Saturday, November 15, 2014


In a land where appearing on the top of world charts is something devoutly to be wished for, it must come as a blow to us when year after year, we are trounced by a country as incompetent as Malaysia.  But this year is no exception. We still occupy a place below Malaysia on the world chart.

I first discovered this when I read this article in the South China Morning Post which complains about how Hong Kong's English proficiency has for the first time sunk below that of some cities in mainland China as seen in the EF English Proficiency Index. After complaining bitterly about the decline of the standard of English in Hong Kong, the article drops this bombshell:
Malaysia was the top-ranking Asian country in 12th place.
Now, surely Malaysia can't possibly be the top-ranking Asian country? Has the writer forgotten Singapore?  Ever eager to go directly to the source, I looked up the internet for the actual EF English Proficiency Index and yes, Malaysia ranks higher than Singapore in English proficiency.

As you can see, Malaysia occupies the 12th position and Singapore the 13th under "High Proficiency".

Malaysia has a total score of 59.72 and Singapore comes close at its heels with a score of 59.58. Mind you, this index is only for countries in which English is not the first language. Singapore's position below Malaysia, however small the margin may be, is a disgrace. This is because English is very much Singapore's primary language; all the other countries in the index do not have English as their main language.

This is precisely what I have been blogging about for years until I'm beginning to sound like a broken record. I have just counted all my blog posts in which I brought up the egregious language blunders made by Singapore's Speak Good English Movement, MOE's language experts and other language teachers in Singapore including the Sub-Dean of the School of Arts and Social Sciences in SIM University and I have written more than 50 articles in my blog on this! If you are interested in a list of all of them, I have summarised them on one page - click here. I add on to this list each time I post a fresh article on this topic. I have covered not just the mistakes of Singapore's English language experts but I have also examined in a fun and lighthearted way mistakes made in school anthems in Singapore.

But all this has fallen on deaf ears. The Speak Good English Movement has shown itself to be totally clueless about English grammar and proper English usage. But that's not all. Despite its ignorance and incompetence, it has gone on to write a grammar book in two volumes or at least this grammar book was written in collaboration with it. I have shown in my blog posts that this grammar book is so incredibly flawed that you can't go through two pages without spotting a few outrageous grammatical errors in them. I have explained how this book together with the language advice given by the Movement to students is extremely ruinous to the standard of English of students and of course the overall English proficiency of the entire nation.

The Movement is not a harmless clown that is only good for a laugh. I started out looking at the Speak Good English Movement in that way. I made fun of their errors which are great dinner conversation starters. But I soon began to see how school students are misled by the Movement’s experts. Students would innocently ask the "experts" questions on grammar and the experts would tell them to replace their correct sentences with the experts' grammatically erroneous ones. I have given many examples of this in the link above. It was only when it became evident to me that this harm done to students was not an isolated incident but the Movement's consistent course of action that I knew the Movement could not be looked upon as innocuous. Contrary to its objectives, the Speak Good English Movement has a most pernicious impact on the standard of English in Singapore.

Before I go on, let me say from the outset that the people behind the Movement are honest and sincere and they truly desire the best for Singapore. My only complaint and this is something I have stated repeatedly in my blog is the Movement's language experts - they are undoubtedly not suited to the job. That they are they ignorant of basic grammar rules is bad enough but that is not all; they have even been shown to cook up their own grammar rules that fly in the face of the rules of standard English. And because they are not well-read, they are unable to see that there are many creative ways that English sentences can be constructed and they are very quick to denounce any sentence structure or English usage that they, in their limited knowledge and deficient reading, are not familiar with. Apart from lowering the standard of English in Singapore, the Movement's actions also have the inimical effect of stifling whatever linguistic creativity a student has.

For many months, the website of the Speak Good English Movement was "under construction" which was fine. As long as the Movement lies dormant, no harm is done to students in Singapore. But recently, they came back online. I thought they would have got their act together, removed all the hideous errors and revamped the entire website. But as I reported in this blog post when I first discovered they had come back to life, nothing has changed. Just go to their website and you will see that they display the same poor grasp of even the simplest rules of English grammar. Let's take their "List of Common English Errors in Everyday Situations" and let's start from the very beginning:

This is the kind of trash the Speak Good English Movement is famous for dishing out. This irritating problem that the Movement has is commonly seen in English language teachers who aren't sure of the language they are teaching. Unlike many other languages, English is the only language in the world that allows for a million different ways to express the same thought. It is also a language that stumps many learners because each word or phrase can have a wide range of diverse meanings. This gives it a flexibility not found in other languages and it is the ideal language for poetry and other literary forms. It is for this reason that Goethe once remarked that Byron's "Don Juan" was written in a "cultured comic language" and only the English language could produce it. I'm tempted to give a few examples from "Don Juan" itself but I've always been told, sometimes sternly, to get to the point and so I shall.

