points of view, in an inviting kind of way, not in a shutting up kind of way. The sessions need to promote that kind of maturity among the students. It can’t be a case of: “I won't mix with you anymore because you raised a very uncomfortable question for me.”

That is defeat. That is very simplistic.

Bharati: How confident are you that mainstream schools would even consider doing this, bearing in mind the potential inconveniences we spoke of earlier?

Singh: They need to be reassured that this can be done well and if done well, it can have significant benefits for Singaporeans – in terms of independent thinking, mature debate, understanding complex policies.

People are speaking up online but these discussions are not in any way coordinated. So they are random and in fact, that can be dangerous. So why not do it in schools? So long as we are afraid of discussing taboo topics, certain people, would then make decisions about these topics for us.

In order to circumvent that, in other words, to prevent an outright dictatorship from coming into play, we do need people who are intelligently educated to discuss very sensitive issues in a very sensitive manner.

Bharati: There might be merit to this, but also obstacles. The more individuals think independently, the more questions they will ask and obviously, the political establishment might find it problematic. So do you think something like this will ever really come into being?

Singh: But I think we need that going forward because you will need to have people who understand the world around them and the awareness can improve understanding that can also fire up the imagination to come up with solutions. We need imaginations that not just fly anymore, but we need imaginations that will soar. Why can't we soar to the sun? The whole story about how the sun will melt you is a very simplistic way of thinking too. What if you can create a new material that is so resistant, that even the sun cannot melt it.

Bharati: You talk a lot about being bold and taking risks, but some might say you’ve played it safe in your career by becoming an academic. Why didn’t you do more daring, exciting things with your life?

Singh: Well, in my time, I have been invited, or asked to join political parties and all of that, what people consider a more daring thing. At one point, I had three options. I could have joined the foreign service, the elite administrative service or I could have stayed in academia. Now the academic world is actually very, very special, unique and I would say, luxurious world.

Reading, writing and teaching was what I most liked. I like learning new ways to shape minds. Even teaching today is more about facilitation than teaching. It’s about learning together and seeing how we can make this society better together. I enjoy doing that and it may not seem bold and daring on the face of it, but I find it exciting to be able to shape and express such thought.


 Bharati: Another issue you’ve been quite vocal about over the years has been the use of Singlish and its place in the world. You might be an English literature expert, but you’re a big proponent of Singlish. Why?

Singh: I believe in speaking proper English to be understood, but the simple point is that in order to carve a language of our own, we need the guts to do so. Having the guts alone will not be enough because you need enough people to believe in it, therefore you need confidence and you need the persuasive power to bring others on board. I am not convinced of the argument that Singlish is an impediment to learning good English. There may be some correlation. I’m not myself convinced there’s a 100 per cent correlation.

Bharati: Why aren’t you convinced?

Singh: Because I’ve seen people who are good in both and that’s the population we need to develop. Language mastery is not a simple matter. But for me, Singlish always has been the ability, the capacity to create our own idiom. And I think if we want to be known in the world as pioneers in a certain kind of literature, this is where we can make a very, very indelible mark.

If by proper English we mean imitating the way the English speak, read and write it, and forgetting about Singlish, we will never be our own persons. We will always be copycats. We will never have sovereignty.

We may be good copycats but we’ll always be copycats and I think that is a very serious problem. The best writers always try to be creative linguistically. And I think being creative linguistically sometimes also mean creating a new language. Creating a new word. Creating a new phrase. Shakespeare contributed thousands of new words.

Bharati: Well, some Singlish is already in the Oxford dictionary, so there’s some global recognition, but how far can this actually go?

Singh: I think this is another problem that I have with my fellow Singaporeans.

We distrust ourselves. We only give credence to something, in this case, Singlish when Oxford or Cambridge says it’s good. Why can’t we accept our own authority?

In the past, we accepted Lee Kuan Yew as our authority. But anybody below Lee Kuan Yew is doubted and we say: “Who are you to tell me this is okay?”

But if Harvard or Cambridge says it, then okay. This deferential attitude will never allow us to evolve into an independent-thinking society that can be proud and confident in itself. Singlish is one way in which we can tell the world that we are also capable of not just being economically very bright, but we are also capable of creating a language which is wonderful to hear, beautiful to speak and absolutely challenging to try and understand.

How do the Americans manage it, how do the Canadians manage it, how do the Australians manage it? After all, Australian English was once upon a time condemned by the UK people. American English was looked down upon by the old professors at Cambridge.

Bharati: There are still groups who feel this way.

Kirpal: But today, there’s more acceptance than before. The same professors are very eager to go to Harvard or MIT or Stamford or Berkeley, to do their work in English. This was an early acceptance of rebellion in language. The early writers in America for example, after the first 100 years or so, began to write in a way that was distinctly American. They created and attacked language at its very core, they created their own idiom, they created their own spelling as well.

Bharati: And the non-English speaking world learnt to understand it.

Singh: Absolutely.

Bharati: But what makes you think Singlish can command that type of power?

Singh: I think we need to be at least allowed to by ourselves. After all, 30 years ago nobody would have thought that Singapore would be economically so powerful today. But we are. If we were also told that we could be linguistically powerful too by creating our own language, we would be. We will be. In the Philippines, they have a language called Taglish right. People used to pooh-pooh it, but today Taglish is establishing itself as a very legitimate language of creative expression because there are certain things you can say in Taglish which you cannot say in either Tagalog or in English. Because both of them are bound and locked into their own vocabulary.

Bharati: The decline in English standards that allow us to be understood internationally is a worry though. While you say Singlish should be celebrated, do you think our command of standard English needs to be improved too?

Singh: Yes, being well-versed there is important too and we need to learn to be grammatically correct and all that, but my point is at the same time, we need to be proud of our Singlish and not hide it.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew used to say that so long as Singapore remains competent and good in the mastery of the English language, we will always enjoy an edge on the international platforms. I agree. If our English is going south, and I think it's going south in a quite a dramatic way, then we’ll pay the price. Singlish should triumph, but there's no reason why it should triumph at the expense of what is known as proper English. I don’t think there’s a contradiction.

Bharati: Because you don’t believe there’s a correlation between declining English standards and the use of Singlish. But while celebrating Singlish, what do you think needs to be done to improve standard English proficiency?

Singh: The solution is literature. If you were to do a study of those students who do literature up to O-levels, their use of English is distinctly superior to those who didn't do literature in Sec 3 and 4. In literature, you’re exposed to the best expression of the language, the best words in the language. It’ll help people develop their own sense of mastery over the language. We really need to shrug off our lack of confidence and start looking for real solutions instead of condemning what will help us be more secure, confident and contented in our identity.

Source: CNA/bh