Matters most

Of all school disciplines English language matters most. Clarity, confidence, communication are the bedrock of every other endeavour in education and in life: from physics to marketing, from engineering to law. Neglecting, downgrading and generally dumbing standards is a greater cruelty to children than anything visited on them by a clumsy exam board…It is wicked not to emphasise the difference between chatty street slang and formal, universally understood, clarity and correctness.

Libby Purves


Rights and prudence

Sexual intercourse without the consent of all the parties involved is rape, regardless of the sex or identity of the perpetrator.

A spouse can commit rape. A woman can commit rape.

A woman in a public house may express willingness to have sex with a man but if she changes her mind in the hotel room, or at the very last second when the man is about to penetrate her; it becomes non-consensual and is therefore rape if the man does not heed her refusal, however last-minute or fickle it might seem.

An adult in a first-world society is free to do whatever he wants as long as no physical or emotional harm is done to any other person, within limits of the law in that particular land.

This means a woman, in this case the rape victim, has the right to stay over at a man’s house for a drink, regardless of the time or circumstance. It was not her fault that she chose to go over to a friend’s house alone. It was not her fault that with only two other people in the house, both men, she chose to consume alcohol and get drunk. If the men then chose to rape her, harm her, it was their fault and their responsibility as adults to face the consequences.

Having said that, as a parent, it will be very human for me to warn my daughter of the possible dangers of getting drunk in the presence of men, or that the revealing attire on them might attract unwanted attention.

It is a matter of course that women have every right to wear and do whatever they want. It is also a matter of course that as a parent my concern for my daughters would somehow give me no choice but to feel that they should have at least been more prudent.


Spoken language is important as well as written. I keep trying to remember diction. One of the reasons we love a good British accent is that words are actually pronounced correctly.

– anonymous from the US

It is not the British who have the accents – it is the US, Canada, and other English speaking countries. It is always the country of origin which has the purest form of a language. All others are changed and influence through the integration of other nationalities and original languages.

– anonymous from the US

First, I assume that you are refering to Received Pronunciation (RP) by your using the phrase ‘good British accent’ because there are numerous English accents in Great Britain and the majority of them exist in England alone, excluding Scotland and Wales.

Second, by what standard can one judge whether a particular pronunciation is ‘correct’ or not? The ‘standard’ English accent of Shakespeare’s time sounds far removed from RP.

General American (AmE), however, has retained elements of an older British standard, such as rhoticity and the short vowels, which the English had discarded between the late 1700s and early 1800s.

Third, I have noticed how people in the US tend to pronounce English words by their every syllable whereas RP Speakers or those who have inherited the British system, during the days of Empire, do not.

E.g. Americans pronounce every syllable of words like ‘contemporary’ and ‘library’ whereas RP speakers tend to gloss over some bits.

Fourth, Standard US English in some sense is more phonetic — words are spelt the way they are pronounced — than Standard British English (BrE).

E.g. A word such as ‘route’ is more logically read as ‘r-out’ than ‘root’, which is precisely what Americans do compared with RP speakers. Why ‘centre’ in BrE when the word is pronounced ‘center’ in the US?

There is no such thing as a ‘gold standard’ of English but many standard Englishes in terms of oral and written: standard British English, General American, standard Australian English, standard Canadian English, standard Indian English, etc.

English as a language may have originated from the United Kingdom but across the world where English took root, it evolved. British English also evolved, and in some respects more so than US English.

So which is ‘purer’?

Having said that, I am still a stickler for BrE because it is the linguistic norm in which I was brought up and educated.

barbarous VIP

‘How VIP do we gotta get?’


The great Sir Paul McCartney was apparently turned away by the bouncers of a post-Grammy Awards party that was hosted by a rapper at a nightclub, when he made the above remark in a language that seemed to be English.

It should have been, in standard English: ‘How VIP do we have to be?’ or ‘How VIP must we be?’

PAP-esque places of learning

‘We cannot allow it because schools are neutral places for learning and not platforms for partisan politics.’

– Ministry of Education (MOE), on the Singapore Democratic Party’s request to conduct talks in schools

As much as I envisage schools to be ‘neutral places of learning’, let me put it to MOE that our schools have never been politically neutral: the ideology of our ruling party presupposes our social studies and history curricula to the extent that only one narrative of our country’s struggle for independence is taught, which is that of the PAP.

It is a matter of course that our ruling party controls the narrative arc of our history — they were the victors — and like any other triumphant political party, they frame the story to their benefit.

If Barisan Sosialis were to make up the government instead of the PAP, it is highly probable that they would do the same thing and our history books would be telling a different story.

As such, it is a falsehood that educational institutions and the civil service are non-partisan spaces. They never were and would always take the cue from whomever runs the show in this country.

A short and chubby man

Does height matter?

It does if one intends to be a flight steward.

