13 Feb 2016
Sylvia Toh: I just got lucky. It was serendipity that got me my job and where I am. With my paper qualifications, I would not be employed by anyone at all. I was thrown out of school at 14.
Trust me, it was not because I put a hand grenade in the principal's car or sugar on the seat of teachers or whatever. I simply did not pass exams. It is the truth. People tell me: "Come on, quit joshing."
And I'll tell them: "No, for real.” This is because I have never opened a textbook in my life. I only had one or two interesting teachers. The most interesting teacher taught Physical Education and speech training.
So, I had beautiful textbooks. Clean and beautiful because I have never touched them, and eventually I had to leave school because they could not keep me on. I had failed.
Bharati Jagdish: What did you do after that?
Toh: I just hung around. I went to the library, and read all the humour books, such as books written by American humourists.
Bharati: Was that where you developed this sense of humour yourself?
Toh: I suppose. Actually, my paternal grandmother was Burmese and she had a dry sense of humour, as did my father, and so I am just basically following in the tradition. We just laughed at ourselves.
I think it is a defence mechanism that you laugh first before others laugh at you. And so, at the library, I just happened to go to that shelf and discovered the extraordinary world of American humour writing. It probably just sharpened my observational skills.
Bharati: So you started writing these down?
Toh: Yes, in my teens. I was at a magazine's office, to see the editor of Her World. I had written something about being a teenager, which they found quite funny. The editor was busy, so he introduced me to another editor of a weekly magazine who said: "Do you watch TV?" I said yes, and he replied: "Okay, go home and review this weekend's TV for me."
And I did, he read it and said: "Good, continue to do this every weekend." And so, it just started from there.
BORN IN MALAYSIA, YET LOVES SINGLISH
Bharati: I understand that you became a Singaporean only in your twenties.
Bharati: But you lived here a long time before that.
Toh: Yes, I was born in Penang like my parents. Typically, my parents came out to Singapore - the grass being greener on the other side - and the rest of my siblings were born in Singapore. Typically, in my “hang-loose” manner, I never got round to applying for citizenship until I was 25.
Bharati: But you felt Singaporean way before that.
Toh: Oh yes, absolutely. Yeah.
Bharati: What about your Malaysian roots, though?
Toh: Oh, every school holiday, we would take the - I think this phrase will be unknown to millennials today - “night mail”, the train from Tanjong Pagar railway station, and go to Penang to spend my holidays with my cousins, where we would hop on bicycles, rickshaws, trishaws to go and eat.
Bharati: Malaysia has its own brand of local English, right?
Toh: I suppose so. You could call it Manglish.
Bharati: Do you identify with that at all, considering your Malaysian roots?
Toh: Yes, I do. This is because you use roughly the same words and phrases in Penang as you would in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Or Malacca and Johor, even.
Bharati: So why did you choose to explore Singlish instead of Manglish?
Toh: Possibly because I had become a Singapore citizen. It is a good question. Perhaps that dates to when I became Singaporean. True blue. Actually, this was pretty much late in life, already in the 80’s.
I had to produce a Sunday humour column every week. And by Friday, I would be panicking, but that is how I work. I would have gone out to lunch with some old friends, and I said: “Okay, whoever's early, chope (reserve) seats first.” So when I got back to the office, I thought: “Ah, why don't I write about words like chope?” And so I did.
The first column was so hugely popular and appeared to have made the whole island laugh. I continued doing this and before I knew it, there were 13 columns on Singlish, and then a publisher said: “Look here, why don't we put this in a book?” He took me out and bought me a S$5 sundae and I was sold.
Bharati: Didn’t take much, did it? What do you like about Singlish, personally?
Toh: The “shortcut-ness” of it. When no other word would fit, or phrase, it is just so apt. Just nails it, you know?
Bharati: Very economical language. What are your favourite Singlish phrases?
Toh: I am afraid to answer this because I actually do not use Singlish that much.
Bharati: I noticed. And we will discuss that in just moment.
Toh: Yes, I happened to have written the definitive book or other only because I have such a memory. I basically remembered all these words and just, you know, churned them out. It is just way too many to zero in on a word or a phrase or even a ditty. I suppose shiok, which actually is the wrong word. It should be sedap, not shiok.
