First, a firm base in English

ISN'T the Speak Good English Movement (SGEM) a godsend for local writers in English?

After all, as resident masters of the language in its most refined and expressive forms, they'd stand to gain most from the promotion of English in schools and public life.

Good linguistic skills in any language are an expression of coherent thinking, confidence & conviction.

The movement, which should produce more fluent English speakers and readers in the future, would expand the audience for local works.

And there'd surely be cause for celebration if literature were to regain prominence in the school syllabus. That's the theory, at least.

But how come our wordsmiths aren't exactly doing the dance of joy, even though the SGEM is already in its second year?

For one thing, there's nary a writer in the august company of those tasked with raising linguistic standards here; diplomats, public figures, sure - but no writers.

Despite the international regard given to homegrown writers like Catherine Lim and Edwin Thumboo, we've yet to see a proliferation of local works in the curriculum for literature.

Could it be that we lack confidence in the ability of our best teachers and literary talents to be on a par with ''native'' English users?

We can be justifiably proud of our capacity to master the language despite the fact that, being Asians, we are not native English speakers.

Just look at the number of Angus Ross prize winners, and English honours students returning from abroad - many of whom enter the education system as teachers and lecturers.

Who better to shape the future of Singaporean English than those among us who are conversant in its structures and nuances, yet sensitive to the way our local context gives the language its own bent and tenor?

But even as the movement aims to eradicate Singlish from popular use, it has been working its way into our best writing.

For decades, writers from Arthur Yap to Kirpal Singh have grappled with the lofty language of our colonial past, using it to describe homegrown issues and themes. Post-colonial thinkers like Professor Singh believe that the ''internationality of English'' is enriched by writers who infuse it with a language derived from their own cultural context.

Singlish as part of our cultural heritage - we've heard the arguments and counter-points before.

Its advocates tend to be fluent users of the language themselves.

Yet ''literary Singlish'' might well be the product of market forces, and not just cultural norms.

Singlish peppers Tan Hwee Hwee's edgy first novel, Foreign Bodies, published in 1998 by Penguin (UK) to critical acclaim.

And Ming Cher's Spider Boys, hailed by some as a milestone novel, was written in so-called Singaporean ''street-slang English'' - indeed, explicitly marketed as such worldwide.

It's a fact of the Western-dominated global entertainment circuit: Any kind of exotica, Singlish included, sells.

Hardly a flattering way to make a name for yourself, much as any writer would want to have an impact at home and abroad.

Our English literary talent has grown from strength to strength in recent years, with the emergence of assured young writers like Alfian Sa'at and Daren Shiau.

They deserve to be read and recognised on their own terms, not patronised as Oriental exotica.

Writer Felix Cheong, who's currently studying in Australia, finds that he's paid more respect and attention by his peers because he is able to match the Aussies ''grammar for grammar, syntax for syntax''.

His argument for having good English: ''Being able to stand tall among people whose native tongue you have mastered as well as they have.''

The ongoing debate about Good English is part of our struggle for self-definition as a post-colonial, multicultural society.

It will be difficult to excise language use - with all its complications - as a relevant factor in our cultural development.

It's worth remembering, however, that good linguistic skills - in any language - are an expression of coherent thinking, confidence and conviction.

If we are to forge a linguistic and cultural heritage of our own, it must be on a foundation of strength, not inadequacy.

© alvin pang
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