Thursday, 5 November 2009

Singlish, Sino Lingo & Lingua Minima

And a 24/7 Free-To-Air Turkish Steam Room


semi-overcast 30 °C                     
In theory, I have been 'staying' or 'living' in Singapore since Dec '08 when we left Sydney; in practise I'm only staying in Singapore for a total of 4 months or so spreading over 11 months. The last 3 months have been the longest stretch of stay in Singapore since. This gives me just enough time to get myself Singaporeanized.

One of this is acclimatizing my ears to the the Singaporean accent. I'm not talking about the accent that sounded somewhat (and oddly) like Indian's, and where every sentence sounds like a question, courtesy of the rising accent at the end. On many occasion, when I say something in English with the 'proper' Aussie accent, I wasn't understood until I put a rising accent in the end to Singlish it.
I have no problem with this 'standard' Singlish accent whatsoever because I had a few Malaysian mates back home in the Land Down Under who speak like that lah. I am talking about facing a variety of different Singaporean accents. But perhaps the hardest to get a hang of, at first, is the Singaporean obsession to abbreviate, especially, but not exclusive to, names of places. Singaporean probably wouldn't understand you if you don't use the anagram forms that they get used to. Take where I live, Holland Village, is being shortened to Holland V. It wasn't saving a whole lot of jaw works, but that isn't the point. Fashion dictates a mini word - the shorter it is, the more attractive it is (to the ears). Every Singaporean (and Malay) nicknames Kuala Lumpur KL, and the Singapore/Malaysia border town of Johore Bahru is referred to as JB - these are just a couple that come to mind.

It was unexpected when I was having more problems with local Mandarin than Singlish. On second thought, it shouldn't be for two reasons. One, my English is far better than my Mandarin (or my Cantonese). Two, Australia - Sydney especially - being so multicultural, let me exposed to different English accents for almost three decades. The reason I was surprise was because up until now, I had never once have any problem understanding Mandarin. On hindsight, it was simply because the only Mandarin accents I have exposed to so far are restricted to Mandarin speakers from Indochina, and Mainland China. I haven't encountered Singaporean Mandarin speakers in any big way before (if any. If I did, it would certain that we would converse in English. David - Arno's Singaporean mate - for example never spoke to me in Mandarin). I came to Singapore 6 or 7 times before, but I had never once used anything other than English, as a tourist. Now that I'm a 'local', I have to venture to places where English is not 100% spoken (English is spoken by 3/4 of the population). Because I am easily passed as a local - Chinese Singaporean - as easily as a heavy beer drinker passing water in the dead of winter nights, I am usually spoken to in Mandarin, and I'm quite happy to reply in Mandarin to keep it from rusting away (further).

The Singaporean national pastime of verbal contraction isn't just restricted to convert words into acronyms, but the whole sentences, both in English and Mandarin. The first time when I ordered food in a hawker centre, I was asked "Eat?". Well, what else can I do with it? Snorted it through my nose? (Well, that's eating too. Loosely speaking). As it turns out, this is Singaporean shorthand for "Is this order an eat-in or takeaway?". These days, I replied it like any true local, "Eat lah." Why all these linguistic minimalism? Maybe the weather is too hot leh - wear less clothes, move less distance, eat less food, speak less words...Or this is a way of creating something that "uniquely Singapore" (the Singaporean tourism body's advertising slogan).

SG citizen probly r d 1 ppl in d wrld most happy in adopting 2 d netizen speak in d web & txt msg on d mob ph, oso call SMSing. LOL. Maybe dey r d 1 who invented d whole abrev txting & shrthnd typing tat's so cool on d net & in chat rms. U c wat I talk abt? :-P

Apart from the lingual shrinkage, the injection of Malay and (much lesser extend) Indian language also confuses the issues/tourists/expats/people like me who look exactly like locals, but aren't. At a first couple of times, I ordered a coffee from a hawker centre, automatically, I used the standard mandarin word for "coffee" and was met with puzzled looks. It was only when I said "kopi" - the Malay word for coffee - that I was immediately understood. (Kopi is pronounced something like "gore bee" - coffee in Hokkien. Not something like "copy"). Of course, on both occasions, they were older Chinese (they usually are the ones taking drink orders in hawker centres, unless they're beer gals, then they have noticeably less wrinkles, and clothes). Young locals would have known the standard Mandarin term for 'coffee'. While the older Chinese (over 50's) either barely understand Mandarin or practically none. Never mind English. They're the majority of 1/4 of the population that can't speak English.