Bharati: In Malay.
Toh: Yes, for when they eat.
Bharati: It sounds like you did this as an assignment, and like you said, you don't use it often in life. Why is that?
Toh: I grew up monolingual. My parents and us, we spoke English. My parents may speak Penang Hokkien to each other, but with us, English. So, I was also quite a bit of a pain in that I would correct my siblings' English. I became a stickler for pronouncing words properly, grammatically correct and everything.
Bharati: So do you like the language or not? Do you like Singlish or not?
Toh: Oh yes, because it is our identity. It is local identity and even deeper, it is in our DNA. Difficult to define, like British humour. I would not be able to conduct a master class in it. It just comes naturally to all of us.
Bharati: You say it is part of identity, DNA, but you do not speak it?
Toh: Yes, that is right. Possibly because I know exactly when to use it, so it is in the backburner or the little drawers in your mind. You know when to open and pull out a word or phrase, because I have always worked in magazines, newspapers, books, television, where it has to be proper, grammatically correct English. And then knowing when to lapse into it.
WHITHER ENGLISH (AND SINGLISH)?
Bharati: But that is the issue – knowing when to lapse into it. Many Singaporeans are not able to speak well when required to in order to be understood, and end up speaking Singlish all the time. How do you feel about the Speak Good English Movement? Because obviously, they have a certain mandate to encourage all Singaporeans to speak well.
Toh: Hasn't worked, has it?
Bharati: You feel it hasn't worked?
Toh: First, you have to have a grounding, and they do not. You have to start all over again from point one. The teachers are not making it interesting - I know that because I failed all my school exams from not being interested.
Bharati: You failed English as well?
Toh: No, I think that was the only thing I didn't fail in.
Bharati: But that was your parents' influence. You were from an English-speaking home.
Toh: Yes, exactly.
Bharati: So you say the Speak Good English Movement really has not worked, and you are saying it is possibly because teachers in school are not making it interesting.
Toh: Perhaps it is the way things are taught in Singapore. Perhaps with not much creativity. You know, taught by rote to pass exams. That alone will put one off.
Bharati: If it were up to you, how would you say it needs to be taught?
Toh: It has to be taught the fun way. I remember things when they are told in anecdotal form. Not in a “pass exam” form. I immediately drop out.
Bharati: Right, so use storytelling.
Toh: That's right, yeah. And then tell it to me - retell that story in proper English.
Bharati: So, let's talk about the tension between the learning of proper English and Singlish as part of our Singaporean identity. The Speak Good English Movement has talked about knowing when to use English and knowing when to use Singlish is very important. But many Singaporeans fail at this. Is Singlish getting in the way of the learning of proper English?
Toh: You cannot stop speaking Singlish, because look at how we have grown, and the fastest way to express and be understood across the counter, whether it is to a bank teller, supermarket checkout girl. When all else fails, you lapse into Singlish because it is also the shortest way to say things.
Bharati: So yes, people need to be taught to speak properly, but you are saying we should not, in the process of learning proper English, condemn Singlish?
Toh: Yes, correct. It is part of our heritage. It is a cultural thing for us. It is part of us, in our DNA, our identity. But, yeah. You need to know, perhaps, not to conduct every conversation in Singlish. It is challenging, I dare say.
Bharati: Now that we are in this position where a lot of adults do not speak very well, where kids are also struggling with the English language and Mandarin, perhaps the condemnation of Singlish is warranted. For people like you with a strong English language foundation, it is fine, but for others, Singlish may be confusing the learning of proper English.
Toh: You see, the other thing is, you also need to ask when and where you would need a population that is all speaking in proper English. I do not think so. In my working life, I have met all kinds of people. Some of them, in their jobs, they do not actually need it, so they do not bother.
Bharati: I understand that. But there are also concerns that even people who need to have a comfortable command of the English language end up not having it, and they do not even realise that they are making all sorts of mistakes, and their statements are being misinterpreted or not understood as a result of it.
