Are Singaporeans ashamed of the Singaporean accent?
Even though films like Ah Boys to Men met success by leaning into the accent, the distinct Singaporean accent is still frowned upon.
While the Singaporean accent is prevalent among locals, it isn’t always well-received. Interestingly, we are often the main critic of our accent.
TikToker @doujiang.youtiao, Koh Boon Ki recently went viral for her video on non-Science students and their ignorance regarding common health issues like constipation. However, rather than focusing on the (contentious) points raised, many took to Twitter to make fun of her accent.
There, users flooded the thread with comments about how her accent was triggering and grating on their ears. Others pointed out how she mispronounced “non” as “nun” and “talk” as “tok”. Some gave her the benefit of doubt, saying that her pronunciation is a result of her accent and that English is “clearly not her first language”.
But English is her first language, and she is just one of many who speak with a distinct Singaporean accent.
This accent should not be confused with Singlish. Unlike our colloquial form of English, our accent doesn’t encompass any of the terms we know, such as kaypoh or kiasu. Instead, it only refers to the distinct way we pronounce words.
Sociology undergraduate Hannah Sim, 21, said: “Singaporean accents tend to come off as far more coarse and chor lor (Hokkien for crude).
“We speak quickly, in staccato rhythm. On top of that, we often don’t enunciate many of our consonants and tend to fly through our words.”
While this may promote effective communication, it makes us sound less refined, which could explain why some Singaporeans change their accent when filmed. A notable example is TikToker @sugaresque, Brooke Lim.
In her video response to another TikToker’s plagiarism allegations, many noted that her accent was weird and questioned where it was from. Others said it was very inconsistent.
In the comment section of the video, TikTok user @fluffy.sheets wrote: “You drink water and your accent changes,” in reference to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s “magic language-changing cup” – a popular meme.
From a Linguistics perspective, there’s nothing to like or dislike about any language or any accent, said Assistant Professor Luke Lu of Nanyang Technological University’s Linguistics and Multilingual Studies programme.
“The way we speak English is essentially indicative of the kind of multilingual background that we often come from. It’s not something anyone should be ashamed of,” he said.
However, people tend to attach certain values, such as intelligence, familiarity and friendliness to accents. He noted because British and American English are more dominant in the media, they’re globally recognised as more valuable speech styles.
“We often tend to devalue the way that we speak in Singapore,” said Asst Prof Lu.
Many believe the Singaporean accent is inappropriate in more professional situations. Students, for instance, often change their accent to what Hannah dubs the “Singaporean presentation accent”.
“It seems that most Singaporeans attempt to switch to a more ‘refined’ or ‘Caucasian’ pronunciation when they give presentations,” she said. “But because they hardly speak that way in real life, it typically winds up sounding quite fake.”
Some Singaporeans found themselves changing their accent when speaking to non-Singaporeans. Raka Roopini, 21, is one such individual. Having been in Australia for over a year, the Biomedical Science undergraduate said there have been times when the locals found her Singaporean accent hard to understand.
“They kept asking me to repeat myself so I started speaking slower and enunciating my words better.”
This is a similar experience shared by 21-year-old Jolene Tay, who moved to the United States of America (USA) four years ago.
“There were moments where others could not understand what I was saying and I had to explain or learn the ‘American’ way of pronouncing it,” said the Psychology undergraduate.
“Many people assumed I did not speak English because of my accent… I felt looked down on at times.”
While the Singaporean accent can make communication difficult, there are instances when it comes in handy. Mohammed Shamel Fahmi, 21, mostly speaks with the Singaporean accent and found that it can help bridge some of the inter-generational gap.
“It helps me converse with the older hawker centre uncles and aunties,” he said, adding that they understand him better when he uses it.
“The accent is quite likeable because of how casual it sounds. It makes building rapport easier,” he said. Fahmi believes that his use of the Singaporean accent is why some hawkers give him discounts.
Another reason he cited is that these hawkers are more used to hearing the variation of tones in our accent.
After all, familiarity can be comforting.
Overseas, the Singaporean accent has become a landmark of sorts. It’s something locals can easily pick out from the crowd.
Raka found solace in the accent. “Other Singaporeans would identify my accent and start talking to me,” she said. “When I first came to Australia, it helped me make friends more easily and feel less homesick.”
Living abroad has also made some appreciate the accent more. Jolene said: “At first, I was a little embarrassed of our accent.
“But now, I really like having this unique part of me that connects me with home and loved ones from home. It’s fun to have something that others don’t share.”
Asst Prof Lu emphasises that the value of the Singaporean accent is context-dependent. In casual, intimate settings or when we want to showcase our local identity, the accent can be more than useful. But in formal settings like meetings or when we’re talking to international individuals, the accent may not be the most ideal.
“Any society around the world would have very distinguishable ways of speaking. Although, what’s peculiar to Singapore’s situation is that we have this inferiority complex,” he said.
“The Singaporean accent is something Singaporeans can actually learn to be more proud of because that’s something no other society in the world would actually have.”