The Representation of Singlish in Hwee Hwee Tan's Novels

Tamara S. Wagner, Fellow, National University of Singapore

In its affirmation, even defence, of Singaporean English or "Singlish", Hwee Hwee Tan's novels stand out among the plethora of novels about contemporary Singaporean society that have recently swamped the market. While the majority of writers display a certain self-disgust or embarrassment when they let their characters lapse into the local patois, Tan celebrates it as a piece of unique Singaporean-ness. In her novels, it is not dismissed as broken English, but endorsed as a development, a localisation, of English, comparable to American or Australian English: “However, we didn’t speak ‘broken’ English because we lacked the ability to speak the Queen’s English; we spoke Singlish, because with all its contortions of grammar and pronunciation, its new and localised vocabulary, Singlish expressed our thoughts in a way that the formal, perfectly enunciated, anal BBC World Service English never could.” (Foreign Bodies, 8)

When the first person narrator of Hsu-Ming Teo's Love and Vertigo (2000) describes her mother's "lapse" into Singlish, she pinpoints a prevalent attitude towards Singaporean English: "Her carefully maintained English disintegrated and she lapsed into the local Singlish patois, her vocabulary a melange of English, Malay and Chinese; her syntax abbreviated, chopped and wrenched into disconcerting unfamiliarity.” (3) The change from the acquired English of a settler-colony -- the Australian version in this case -- to the Singlish of her childhood is described as a form of disintegration. By contrast, Mei, the central first person narrator of Tan's Foreign Bodies (1997) relishes her ability to switch between her sociolects:

I don’t speak either standard English or Singlish consistently. When I’m with friends like Eugene, I enjoy switching between the Queen’s English and the Ah Ma’s English, randomly, arbitrarily and often in mid-sentence. It’s just the Singaporean way, this totally jumbled, multi-lingual lingo -- just part of our melting pot, rojak way of speech, thought and life. (8)

The frustrations faced by the -- linguistically and culturally -- hybrid protagonists of Tan's novels clearly constitute one of their central themes. In Mammon Inc (2001), the first person narrator is confronted by a pervading ignorance about Singapore in her Oxbridge College: “We used to be a British colony, so all the signs are in English, and all our school lessons are also taught in English. But here in Oxford, whenever I spoke English, people would react like I was a chimpanzee who could recite lines form the University Statutes in Latin.” (9) This experience is paralleled by Tock Seng's hopeless endeavours to be accepted as a Singaporean. A white boy who grew up in Singapore, he is irritated by a durian seller who takes him for a tourist, refusing to speak to him in Chinese: “Why did he speak to you in Chinese, but me in English? Why didn’t he praise you for speaking such good Chinese? Nobody ever asks you where you came from originally. And no one ever asks you when you’re going back to China.” (49) Their bilingualism mirroring their cultural hybridity, Tan's characters are caught up in the prejudices and stereotypes of both the typical Singaporean and the ang mo, tying in with her juxtapositions of orientalism and occidentalism.

Most intriguingly, it is the snake-like Dr Draco Sidious who speaks a pure "international" English, devoid of any hints that might give away his origins or private life. Explicitly associated with the Devil, he is at the top of power-seeking international nomads, a rich elite whose sense of community and belonging is soley derived from their uniformising outfits. With a new twist of the tradition that the Devil knows all languages, Sidious speaks the new acceptable international English --

like the mechanical voice you hear on PA systems in airports and shopping malls. Though the accent was hint-free with regards to locale, it exuded professionalism, as it was full of the tones and rhythms that made you feel like it would be worth your time listening to whatever deal it had to offer. It was a voice that would be accepted by business vendors around the world -- sort of like Visa. (59)


Tan, Hwee Hwee, Foreign Bodies. London: Michael Joseph, 1997.

Tan, Hwee Hwee, Mammon Inc. London: Michael Joseph, 2001.

Teo, Hsu-Ming. Love and Vertigo. St Leonards: Allen & Unwin, 2000.

Postcolonial Web Singapore OV Singaporean Literature

Last Modified: 16 November 2002