And the word for tea is 'teh' (sounds a bit like 'dare' - a hokkien dialect). And one of the local style tea is teh-C (tea with evaporated milk with sugar), while teh-O is tea without milk with sugar. 'C' is shorthand for Carnation - the leading brand in evaporated milk. And 'O' (乌) is Hokkien for 'Black'. 'With sugar' is always implied, unless it's stated otherwise. Add kosong (malay for 'nothing') at the end to specify 'no sugar'. 'Kosong' sounds just like 'croissant' without 'r'. And so my fave cup is teh-C-kosong. 'Teh-C-kosong' is a little nice example of how the 3 major tongues are freely rolled and twisted into a Singlish word. It took me a little while to decipher all these, I'm embarrassed to say. I could do all the research on the web, but what would be the fun without getting your face red? I related this experience of trying to order a cup of teh-C-kosong to a Chinese gal who come from Malaysia but grew up here. She told me that she actually STILL doesn't know how to order a teh-C-kosong. Never mind that she grew up here. Malaysia has the same name in ordering this drink. So I wasn't as thick as I thought I was. I live in the tower of Babel.

Speaking of red face and default condiment. Like adding sugar in your teh or kopi is by default in hawker centre, unless stated otherwise, If you don't specify that you don't want chilli in your food, it will be added automatically. Especially if you don't look apart from the locals. Foreigners maybe spared from these defaults. I don't mind eating chili, just not in humid weather where sweating doesn't evaporate easily.

All the food items like teh-C, Kopi-O, and kaya toasts can all be found at kopi tiam, which literally means coffee shop ('kopi' = 'coffee' in Malay, and 'tiam' = 'shop' in Hokkien. Just another couplet of such blissful cultural mixed marriage). Quite a few chain stores/franchise of this kopitiam as well as independent owner-operators shops can be found around Singapore and the whole of Malaya Peninsula. I'm partial to the teh-C-kosong in Yakun Kaya Toast outlets.

Kaya toasts are usually filled with sugar and butter. This sounds heavy, but surprisingly not so. Take my word for it, I'm a light eater (and a light sleeper, which explain why I'm so light weight). Atta usually scrapes off the butter; I prefer to eat the way it's intended. The part I like about the toast is the crunch and it also melts in your mouth, and it isn't too malty for me either. It's supposed to be breakfast item, but I always eat it as a snack. You do what you what. It's a relatively free country). It's available all day, and most places.

So Singlish = English with Singaporean accent + Abbreviations + Malay words + Hokkien words + a whole of creativity.

For all things Singlish, one can visit Talking Cock.

Another Singaporean linguistic mosaic is the mixture of simplified and traditional Chinese characters that are being used here. All Chinese communities outside China - Taiwan, HK, overseas Chinese in SE Asia - use traditional characters/writing. PRC invented the simplified Chinese characters in the name of revolution (Nothing is off limit to change. Anything new is considered double good. Newspeak is double good. Gorge Orwell must have drawn this inspiration from China during one of Mao's many "revolutions"). The Chinese communities outside China are happy and proud to stick with the existing system, seeing no need to mess around with the classic. And then, there is Singapore - a kettle of fish, a basket case - that uses a hodgepodge of two Chinese writings (and three other languages). Being an international port, Singaporean embraces outside influence.

Why two Chinese writings? Here's my thinking. Singapore used the traditional Chinese form like all other Greater Chinese communities before the opening up of China in 1978 (the most watershed event in modern Chinese history). Atta's colleague Bee told me that about 15 or so years ago, Lee Kuan Yew encouraged Chinese to take up Mandarin (as supposed to sticking with their own Chinese dialects). Even the Marylander/billionaire/investment guru/professor/author Jim Rogers - also the co-founder (with George Soros) of the successful Quantum Fund - is now settling in Singapore so that his daughters can learn Mandarin in its native environment (and at the same time he can also be closer to the hub of economic actions in Asia). He makes no secret - actually reminds us repeatedly - that the economic powerhouse today is in the East, especially China.

