Sometimes I feel sorry for Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s efforts to make Singaporeans speak good — at least English that can convey the message or intention of the speaker — as well as those of the dogged Speak Good English movement which have been trying very hard, for more years than I can remember, playing Prof Higgins to Singaporean hearing-impaired Elizas 🙄
Yet I felt even more sorry when I saw an ang mo four times my size harranguing a hapless worker behind the meat counter at Giants at Turf City a few days before Chinese New Year.
I don’t usually visit Turf City but I was lured there by the advertised bath towels for under $2 and three avocados for under $3 with a free avocado cutter thrown in for good measure.
The ang mo in question was no doubt frustrated by not getting the info he wanted about the beef and minced beef in the display cabinet but really, was there any need for him to bellow: “Do you understand English?” for all within a 3- metre radius to hear!
I cast him several looks from a safe distance and felt sorry for the person to whom he had directed the insult.
Still, after repeating his insult a couple of times, he seemed to be satisfied with whatever the young man muttered in reply and moved away, satisfied with having put someone down.
The next day, I found myself feeling a bit like the ang mo, tho I was at my most conciliatory self, as I believed that’s the best way to get information, not getting on my high horse.
I was looking for a cheap plastic rain cape or poncho and as I was in Square 2 (next to Novena Square), i went into a shop that sold camping gear that I came across, thinking that must be where a rain cape would be sold.
Two salesmen were at the check out but as it was still early, they had no customers and were passing time chatting with each other.
No, their shop didn’t stock rain wear. One of them helpfully added: “If you go to the second or third floor, you might find it.”
I tried to pin him down.
“What’s the name of the shop?”
He consulted his colleague, checked some papers and replied: “Altar Life.”
Altar Life? You mean the Novena Church?
He looked exasperated. “In this shopping centre. Altar Life. Second or third floor.”
I was still non-plus.
“Can you spell it please?” I asked, all saccharine.
“Altar Life,” his colleague said on his behalf.
“Spell it please? A..”
He spelt it but I still LBK.
It was the turn of the two chaps to mentally roll their eyes.
One fished out a tiny piece of scrap paper and wrote down the name and passed it to me.
“Oh,” I exclaimed, “Outdoor Life!”
“That’s what we said, Altar Life,” the duo chorussed indignantly.
Still, I’m not sure if it’s their accent or my ears because more recently at the annual lo-hei of the Association of Banks in Singapore, I sat up when I heard the ABS chairman and DBS Bank CEO, Piyush Gupta, utter “Timber” loud and clear in his welcome speech, after he had said he saw green shoots all over the place and that the glass was half full.
“Timber?” I thought, staring hard at the speaker, wondering if he was going to recommend Sabah, New Zealand or the Amazon.
Tantalisingly, he went on to say “timber” some more without pin-pointing the location or reason why he was talking about wood in the Year of the Water Dragon.
Perplexed, I whispered to the guest next to me:”Why’s he saying ‘timber’?”
“Timber? He didn’t say that.”
“There, he’s just said it again.”
My fellow guest hissed back: “He said team work, team work, not timber!”
Enlightened, I listened more carefully to the rest of the speech. Indeed, Mr Gupta did say “team work” a couple more times, though for the life of me, if it wasn’t pointed out to me, I would still swear he said “timber”.
It could be the same reason why the young man at the meat counter at Giants couldn’t understand what the ang mo was saying, so much so that the customer was incensed and rude enough to ask him if he spoke English.
I spik English too but I don’t always understand how others I run into in Singapore spik it 🙄 😆