Friday, January 19, 2018

The Chairman of the Speak Good English Movement blunders again and again - PART 2

What I will show in this article is the similarity between Humpty Dumpty and Goh Eck Kheng, Chairman of the Speak Good English Movement. They both use a word to mean what they choose it to mean, even though the dictionary gives a totally different definition of the word and nobody else on this planet uses the word to mean what they choose it to mean.

At the start of Part 1 of this blog post, I briefly mentioned Goh's incorrect use of the word 'authenticity'. While scanning through the SGEM's website, I discovered another glaring misuse of a common enough word.

In his 2014 speech, Goh Eck Kheng, the Chairman of the SGEM, said this (if you want to see the speech, here's the link on the SGEM's website):

What do you think Goh meant by the word 'collaterals'? It seems quite a foolish thing to do to entrust young students with one's title deeds which are commonly used to secure a loan from a bank. Presumably, that's not what Goh meant. Out of curiosity, I searched various dictionaries including a Singlish dictionary to see if they might shed some light on what it is Goh was talking about. Alas, my labour was all in vain. A collateral means precisely what we all know it to mean in English and it doesn't matter whether it's English spoken in tropical Singapore or the frosty South Pole. A collateral is  'something pledged as security for repayment of a loan, to be forfeited in the event of a default' as defined by the Oxford Online Dictionary. A title deed to one's property is commonly used as a collateral. I traced the meaning of the word to its original Middle English definition but nothing fits what Goh meant when he used the word.

But if there is one thing I can be sure about the Speak Good English Movement, it's the consistency of its errors. As I have shown in my previous blog posts, the SGEM makes the same mistakes repeatedly for the past 10 years and so all I had to do was to go through its website and see if it could throw some light on what Goh meant by 'collaterals'.

And sure enough I found this same incorrect use of the word 'collateral' through the years in the SGEM's publications.


In 2014, the SGEM in its report about companies that were willing to support the SGEM in its 'Partner Programme' wrote this about the Singapore Hotel Association. In this short report, the SGEM used the word 'collateral' together with 'resources' and probably thought both words were close enough in meaning. Like what Humpty Dumpty did in the story, the SGEM made up a new meaning for the word 'collateral'. I have underlined the word 'collateral' in red:

In the same year, the SGEM wrote about yet another one of its 'partners', the Institute of Technical Education. I have again underlined the word 'collateral' in red. This time, 'collateral' is used by the SGEM to mean notebooks and other forms of stationery, a definition that is entirely the SGEM's own invention.


In 2013, the Republic Polytechnic was one of the SGEM's partners. In a report about the work done by the polytechnic, the SGEM used the word 'collateral' twice. Again, they are underlined in red:


Obstinate consistency in its mistakes is one of the main characteristics of the Speak Good English Movement. Yes, even as far back as 2011, the SGEM used the word 'collateral' to mean a book or pamphlet. The word appears in the SGEM's report about one of its 2011 partners (I have underlined it in red):

The use of 'collateral' in this way is clearly not Standard English. It's a peculiarity of the Speak Good English Movement. It's not a typographical error or an error due to carelessness. It's a mistake that was repeated over the years. It is obvious that the Movement was just doing what Humpty Dumpty did - attaching a different meaning to a word that does not accord with its proper English meaning.

I should remind my readers that the above erroneous use of 'collateral' to mean what it does not mean in Standard English is entirely the fault of the SGEM. The only mistake the Singapore Hotel Association, the Institute of Technical Education, the Republic Polytechnic and T-Net Club made was to join the 'Partner Programme' of the SGEM and to have their names appear with a mistake that even an illiterate person in Singapore would not make.

It's not just Goh who gives his own meaning to an English word. Let us now look at another member of the SGEM committee - Ludwig Tan Ai-Kiang.