Put to sleep means precisely that: to cause someone to sleep. This meaning is as old as the first humming of a primitive lullaby to a Saxon baby even before Beowulf was written. If you google the baby websites in all English-speaking countries from Canada to New Zealand, you will find that "putting a child to sleep" is a perfectly acceptable expression today and nobody on the safe side of the walls of Woodbridge Mental Hospital will confuse that with euthanising a child.

But for a long time, death has been something most people avoid mentioning. In English, the image of sleep is frequently used to signify death. But this does not mean that the word "sleep" takes on a new meaning and can ONLY mean death. Sleep can be used euphemistically to mean death but it's wrong to say that it can no longer be used to mean mere slumber.

So, when does sleep mean sleep and when does it mean death? As with all things, it depends on the context. The following exercise will be good for the Speak Good English Movement. It will help them to exercise their brains so that they can learn to discern what words really mean from the context.  These are examples from the King James Bible which was written 400 years ago:

He built Eloth, and restored it to Judah, after that the king slept with his fathers. (2 Chr 26:2) 
I laid me down and slept; I awaked; for the Lord sustained me. (Ps 3:5)

But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way. (Mt 13:25)

And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose. (Mt 27:52)

Say ye, His disciples came by night, and stole him away while we slept. (Mt 28:13)

But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. (1 Cor 15:20) 
Woe betide the Speak Good English Movement if they dare suggest that you should not say "sleep" when you mean slumber because it can be used euphemistically to mean death.

There are examples galore from various dictionaries of someone being put to sleep and it has nothing to do with killing him. Here's one:
Bunny and Sue were given a good dinner and put to sleep that afternoon, for they were tired, sleepy and hungry.
You can search the entire length and breadth of this planet but only Singapore's Speak Good English Movement will say that whoever it was that put Bunny and Sue to sleep was deserving of the death penalty.

There is another euphemistic expression for "to euthanise". It's "to put down",  Here again is an example I borrow from a dictionary:
Rex was in so much pain, they had to put him down.
The meaning of "to euthanise" is unmistakeable. But as with all English expressions, there are a multitude of meanings to any expression and "to put down" has more than a dozen other meanings. Here's another dictionary example:
I had just put Mary down when you rang. So now she's crying again.
Unless one were a raving lunatic who ought to be strapped in a strong straitjacket and thrown into a locked padded cell, one would not think that the speaker in that sentence had just killed her baby girl.

What about a "double whammy" example that's sure to terrify the Speak Good English Movement? Since "to put down" and "to put to sleep" can both mean to euthanise, the Speak Good English Movement would probably be all the more alarmed if we say we "put a baby down to sleep". Of course a vet who's putting a suffering dog down to sleep is euthanising it but these dictionary examples clearly make no reference to euthanasia at all:
I wasn't scared at first about becoming a mum, but as the months went on I started to worry about things like bathing her and putting her down to sleep properly. 
Katie put Julie down to sleep and then went over to the dining room table so that she could do her homework and still be able to watch the kids.
The idiocy of the Speak Good English Movement has just inspired me to come up with an episode for the old comedy, "Mind Your Language".
Mr Singh picks up a young child who shouts furiously, "Put me down!" Mr Singh reaches for his religious dagger that he always carries with him in the comedy but before he can do anything further, Mr Brown, in a stern voice, tells him to put away the dagger. 
"Thousand apologies," says Mr Singh as he shakes his head. "You were telling us just the other day in class that to put something down is to kill it. This boy has just asked me to put him down."
It may be hilarious in a comedy like "Mind Your Language" but it's not amusing in the least when Singapore's Speak Good English Movement shows itself to be just as clueless about English usage as the fictional foreigner who's learning to speak English in the comedy.

And I have only dealt with the first item in their list of "Common English Mistakes in Everyday Situations". That list is a minefield of many other glaring errors which I may, if I have the time, expose in this blog. I've only gone through a bit more of this new website of the Speak Good English Movement and I assure you I have encountered errors too numerous for me to blog about. Why can't the government do the decent thing and disband this Movement? I cannot overemphasise the fact that the people in the Movement are all lovely people but isn't it obvious by now that they are not suited to the job? Apart from Malaysia, which other non-English speaking country has to beat us on the English Proficiency Index before the government finally realises that it's high time we put this embarrassing Movement permanently to sleep? Yes, and I do mean end it for good.


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, will be coming back for more!

    Any idea about the methodology of the people who ranked Malaysia above Singapore, though? My impression is that many Malaysians struggle more with English than most Singaporeans do, even though the best of us from both countries are roughly at the same level.

    1. When I first discovered that the grammar book written by MOE's language experts and the Singapore Good English Movement was filled with errors that even children did not make, I started reading grammar books written by Malaysian educators. They are miles better than MOE's experts and the SGEM. I don't think anyone can be this bad. I used to think that the worst book on English had to be the one I saw a long time ago in a book shop in Seoul. It was written by a native Korean who had just completed his undergraduate studies in engineering in the US and he wrote a simple book on conversational English. But I think even he had a better grasp of English than our experts from MOE and the Speak Good English Movement.