Well, the "15 or so years" that Bee talked about was just sometimes after PRC established diplomatic relationship with Singapore in 1992. LKY's urging Singaporean to learn Mandarin is a logical move, even French and US major universities make Mandarin a compulsory electives nowadays. Before this move LKY encouraged his citizen to actively learn English. He's becoming to realise (like Jim Rogers) that the shifting of economic power/opportunities from USA to China is occurring, and he wants his beloved flock to jump on board this gear shift ASAP. Not much of a prophecy these days; the trend is firmly established. But he geared up this move about 1.5 decades ago before the US housing debt-bubble induced financial crisis. Bee was herself is now working in Shanghai, thanks to her Mandarin knowledge. This is LKY's legacy in actions.

What Bee said confirmed what I suspected. If you take a good look at the Chinese characters in official signs like MTR station names, safety warnings, TV programs' captions, you'll notice they are all written in simplified Chinese (assuming you read Chinese). In programs that have English subtitles, even names of protagonists of some of the Cantonese dramas are converted into Pinyin, and adopting the PRC name conventions where the two given names are merged. Instead of the existing Anglicised Chinese names. This replacing of Wade-Giles by Pinyin system in Mandarin transliteration is a clear sign of a cultural shift from English to Chinese. Fortunately, there are Wade-Giles to Pinyin conversion tables to ease the pain.

Just on a completely different side-note. One odd thing that I found out is that the Anglicised Chinese names in Singapore and HK are different. It's a bit like discover that sign languages for deaf people are different in countries where people speak the same language. All very strange business that make lives more interesting, and confusing.

The PRC writing system are followed to the letter (I should say to the character) in Singapore. This is Singaporean government's way of declaring where they are steering to. But if you look at shop signs of small private business, restaurant menus, etc, you would detect a mix of traditional and simplified Chinese characters. Actually I found the Chinese old-school writings tend to dominate in small private businesses. This should be expected, for business operators are in general tend to be over 20 years old - a time before the PRC scripts made their way in a big way into the Singaporean classrooms. Of course, some sign writers are young and likely to make signs in PRC Chinese.

Singapore is now in a unique position to capture the economic growth of China, India and the ME - both geographically and culturally. Her 3 adopted ethnic children of Chinese, Indian and Muslim Malays can be a leveraged advantage in entering these markets. The fact that Atta got sent to Bahrain, Dubai, and a few other potential places in the Gulf is a good example. Having an Indian president, although only a ceremonial symbol (actually has a tad more political power than QE2 in UK), wouldn't hurt Singapore business standing in India. As for China, she embraces Singapore with open arms like a long lost son who has come home after been settled abroad for a long time (no kissing, of course. They aren't Ruskies). In fact, Singapore is one of the very few privileged countries where its citizens can enter China without visas. In fact only 3 countries with visa exemptions: Singapore, Japan and Brunei. I understand the first 2, but Brunei?! Interesting...

Because of the 3 major languages being spoken in Singapore, in order for communication to occur, a 4th language - English - is needed. Of course, with Chinese make up about 80% of the population, Singapore can make Chinese the only official language. But she chose English for several good reasons:
1. Singapore promotes multiculturalism, specifically she encourages her peoples to maintain their cultural heritages (which turns out to be not only enriching its culture, being viewed as a tolerant society, and facilitating its adaptation to the current economic globalisation). She doesn't want to shove the language of one ethnic group into the throats of others.
2. It's a former British colony. Another heritage.
3. English is still an international language of diplomacy, politics, trades, and science.
Most things in public is written in English - street signs, official documents, addresses, etc.
Something that requires important attention like warning signs, etc are written in all 4 languages.

But the hardest acclimatization for me is the climate itself. The past few months the Singapore had shown me that its climate isn't hot. The maximum temperature in Singapore is actually a remarkable constant 30 - 32° C, and that's much lower than its neighbours like Malaysia and Thailand on the average. I wasn't surprise by the consistency of temperature for it locates almost smacked bang on the Equator (only off by 1° 18' from the Equator). What I was surprise is how low the temperature is despite its proximity to the Equator, and it's always been described as hot and humid. In a way, this relatively low temperature does make sense. The further a location is from the Equator, the hotter the Summer becomes. During the temperate Sydney's summer, the quicksilver can shoot up to a scorching 38 - 40 °C, which is much higher than the typical Singapore weather, albeit only a week or two in the Xmas-New Year period. And Melbourne, which is further south of the Equation can get even hotter in Summer than Sydney (and of course colder in Winter). So going by that logic, locations on the Equator is the mildest overall! A temperature above 36 °C is quite unheard of in Singapore. I have yet experienced it.