Toh: There is the nub, actually. They do not realise. What are we do to? Give the whole nation tuition class? I think, yeah. I will be the class monitor. I cannot teach it, but I can be the class monitor. Ah, you said lah! Then I will say: “Die for you, lah!” It has to be taught the fun way.
Bharati: So, go back to the learning without condemning Singlish. Clearly, Singlish is very much denigrated in some circles. Even though we all speak it at some point or another. Most Singaporeans do. So how do you think the status of Singlish can be elevated?
Toh: Oh, I'm not sure “elevated” is the word. Well, if you offer it as a paper in your O- and A-Levels, that will be one way to elevate it. Every day on Facebook, there are quizzes to discover whether you are Brazilian, you are a saint and so on. We should have one of these Are you headed for a Singlish MA, PhD-type quizzes.
Bharati: You mentioned that you have noticed Singlish is a growing language.
Toh: Well, to begin with, goondu, eh, goondu, lagi goondu, these are phrases you would not hear anymore. The baby-boomers are the ones who would use that because that is like from way back. It is ancient history.
And then, I started to hear my Chinese-educated friends use words like chio, chiobu, bojio. These are translated from Mandarin.
Originally, Singlish was basically literal translations from Malay and Hokkien. It is a sign that it is alive.
It is a patois, a lingua franca. People are forever trying to preserve Peranakan culture. The day, to my mind, the day you start to preserve anything, it means it is already dead. I do not have this same sentiment about Singlish. It is ongoing and it is not dead.
We do not have to preserve it. It evolves and is alive.
Bharati: Immigration influences the way we speak too. Today, some feel that the Singapore identity is under threat because of an influx of newcomers and new citizens.
You mentioned some time ago, “by giving vent to our disgruntlement, we miss the point that the DNA of this country is to be at the crossroads of the world, to be cosmopolitan, open, and welcoming to fresh new talent”. But isn’t it precisely because we have built a Singaporean identity, of which Singlish is clearly a big part, immigrants and new citizens will be viewed as outsiders rather than just a mere injection of more DNA?
Toh: I never forget that my parents and I were immigrants. We need them today to fill jobs that we do not do. I believe that soon enough, they will be speaking Singlish, because they will catch on that it is the fastest way to be understood by the Singaporean.
We have to integrate them. So that eventually, when I take the train and I see an immigrant sitting in the reserved seats, I am able to say to him: “Hello, this one auntie's place.” And he will get up. That is full integration.
Bharati: But do you see it happening? Many of us would have had experiences with service staff who do not speak English or understand Singlish.
Toh: It will. Slowly but surely, it will. It has to.
Bharati: Why are you so confident?
Toh: How else to continue to live and work here? No man is an island. They will learn. I do believe they will. It is just that they work so hard, I do not think they have time for classes, but ... they will.
Bharati: Recently, Member of Parliament Darryl David suggested that English proficiency be a pre-requisite for new Singapore citizens. Do you think Singlish proficiency should be a pre-requisite instead?
Toh: They have to learn both, because they are going encounter Singlish. I do not see a time, certainly not in my lifetime that all Singaporeans will speak like the characters in Masters of the Sea.
Bharati: Oh, I remember this: It was a Singapore-made English language drama on Channel 5.
Toh: That is right. Where we were like: "Say what? Is this the Twilight Zone?”
Bharati: It was very proper English, and it did not seem natural.
Toh: They were self-conscious, that was the problem. I do not see that happening here, so you will have to learn to speak English and Singlish to be understood and basically to communicate, and to integrate.
Bharati: Do you think Singlish should be mainstreamed? Be used in the media?
Toh: I would not go so far as that. Just key words and phrases when nothing else will do, like, sotong for someone who is not clued in. Kiasu for someone who is, you know ...
Bharati: But not a lah or lor at every turn.
Toh: Oh, no, no. It has to come naturally, but not underscore it. Not like "you add this, therefore it is Singlish". It will be too much of a deliberate exercise.
A SINGAPOREAN IDENTITY?
Bharati: We were talking about immigration earlier. Even though our parents, grandparents and some of us may be immigrants, do you see how Singaporeans might feel their identity is being eroded by newer immigrants partly because we have already developed our own patois?