It does if one aspires to be a popular ‘actor’ in our looks-obsessed television industry.

It does not and never has been if one is looking for a life partner.


I am a short and chubby yellow-skinned man with thin black hair atop an unflatteringly high brow with a pair of beady quintessential Chinese eyes squinting through black horn-rimmed spectacles that perch on a greasy flat nose. 
Thin unkissable lips and a protruding chin complete the nerdy look.
Er, I am not someone whom the average girl on the street calls a ‘hunk’, am I?
Fortunately for me, my wife does not like jocks: she fancies nerds.
She likes me for my intelligence, eloquence and wit. It helps that I was a debater and orator during my school days and that I apparently have a ‘beautiful’ speaking voice, or so she opines. I also wooed her in the old-fashioned, poetry-writing way.
We have now been married for 11 years, after a four-year courtship, and have four beautiful children.
There is always something about oneself of which one can be proud. Focus on that. It will boost one’s confidence for a start.
As time passes, with many experiences and lessons learnt along the way, maturity settles in, and with that usually the diminishing of these trivial insecurities.

Fewer models

I am worried for my children because there are fewer models of well-spoken and well-written English among the educated public in this country for them to emulate.

What can I do when their English language teachers in school do not pronounce words accurately in the classroom?

I can only do my part as a parent by communicating with them in English that is grammatically and phonetically sound.

Linguistic superiority of primary-school pupils

It is amusing how adults whose grasp of the English language seem appallingly poor are not able to accept that a primary-five pupil could be intellectually superior, language-wise.

Yes, a well taught primary-five pupil with high verbal intelligence, i.e. an aptitude for language or the literary arts, can write this letter about the Direct Schools Admission scheme. During my upper-primary school days, teachers often wondered if I had plagiarised portions of my compositions until the written examinations demonstrated otherwise.

Sharing notes

If there ever was a grossly misused word in this country, it is ‘debate’ in the context of our leaders in parliament.

Our leaders discuss and share notes; they never debate. They say ‘amen’ to one another and make speeches to the choir but they never ever debate.

The occasions when they do engage in animated verbal jousting were disagreements between the ruling party and the opposing groups.

Cissy generation

There was a time when the teacher was God and pupils respect him out of neither popularity nor affection; there was only fear and fear was what maintained decorum in the classroom. Fear was what compelled every pupil to complete his homework and sit upright in class.

Abuse? What abuse? Spankings and slaps and ear-pullings were common occurrences and physical pain was expected by anyone who misbehave.

Is it any wonder we have brought up a generation of young people who take offence at almost every ‘political incorrectness’?

Is it also any wonder we have brought up a generation of cissy soldiers whose duffel bags have wheels and trolley handles?

Speaking English well

Speaking English well is not about having a native anglophone accent, e.g. Received Pronunciation and General American; but everything to do with clarity, diction and pronunciation. Think of stage actor Brendon Fernandez, television comic actor Chua En Lai, PM Lee Hsien Loong and his late father, newsreader Jill Neubronner, Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan and opposition politician Dr Chee Soon Juan, among others. All of them speak English well and with a Singaporean accent.

When my son performed in the showcase by the Singapore Symphony Children’s Choir that featured local conductor Darius Lim, the emcee for that event apparently tried to speak in a rhotic pseudo-American accent but committed several pronunciation errors that I could not help but wince. I am certain that there were English language teachers among the audience who thought the same way.

not among the creme de la creme

We may be the most proficient in the English language among Asian countries but compared with Scandinavian Europe, we are ranked outside the creme de la creme.

The TOP 12 non-native anglophone countries with the highest English proficiency for the year 2015 are as follows:

1. Sweden
2. The Netherlands
3. Denmark
4. Norway
5. Finland
6. Slovenia
7. Estonia
8. Luxembourg
9. Poland
10. Austria
11. Germany


Old school

When I attended primary school in the late 1980s, school teachers recommended pupils to buy, in addition to the standard curriculum, an English language guidebook in softcover called ‘Primary English’.

I thought it was one of the best to have come out of our English education system.

I remember reading it every other day for leisure, along with an old English dictionary belonging to Mama, and had learnt by heart the numerous proverbs, idioms and phrases contained in it.

It helped that I was an English nerd but really, when it comes to learning the myriad ‘exceptions to the rule’ in our language, there is no other way except Old-School rote-learning.

England since the 1960s, to their detriment, has all but ditched its traditional teaching of English grammar in its schools. The empirical data from England speak for themselves. It is now a cliche that a person who speaks and writes English as a foreign or secondary language tends to have a higher proficiency in it than the average native user.

Singapore appears to be heading the way of England when MOE dumped grammar drills for ‘functional literacy’. Should it be a cause for concern? I don’t know. It seems that I have to trust the ‘experts’ on this one.