Ludwig Tan Ai-Kiang is the vice-dean of the School of Arts and Social Sciences in SIM University or UniSIM as it's sometimes known. He once published a blog on English grammar and usage which gave me hours of fun and laughter. Unlike Goh Eck Kheng who is releatively inoffensive in his ignorance of the English language, Ludwig Tan had harsh words for those who he fancied were mistaken in their grammar. As I have shown many times on this blog (see the link below), Tan was often wrong and the people he criticised were absolutely right. As I have shown beyond any doubt, Tan reserves his harshest condemnation for Singaporeans while he is quick to offer excuses to British and American writers who write almost precisely the same things.

Ludwig Tan has since shut down his shockingly erroneous blog which has countless little nuggets of hilarious errors that (as I showed in a previous blog post) even my nasi lemak seller's son who dropped out of primary school wouldn't make. Incidentally, the title of his blog is also the title of the two error-laden grammar books published in 2007 and 2008 by the SGEM called English as It is Broken. There are all kinds of language mistakes in Ludwig Tan's blog and it's not difficult to find examples from his blog of mistakes that stem from the SGEM's characteristic inability to understand the meanings of simple English words. And since I'm now talking about the indiscriminate use of words as illustrated by the SGEM's incorrect use of 'collaterals', I'll confine myself to similar mistakes on semantics made by Ludwig Tan.

Goh obviously does not know what a collateral is and he is wrong to use the word to mean something totally different from its standard meaning.. His error lies in giving a different meaning to a word. Ludwig Tan's errors are different. He limits the meanings of words and insists that a word cannot mean what all dictionaries say it means and he dismisses it as 'non-standard Singapore English'. With both of them at the helm of the SGEM, it doesn't surprise me in the least that the SGEM often produces grammar tips that are so outrageously wrong that I sometimes wonder if my eyes are playing tricks on me and I have to read them again.

In one of his posts, Ludwig Tan criticises a 7-Eleven advertisement that talks about 'cigarette ashes'. Ludwig Tan comments that it should be 'cigarette ash' and 'the plural ashes  is more appropriate for cremated bodies...'. What planted such nonsense in his head is a mystery I will carry with me to my grave. As I showed in this blog post, all dictionaries on the planet  contradict what he wrote.

There are other hilarious gems in his blog including his insistence that 'disallow' when used to mean 'prohibit' is non-standard Singapore English. And when someone (presumably his student) commented in his blog and cited the Oxford English Dictionary, Ludwig Tan demonstrated that he didn't know how to use the dictionary. You may read about this here.

Ludwig Tan's blog no longer poses a threat to students who may be misled into thinking that it is a helpful educational blog on English grammar since he has shut it down. But the website of the Speak Good English Movement continues to peddle misinformation on grammar and some monstrously outrageous errors to the unwary public. It too should go the same way as Ludwig Tan's blog on grammar.

Some of my readers who may accuse me of being harsh and uncharitable should bear in mind that I am not one who criticises anyone for something as inconsequential as incorrect grammar. But the Speak Good English Movement is not just anyone. The Movement was started to get the people of Singapore to speak and write standard English. But what I have seen at least for the past ten years is an organisation that is not just ignorant of even the most basic rules of English grammar but also insistent on forcing its incorrect notion of English usage down the throats of the people of Singapore, many of whom are far more proficient in the language than these two members of the Movement - the Chairman Goh Eck Kheng  and his committee member Ludwig Tan. I have not seen what the other committee members of the SGEM have to say about grammar generally and the SGEM's flawed grammar books in particular.

It is sometimes easy to confuse two words that sound alike and  to mistake one for the other and the result is a malapropism which is named after the character Mrs Malaprop in Sheridan's play The Rivals.
My old student's copy of the play from where
we get the word 'malapropism'.

When she was insulted in a letter for using words she did not know the meaning of, Mrs Malaprop heatedly replied, ' 'Sure, if I reprehend any thing in this world it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs!' without realising of course that there are four malapropisms in that single sentence. I can understand when a person mistakes a word for another because both of them sound alike, But I can't understand how Goh could stumble over a word such as 'collateral' which bears no resemblance to whatever word it was that he might have had in mind. Similarly, I can't understand how Ludwig Tan can settle in his mind the very idea that the word 'ashes' is more appropriate when used to refer to cremated bodies. These errors are so outrageous that one cannot even imagine an excuse for them.