Toh: Yes, I understand perfectly, I have said it myself. I find, “eh, I'm losing my sense of humour, or have I become an alien in my own country?”
Bharati: So while you have said in the past that we should not be so disgruntled about it, you do feel disgruntled sometimes, or is it just your noticing?
Toh: Yes, I do notice it. I am more accepting because I understand people have to go somewhere and work where there is an opportunity. I do meet people who say: “Oh, they are taking my son's scholarship or my daughter's job.”
I'm sure that that is likely happening, but not at the rate as to be a gripped by fear. I do not see it that way. I actually see them integrating. If at all, the disgruntlement is probably from being pushed in a crowd, maybe; but it is momentary. We should not be so cynical. That is what has happened to us over time. Now that we are at almost at our freest, I would say freedom of speech is more here now than in Europe today.
Bharati: What makes you say that?
Toh: Oh, just from people being able to vocalise and say and do all the things which they never used to do or say because of self-censorship. But, unfortunately, what that has produced is cynicism. I find Singaporeans quite a cynical lot.
Bharati: And you think this is happening because of excessive control and self-censorship in the past. Cynical in what way?
Toh: Yes, that is what it has reduced us to. People no longer believe. Their first stance is combative. Like "oh, they're giving us S$10. Tomorrow, they will tax us S$11." That is the first thing they think instead of thinking: “I think I'll go and spend S$9."
Bharati: How do you maintain your own lack of cynicism?
Toh: I am a simpleton. I mean, of course, which country does not have its problems.
Bharati: Let us go back to the question of identity. It has been brought up even at the highest levels, by the Prime Minister, Mr Lee Hsien Loong. How would you define yours?
Toh: Oh, my goodness. I never go there, because it would mean I have an identity crisis, and I do not. I am very much Penang as well as very much Singaporean, and I am also very cosmopolitan. I can just go anywhere and speak with 11-year-olds to 72-year-olds. I can talk with anybody on anything.
Bharati: But, that is your identity. What about the national Singaporean identity?
Toh: All this harping on identity is to underline and underscore that we do not have one. It is to bury it if you keep on digging at it.
Bharati: So you are saying, just let things happen?
Toh: Yes. Yes, yes. Evolve, like we have. Singapore has.
Bharati: Should there be some traits and values that we can say define us? If everything were left to evolution, wouldn’t some things be at risk of being lost, valuable things?
Toh: I do not know about Singapore values. It has basically got to be human values. Just be considerate, do not be so aggressive towards the immigrant population. Our love of food – it is amazing. Any time you ask a Singaporean: "What would you miss about Singapore if you have to live abroad?" and they will say: "Chicken rice or laksa.”
I could never answer that way. I would say: "I will miss my friends" or "I miss being able to just run down from my block of flats, in my flip-flops and shorts at 2am and go and eat something, or go to Mustafa and shop or whatever ... safe in the knowledge that I am not going to be mugged." It’s the little things.
Bharati: It does not have to be big and lofty ideals.
Bharati: Although lofty ideas are important …
Toh: Hello, no need. To me, at the end of the day, basically it is about the kind of person you are. There are a few identifying traits, I suppose.
You can identify a Singaporean. They love to just shop and eat, and eat and shop. When they shop, the first thing they ask is: "Any discount?" In a bookshop, part of our identity is parents looking for improvement books for the kids. Never a storybook, always an assessment book.
Bharati: That we need to change.
Toh: Of course. By all means, buy the assessment book, but also buy the storybook and the comic book. You cannot imagine how much I have learned from watching cartoons on TV.
Bharati: What are your favourites?
Toh: Oh, Looney Tunes. Warner Brothers. Very good cartoons. I am not a fan of Disney. I have learned nothing from there. A mouse walking a dog, for goodness' sake. Plain ridiculous. So at least with Bugs Bunny, you actually learn classical music, history … I like to think I am a sophisticated, literate person thanks to cartoons, radio, comics, the works.
Bharati: You broadened your horizons…
Toh: Yes. And learning through also serendipity. You find things out. Today, serendipity has just been decimated, terminated by Dr Google.
