Major: English and Comparative Literature
Hometown: Cary, NC
Study Abroad Program: Where in the World are We? (Singapore and Bali)
My time in Singapore was spent exploring many different venues for listening to Singlish: hawker centers, the MRT, teachers in Singapore, and students (both current and graduated), among other things. I was looking at the use of Singlish in relation to the use of English in Singaporean society. I spent a lot of time just finding places to sit and listen to the locals speak. However, it was very difficult to distinguish among the myriad languages that call Singapore home.
Despite these difficulties listening, one overarching theme stood out: extreme competition and a desire to move up the ladder. It's such a well-known phenomenon in Singapore that there is a word specific to this type of behavior: kiasu.
Kiasu (Traditional Chinese: 驚輸) is a Hokkein (Chinese spoken variant) word that literally translates to "fear of losing." Examples of kiasu behavior include taking unnecessarily large amounts of food on one's plate during a buffet lunch in case there is none left over (thereby ensuring that there won't be!) or pushing and shoving to get on or off the subway first.
This word is so widely used by Singaporeans that it is incorporated into their English vocabulary (in the form of Singlish). It is often used in describing the social attitudes of people, especially about Southeast Asian society and its values. Its widespread use is often because these attitudes are common—to not lose out in a highly competitive society (e.g. by above-cited examples), or to the extent of parents imposing rigorous academic schedules on their children in their wish to make them at the very top of all other students. Growing up with this attitude, these students often become ambitious businesspeople, with the desire to be on top in wealth and prestige regardless of whether the most prestigious careers are aligned with their true capabilities.
This idea of kiasu is inextricably tied to the English language. English is the official language of business in Singapore and considered by many to be the worldwide language of business. Therefore, English is the language of money. This idea of the English language being an indicator of wealth or class is also linked to ideas of Singlish. I spoke with two recent graduates from the National University of Singapore (NUS) who adamantly agreed that they wouldn't speak Singlish in front of a Westerner.
"We're a bit embarrassed by it, actually," Victor Foo told me. “It's commonly associated with those of lower class or lower education,” he said. Therefore, Victor will use Singlish with friends, but not with acquaintances, especially not Western ones. Some Singaporeans take the idea of “proper English” very seriously and think of it as a representation of their culture. Therefore English mistakes can be thought of as very upsetting.
In Bali, the thought was the same: the English language was seen as a way to gain upward social mobility, even at the potential sacrifice of a unique identity or cultural heritage. However, this is where the obvious commonalities with Singapore end. While Singaporeans, especially young Singaporeans, see English as the way to climb the corporate ladder, drive a nice car, and own a condo, the Balinese see English as a way to bring food to the table. As soon as I landed in Indonesia, I was met with the extreme disparity between Singapore and Bali. I exchanged what small amount of Singapore dollars I had left- money that I was able to live off of for two weeks in Indonesia. The focus on learning English has nothing to do with affluence here; it has to do with survival. In one way, these two places are linked by their common desire to master English; however, the reasons for doing so change in the national context.
Because English instruction is so sparse, children attend centers like the one in which I taught to bolster their education. However, not all instruction appeared helpful. I recorded several snippets of voluntary English class that was taught at the IHF Center. At times, the children worked only on repetition, with no real emphasis on actually learning. Unlike in Singapore, the government funding, private money, instructors, and facilities just aren't there. The villagers and their children are doing the best they can with the resources that are available to them.
However, the children seemed extremely eager to learn and the Balinese with whom I spoke excitedly claimed English as their favorite subject. They were focused, intelligent, and devoured any information I could give them. Many of the older Balinese were just as excited to speak about English with me as I was about Indonesian and my project to them. Unlike the Singaporeans who worried about grammatical mistakes and how they appeared to Westerners, the Balinese were more than willing to make mistakes if they ultimately aided in communication.
Regardless, not all Indonesians feel the same way. During my time in Bali, I made plans to visit the Indonesian capital, Jakarta. On the morning of my departure, there was a terrorist bombing in Jakarta that killed 9 and injured countless others. The suspects were tied to the terrorist bombings in Bali in 2002 and 2005 that killed hundreds of Westerners. It quickly became apparent that not everyone is interested in Westernization and learning English to compete on a global scale. Some are even be willing to take their lives and the lives of others to make their point known. Staying in Indonesia at the time of the Jakarta bombing was a tough way to learn this lesson, although it made a clear impact on me and the way I approached my project.
Ultimately, both the Singaporeans and the Indonesians look at English in terms of opportunity. English is the language of business, the language of money. English is the opportunity, the way up, and in some cases, the way out. Singaporeans use English to advertise their products, while showing photos of Westerners, affluence, and those that are technologically savvy. The Balinese look at English as a way to both capture tourists and to move beyond Bali themselves. They are not so much interested in climbing the corporate ladder as they are in eating and housing their families. Regardless, English is considered a necessary language to learn in both places, although for very different reasons. In this way, English certainly is becoming the dominant language of a globalized nation. It appeals across borders, among social classes, and is pervasive in most aspects of daily living. These two very distinct cultures rely heavily upon the same language, a foreign one, to propel both their personal and national interests.