A average of 31 °C isn't hot by most standard, but it's the humidity that makes it so. Especially for someone who comes from Australia - one of the driest continent on earth. The stickiness can be quite insufferable. I can recollect vividly the warm humidity that hit my face the seconds I left Changi Airport in my previous trips to this island like a moist hot towels they handed out in air planes (or some upscale Chinese restaurants). I felt like stepping straight into a Turkish steam room, especially coming here during Winter where Sydney is especially dry and cool. I dig Turkish steam room as much as the next guy/gal, but only for 15 minutes, in winter and in my birthday suit. Not lugging my heavy camera during sunny days (I can only tolerate the sun a smidgen more than the urbane, pale face Count Dracula. No. I don't have a liking for reds). Without the sun, it isn't all too bad at all. Here in Singapore, the cloud is the silver lining.

I used to laugh at the locals who wear jackets and woollen jumpers, and not just for indoor air-cons, which could be friggin' freezing my fanny off (I don't have a fanny. I'm speaking Northern American with a British accent. Queen's English actually, old chap). Recently there are days when I can actually feel a chill in the air sitting at home without air-con on. A telltale sign that I'm getting on top of the humidity. The ocean breeze can be quite pleasant. Mind you, I have never put on pants or wear shoes except going to airport. And I don't wear cotton 'T' any more. I only wear 100% polyester jerseys that you see athletes wear in those sports where they sweat a lot, like basketball, soccer, and tennis. It isn't enough if they breath, I need my jerseys to pant like dogs in summer. If the humidity here is as low as Sydney, Singapore can actually be very pleasant with its usual groom sky.

As the dry season passed (in the 1st half of the year), the sun goes out and the rains and the clouds comes into the wet (or Monsoon) season (2nd half of the year). In the first few months during dry season, I relied on frappé to dispel the hellish humid heat. Little did I know, I was replacing BF (brain freeze for short. speak like a true local) with the wet heat. Gradually, and unbelievably, I even got over this affliction. I didn't know that one can avoid BF at all (unlike another involuntary response like hiccoughs). This is an indicator that I had reached L3A (Level 3 Acclimatization). Not completely sure if La Niña is at it bringing with her more wetness to the south of East Pacific area. It appears that even in the dry 1st half, there were considerable cloudiness and rains that on would expect. Nothing like what I experienced in the occasional visits in last 2 decades where I was greeted by only wet heat and sunshine. The only time where there were significant sunshine is during the Chinese New Year period of mid Jan to late Feb. Not that I'm complaining.

During the L2A period, I slept with the air-con on the whole night with thermostat set to 26 °C. These days I only turn on the air-cons awhile before bed just to keep the room cool as well as clearing up the air quality. I sleep quite soundly (as soundly as a light sleeper can) without the air-con on, knowing that I'm saving money, saving energy, and last but not least, saving Tuvalu from drowning (I'm assuming global warming is occurring. I'm 75% convinced. Global warming or not, saving energy and finding alternative renewable energy sources should still be a high priority. Peak Oil is nothing to be sneezed at; it's a global issue that that isn't too far away from global warming or GFC in the serious meter).

Pommies should feel at home with the cloud hanging over their heads most of the year. They may not like it in UK during winter because it stops the sun from showing up for work. But in the tropical island at the equator, the cloud provides a cool and protective canopy, thus saving you from carrying a brolly (a rare sight in Singapore, but not in other parts of Asia).

Few days ago, something reminded me that I have been away from Australia long enough. Some Aussies were being interviewed on TV, and they sounded foreign and funny! Mind you, she spoke with a broad Aussie accent - as broad as the land itself. Also, last week I bumped into someone in the street and I found myself mumbled "Sorry" in the original Singlish accent...Aiya! I 'm totally Singaporeanized liao!

I've also heard how Atta talk at work, sounds exactly like a local, and it's surprised me that I didn't like the sound of that. It doesn't sound like me. I guess, I don't know me that well.


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