BOOMZ: How a 19-year-old bikini model became the face of Singapore’s cultural cringe

I’m surprised it took this long for “BOOMZ” to make it onto a t-shirt.

“Boomz” is the tip of an iceberg. These t-shirts are just one result of a saga that’s prompted a frenzy of self-flagellation among Singaporeans (at least among the sort of Singaporeans who write in to Pravda’s letters page), and introduced the country to a not-so-proud Australian export – cultural cringe.

“Boomz” was born here, and it was created by the winner of Miss Singapore World 2009. Her name is Ris Low. (Sorry about the gratuitous bikini shots first up.)

And when Ris Low started talking about wearing “leopard preenz” and saying “boomz!”, the whole nation cringed.

Malay might be the official language of Singapore, and English its lingua franca, but Singlish is its unofficial language – a messy creole of English with Malay loanwords, Chinese word ordering, and Hokkien swear-words. (Calling someone buay kan saves two syllables over calling them “too dumb to f*ck”.)

Unsurprisingly, some Singaporeans – mostly the sort who want to paint Singapore as a cosmopolitan, business-friendly, English-speaking financial centre – have a huge problem with this.

The government tried to stamp out Singlish by creating the Speak Good English Movement (which, confusingly, has been running alongside the Speak Mandarin Campaign for the last ten years). Whether they’ll have any success stamping out a language that’s been quietly creolising for fifty years – becoming a native language, as opposed to an “invented” pidgin language – is another question entirely.

But until the government persuades its citizens to stop using Singlish (or outlaws it and confiscates it at the border, like chewing gum) Singaporeans will keep using it – and keep using it in awkward situations like promotional videos for the Miss Singapore World contest.

More after the jump.

The instant reaction to Ris Low’s video was a noisy bout of cultural cringe. “Is she fit to represent Singapore to the world?” Singapore wailed. “Is she going to say ‘boomz’ again at the Miss World contest and make us all look like hicks?”. This quote from a local English teacher, published in Pravda, summed up the country’s reaction:

On the wider problem of mangled English, a Singaporean teacher of English with over two decades of experience, who declines to be named, is blunt.

She thought the fact that there is a Speak Good English Movement is an indication of just how bad things have become. ‘I see students who cannot string two sentences together after 10 years of education,’ she says.

She attributes this to a lack of rigour and formal, intensive drilling in the basics of grammar at primary and secondary school level.

[…] Ms Low is a symptom of the ‘erosion all around’ in the teaching of English, she says. Pointedly, she declares: ‘It’s good that she has become Miss Singapore World. Her language abilities are representative of the population.’

And because Pravda wouldn’t be Pravda without schoolmarm-ish hectoring, they also ran an article entitled “How come talk like dat?”:

‘We go eat sell-men sashimi then go watch the tree o’clock flim.’

Say all this aloud to a Singaporean and he will likely get your drift. But try it on a non-Singaporean living here and he might think you are a cannibal who enjoys gazing at trees.

If you are still lost in translation, the words above mean: ‘Let’s have salmon sashimi before we catch the three o’clock film. ‘When correctly spoken, salmon is ‘samon’ (the ‘l’ is silent), and film is ‘fil-mm’ (with no pause).

Clearly, spoken English here – its grammar and vocabulary as well – can be improved. A start could be made with young people. After all, everyone knows students here often ace maths and science and even bag international awards in these subjects.

Perhaps it is why this year’s Speak Good English Movement, launched two weeks ago, is reaching out to young Singaporeans between the ages of 18 and 29.

Amidst all of the negative publicity, Ris Low won the beauty pageant, and was crowned Miss Singapore World 2009. Days later, she was stripped of the title after the judges discovered she’d been convicted of credit card fraud four months earlier. A crisis was averted. Singaporeans no longer had to feel uncomfortable about their representative at Miss World.

But the problem hasn’t gone away – and it won’t go away as long as Singlish remains entrenched as Singapore’s unofficial national language.

Ris Low’s saga – and her fall from grace – is a symptom of a deeper issue. Singapore is torn between East and West. It’s an Asian nation – natively Malay, primarily Chinese, topped up with Indian immigrants and a large community of drunken Western expats. It wants to present itself as a global business hub, fluent in English and Mandarin – and to the architects of this worldly nation, Singlish is an inconvenient relic of the days when Singapore wasn’t all office towers and shopping malls.

But Singapore could learn a lesson from the “boomz” saga. The government can’t stamp out Singlish by legislative fiat. Its “Speak Good English” and “Speak Good Mandarin” social engineering efforts leave the population profoundly uncomfortable with the language they’ve learned from birth. Maybe it’s time for the government to step back and let the people speak for themselves – let Singapore develop its own personality and its own language.

It’s time to let Singapore become its own country, instead of contenting itself with being a reflection in two mirrors: one mirror facing the western world – America, Britain, Australia – and one mirror facing China.

It’s time for Singapore to put on its “BOOMZ” t-shirt.

And anyone who disagrees is buay kan.

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