Commentary People

Excuse Me, Are You Really A Singaporean?

Is it the way we use Singlish? Is it the way we use words from several languages into a single conversation? Is it the way we pronounce words? Does the way we talk actually define us as Singaporeans?

Darcel (middle) with her brother (left) and mother (right).

By Darcel Anastasia Al Anthony

Several terms like ang moh wannabe, celup, and even coconut have been thrown at me since my time in primary school. Yet, more than a decade later and now 21-years-old, I still get such degrading terms hurled at me, alongside incessant questioning about my national identity and race.

Why? I speak with an “accent”, and doing so automatically categorises me as different and foreign to some Singaporeans.

Growing up in an English-speaking household, I was taught to enunciate my words well. My family, which only consists of my mother and my brother, rarely speaks Singlish. Even my great-grandparents spoke English fluently. 

The way my family and I speak, though not much distinctive from some Singaporeans, focuses on accentuation and intonation. 

To add on to my bizarre predicament, we do not have a “proper” mother tongue. We are a family of Indian, Irish, and Peranakan ancestry and as a result, my brother and I took Malay in school. 

Family is everything to me — I speak with them, I speak to them, and I even speak over them at times. Whenever someone questions me on why I sound the way that I do, I simply reply, “this is my family accent”. 

As a result of my upbringing, I grew up not using Singlish words like bojio and buay sai. When I first heard these words being thrown around, it all sounded foreign to me, having never been part of my verbal dictionary.

And because I couldn’t understand the lingo or how to use it, I felt alienated at times amongst other Singaporeans while in school.

Ostensibly, perpetually asking your friends to repeat why that game move was so zai or why that person was a lao jiao eliminates all fun and humour in the conversation. In fact, you could wittily say that I am quite ulu with such slang.

Throughout the years pursuing my primary and secondary education, I was ostracised by many schoolmates for being different. For starters, I was usually the only Indian who studied a language that was not Tamil. I was one of the two Catholic students. I was in majority-Chinese schools.

I was no longer with mummy and my brother, there was no one else who spoke with my “family accent”. 

Everywhere I roamed, I stuck out like a sore thumb. My schoolmates laughed at the way I spoke and sounded, with some telling me to return to my country of origin or calling me a poser. 

“Are you sure you’re Singaporean or not?” This question has been persistently asked by so many others. Most people thought that I was trying to be someone that I am not, something I found quite bemusing as my ancestors have been around in Singapore since the late 19th century.

For being “different”, I spent most of my recess breaks alone in the library as I did not have many friends. 

I yearned to connect with my schoolmates, but always found myself bearing the brunt of racist and xenophobic jokes. And with the incessant questioning and comments, I found myself questioning my identity, despite being born and raised on this island nation. 

For several years, I had thought that speaking Singlish was the only gateway to becoming a Singaporean and ultimately, sounding and becoming a true local. 

Like the fish curry on my roti prata and like the sambal kacang on my satay sticks, I assumed that speaking Singlish was a staple ingredient in the everyday lives of Singaporeans — and the key for me to finally fit in. Despondent, I searched up Singlish words online and tried my best to incorporate them into my everyday speech. 

Initially, some schoolmates were impressed that I tried to speak their lingo. I was invited to spend recess breaks with them and join their groups during PE classes. However, after several days of trying to seem cool and dandy with my newfound Singlish slangs, some went back to their teasing. The rest appreciated my efforts but still found me eccentric. You can imagine the hearty laughs I provoked from them whenever I finished each sentence with a jialat or a siao. 

Lahs after lors after lehs. Despite my best efforts to fit in with Singaporean schoolmates, I found myself feeling uncomfortable and silly. After all, I was being someone I was not and was still the odd one out. Anyone who forces a different accent and uses outlandish slangs that they are not accustomed to would feel the same way. I was shoe-horning my newly learnt Singlish vocabulary into every rising opportunity. Worsening the matter, some Singaporeans would reply with unfamiliar words that even my online dictionary did not provide a definition for. 

I was at a loss, and I kept wondering – Am I really a Singaporean?

Through this vernacular ordeal, my mother was my rock. She is my best friend and I confide everything to her, ranging from academic advice to outfit choices. This also includes self-doubts about my sense of belonging and my antics on using unfamiliar local slangs. 

After laughing at how I have been pronouncing certain Hokkien words (I cannot blame her for this), she then told me that I should not change the way that I talk just to appease people and to try to fit into their idea of a Singaporean. Just like how people should not transform the way they look for someone else, I should not change my tone and mannerisms for others. 

At the end of the day, I was born in Singapore, and I hold a Singaporean passport. No one can ever take those facts away from me. I am a proud Singaporean, and this is what I tell everybody who questions my identity based on the way I talk. 

Though Singlish is part of the Singaporean culture, not everyone uses it. Therefore, not being accustomed to speaking Singlish does not make me or anyone else less local. 

My mother speaks with our family accent and rarely uses Singlish, yet she takes pride in being a Singaporean. She claims that she has an uncanny ability to find big lobangs in every nook and cranny of our neighbourhood. 

My best friend in school — who was also raised without speaking Singlish — chopes her seat at Kopitiam food courts with tissue packets. 

These are just some of our known local habits that serve to define what being Singaporean is. Not knowing or using certain diction will not take away our unique Singaporean identity.

We’re just like a plate of rojak, each slice has a different taste and not all is the same fruit or cut. Especially for a country rooted in diversity and multiculturalism, despite our various backgrounds, people still socialise with one another and identify themselves proudly as Singaporean.

Over the years, I had simultaneously learnt and adapted to using Singlish in many situations while keeping my family accent. I continue to stay true to myself.

Thus, the old-age question rises yet again: What exactly makes us Singaporeans sound local? Is it the way we can easily switch from one language to another in a single dialogue? Or is it the way we can rapidly deliver a single monologue? 

In my opinion, I believe that nothing can determine the way we “sound local”. We are a cosmopolitan society and everyone has their offbeat characteristics. 

It is logically impossible for every Singaporean to sound the same. Interestingly, Singaporeans debate on how to pronounce words as straightforward as terbalik. This highlights the fact that there is no realised manner of speaking Singlish or local languages unless you are studying in school.

All in all, I consider myself to be a true-blue Singaporean. Local delights such as chicken rice and nasi lemak are a must for me to consume in a single week. I prefer to have my coffee shop beverages in plastic bags rather than in cups (which is the best way to drink iced Milo). Every August, I patriotically display the Singapore flag in my HDB corridor. I celebrate when my favourite local football team the Lion City Sailors scores a goal. I cry whenever twister fries disappear from the McDonald’s menu. I have breathed the same lives as any other Singlish-speaking Singaporean in these aspects.

At the end of the day, our forefathers came from different parts of the world to build a life together in this small country. Most of them did not speak the same language, let alone have the same vernacular slang. 

The beauty of this unique mix is that all of them considered each other as Singaporeans. Therefore, people should not rely on speech to determine their sense of belonging. It does not matter if we do use or not use local dialects and slangs. 

Our national identity should not depend on the way we talk but the way we display love for our nation. 

As National Day celebrations windle down, I hope that all of us can remember that we as Singaporeans should appreciate each other for all our uncanny similarities and quirky differences. We are not a cookie-cutter nation, and not everyone sounds the same. It also pays to be kind to one another and to always be welcoming to those who are treated disparately. 

In the wise words of Albert Dumbledore, “We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided”. Huat ah, my fellow Singaporeans.