Every mother's son is an expert, you know, just from your fingertips. Just Google it. I used to have to find things out the hard way, and then when you found it out by accident, it was just lovely.
Bharati: Do you feel like we are less intelligent for it? The conveniences of technology?
Toh: Certainly, some of the people I meet will confirm that we are less intelligent. If you talk with them at length, you cannot, because they do not have many points of references from not reading, not knowing, not learning. And, I have to add, it is because they do not have to. They figure for their jobs, they do not need to read War and Peace. They will say: "What!? So thick!"
Bharati: What do you think the problem is?
Toh: It may be efficiency. Just the thinking that this is not going to help me move up the corporate ladder, so ...
Bharati: Too much of a focus on learning for utility?
Toh: Yes. Like buying assessment books, and skipping out on comics and storybooks. Kiasu-ism. Just a fear of perhaps being left behind. Of not being number one.
Because it is drilled into us, we are No 1 at everything. You have to then figure out - do those things matter? Yes, they do matter, but we also have to be No 1 in disciplines that appear like they should not matter, but they should, like being happy, creative.
Bharati: Less quantifiable things.
Toh: The intangibles.
Bharati: The Education Ministry is trying to change the focus now – from being academic-focused to helping kids pursue their passions, from being focused on numbers and rankings to help kids develop a love for learning.
Toh: Absolutely. Everything geared towards passing the grade, then getting a higher grade. Reaching another level.
Bharati: How do you think mindsets can change though?
Toh: I think that is the toughest job facing our administration. Changing the mindset, which actually the old guard bred. That is the toughest when you tell people, "this is white, and this is black". They believe you, and now you have to tell them "this is grey" and they cannot get the grey. I should join the administration. I will wait for the knock on the door.
Bharati: What will you do after you have joined it?
Toh: Well, actually I would do a seriously good job of it.
Bharati: Give me an idea.
Toh: I can't because, then I would have to kill you.
Bharati: Classified, is it?
Toh: Yes, that's right.
Bharati: But seriously …
Toh: You know I remember when Media Development Authority was started, and they had all these prominent figures in the committee. They needed to also have the movie buff, just men on the street. They did not have that. Always just picking the same old prominent people in every committee. You need to open your doors, gates, wide open.
Bharati: And let people like you in?
Bharati: You need to have an idea, though, of what you might do.
Toh: First of all, I think maybe we will not be so blinkered. I think they may have pretty set ideas, and perhaps their advisers are those who also have such set ideas, because they know this is what they want to hear. When people say, he or she thinks out of the box, for me that is not enough.
I like to think out of the warehouse. You know, take that mind and just go to an open window, toss that out, and let's start afresh, with a clean slate, a blank piece of paper and we all put our heads together after we have abdicated that mindset, and start again. It is only from that, that new ideas can ferment I believe.
Bharati: Okay, so maybe you do not have a concrete new idea now, but let's empty out the old ideas first.
Toh: That is right. We have to un-condition, and start from there. First, we have to unlearn what we have learnt.
Bharati: One last thing. We talked about humour. In the past, you have said to other media that sometimes you feel that humour in Singapore is too politically correct, and therefore is not so humorous. Also, you have mentioned that you do not really appreciate people who make racist jokes and jibes at themselves to get the laughs. So what to you is ideal?
Toh: There was a comic on radio and TV called Dave Allen. He never had to make sex jokes to be funny, so it is along those lines. But as free, as open as we have become, we have also become so politically correct that our humour is now politically correct, where it never used to be in the beginning.
Bharati: Give me an illustration of this.
Toh: Today, I find you cannot make jokes about, for instance, LGBT issues. Before, it was just free for all. Today, everything, "oh, this would annoy the Catholics, the LGBT community, the grassroots”. I am finished, I have nothing to tell you. Not only can they not take it, they actually take offence at it.
Bharati: But if, to begin with, people lack understanding of an issue, making fun of it might mis-inform further, would you not say? Maybe we just have not evolved enough for jokes about such issues to be taken lightly, and rightfully so.
Toh: Humour actually, the sky is the limit, you know? If we want to take offence, we should take offence at the refugee problem, we should be more offended by the hungry, the starving, those with no medicine.