On Internalized Racism and Speaking “Good” English

By Jing Xuan Teo

The thing about growing up in Singapore is that despite being majority POC, we love white people. Maybe it’s the fact that there’s just not that many of them (rarity = want, its basic economics), or maybe it’s the fact that our leaders have entirely forgiven the British for colonial rule, despite their endless list of sins. But, that’s a blog post for another time. The combination of consuming majority western media growing up and the fact that I grew up in a Singapore that loved and adored the West meant that like many other POCs, I saw whiteness as being the ideal.

One key aspect to this was the Singaporean accent. Often dubbed as an ‘ugly’ accent due to the flatness of our tone, the fact that we add ‘la’ (amongst other words) to the end of our sentences and the way we weave other languages into our version of English. Singaporean English, or Singlish, as it’s known on the island, is an ugly form of English, or at least that’s what I was taught growing up. In primary school, I sat through a series of assembly talks where we were taught how to pronounce words ‘the correct way’. ‘Three’ is pronounced with a ‘th’ sound, not like ‘tree’, which is how most of us say it; ‘already’ required extra enunciation, rather than a mumbled ‘o-lady’.

We were told at the very young and impressionable age of eleven that the way we spoke English, despite being native English speakers, was wrong, because we didn’t sound like white people (“proper English speakers”). We had to speak clearly, enunciate our words better, and add more tones to our speech. Basically, we had to sound whiter.

This intervention was not one-off. In secondary school, I had a literature teacher who told us on the first day of class that the reason she didn’t sound Singaporean even though she’s lived here her whole life was because she chose to “Speak Good English”. We had oracy exams throughout our schooling where everyone was encouraged to punctuate their speech with extra tones to signify emotion, eliminate the ‘la’s, and if you spoke with a more ‘neutral’ accent, you’d get a better grade.

Unsurprisingly, when I moved to Australia at sixteen, I actively chose to lose my accent. I told people that it was so that I could assimilate into Australian society, to allow natives to understand me better, and thus, be my friend, and forget that I wasn’t one of them. And for many years, this was the excuse I told myself too. I knew that I could easily codeswitch back into my native accent if I chose, but when surrounded by people who sounded so proper I just could not bring myself to speak in Singlish. Furthermore, I would always get complaints from friends who have visited Singapore that Singlish was ‘hard to understand’. When egged to say a line in my native accent, I would be met with a mixture of laughter and confusion from my friends.

It was only after I started Amplify Bookstore with Marina that I actively paid attention to my personal biases and reflected on them. At Amplify, our mission is to fight against the whiteness of the publishing industry and be a place where BIPOCs are celebrated. In doing so, we’ve been forced to confront our own internal prejudices and actively work against them. Adopting the accent of the people around you, especially when you’re surrounded by it 24/7 is a very natural thing to do; actively choosing to sound more “white” to fulfil your inner need to be more white? That’s an act of internalized racism.

What is so wrong with the Singaporean accent? And why is ours criticised as ‘bad English’ when so many other accents existed. The Australian accent isn’t seen as a ‘better’ or ‘worse’ compared to other accents, it’s just different. Why was this attitude not applied to Singlish? The English language adopted words from French and it’s deemed ‘classy’ to use these words in our everyday vernacular, but when I add Chinese or Malay words to my everyday speech I’m not speaking ‘good English’. Our internalized racism told us we spoke bad English because white people could not understand us, and so in return, we churned out really damaging content like the Speak Good English Campaign.

Asian accents are rarely deemed as desirable, in both the West and Asia. The Time Out 2020 Index survey found that the British accent was voted the sexiest accent, with French and Italian coming in second and third respectively. The only Asian city mentioned was Thailand, and that’s because they voted for themselves.

This accent problem is something I’m actively trying to work on, but there’s no real solution to it. I can’t control my subconscious changing the way I speak, but I can control how I feel about it. I’ve decided there’s no shame in speaking Singlish. With all of its quirks, Singlish is almost a language in itself, and there’s pride in being multilingual.

Born & raised in Singapore, Xuan is a writer, editor and co-founder of Amplify Bookstore. Her writing often reflects her interest in media (be it film, tv or books), the cultures that guide our sense of truth, and her search for identity. She is currently finishing a Masters in Publishing & Communications at the University of Melbourne.

Cover photo by Bady Abbas on Unsplash

2 responses to “On Internalized Racism and Speaking “Good” English”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    What I love the most is the fact that white people often hold themselves at a much lower standard than they hold “English as a second language” or foreign speakers to. Grand how many can’t even differentiate “then” and “than” or “you’re” and “your” and yet when I pronounce something with a semblance of an accent it’s ridiculed.

  2. Arundhati Subhedar Avatar

    I feel this in my soul! This is how I felt growing up in India, trying to emulate Disney Channel English because it was somehow more “correct” and “cool”.

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