Before I end this post, it is important that I state this very clearly: none of my criticisms can be construed as a slur on Goh Eck Kheng and Ludwig Tan Ai-Kiang who, I have no doubt, are wonderful people with a heart of gold. But I'm not St Peter whose task it may be to weigh people's good deeds against their sins. I'm only commenting on their command of the English language and their knowledge of English grammar and semantics. And I do this only because they are both in charge of the Speak Good English Movement. I'm talking about the Chairman of the Movement himself and a member of his steering committee. Both are leaders in the SGEM. From the evidence I have, I can only conclude that they are not suited to lead the SGEM. My argument is there should be no SGEM in the first place but even if we must have one, the current committee should be dismissed. A competent and responsible member of the SGEM committee would have read the two grammar books the SGEM published in 2007 and 2008 and would have asked for both books to be recalled and destroyed but these books continue to be sold to students in every book shop in Singapore. Even if we are to ignore these two books because they were published before he became a committee member, the competent and responsible member of the SGEM committee should have at least read Grammar Rules, the SGEM's 2017 grammar book before it was published and he should have alerted the SGEM to the numerous egregious blunders in the book. Grammar Rules is really no more than a booklet and can easily be read cover to cover in a restaurant while waiting for your dinner to be served.  The fact that this was not done can only mean one of two possibilities: he did not read the book, in which case, he is irresponsible or he read the book diligently but he did not spot any errors, in which case, he is ignorant of the rules of grammar and is therefore incompetent. Either way, the Ministry of Education should boot the Committee out and disband the SGEM.

For a list of some of the mistakes made by the Speak Good English Movement, please see in particular Section 1 A on this page. For the language mistakes made by Ludwig Tan (a member of the steering committee of the Speak Good English Movement), please see Section 1 B on that same page.

EDITOR (19 January 2018):

I have just been informed by my friend Carrie Seow (to whom I'm grateful) that the American Merriam-Webster Online gives a fourth definition of 'collateral': 'iinformational materials (such as brochures and fact sheets) used in selling a product or service to a prospective customer or buyer'.

I must admit that this definition was totally unknown to me. I have many dictionaries but not a single one of them is American. None of my dictionaries including the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary and the Oxford Online Dictionary which updates its pages more swiftly  gives such a definition. Coincidentally, I wrote something about the Merriam-Webster in a blog post recently: Don't buy a Webster's Dictionary!

The Speak Good English Movement will be the first to say that it promotes standard British English which is the English used in Singapore. Apart from calling the ground floor of a building the first floor, Singapore follows strictly standard British English in every aspect of the language. At the present moment, 'collateral' does not have a definition beyond what the Oxford English Dictionary (or the Oxford Online Dictionary which updates its pages very rapidly) gives. While I do not deny that history has shown us almost without exception  that what is accepted usage in the US will one day become accepted usage elsewhere in the world, at this moment,  we cannot extend 'informational brochures used in selling a product' to books on grammar. It should also mean something that all dictionaries apart from this American dictionary give the traditional and universally accepted definition of the word. What's standard English for us who aren't Americans should be settled by the OED and the ODO and we should not have to resort to other variants of the English language and see what the Australian dictionary or the Canadian dictionary or the American dictionary has to say. You may want to read this: Why the Merriam-Webster Dictionary should not appeal to you.

But the fact that there is such a definition in the American Merriam-Webster does by a large measure take away the bite of my criticism. But this should not detract from what I've been saying all along - that the SGEM makes myriads of language errors and has done so repeatedly for the past ten years.  and I urge the reader to look at some of them on  this page. And these are all errors that are considered shocking  even in the Land of the Free.

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