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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

OCTOBER 8, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 40

People
Singlished Out
Veteran Writer's Kiss More Incendiary Than His Steamy Novel



Asiaweek Pictures
As Singapore PM Goh Chok Tong sees it, you gotta speak the right lingo to get on in the world. Except that the popular title character from hit local sitcom, Phua Chu Kang Pte. Ltd., is given to gabbling Singlish - that idiosyncratic mix of English with the odd phrase of Chinese, Malay and even Tamil. The kind but uncouth contractor played by current entertainment darling Gurmit Singh (pictured second left with the cast) is sending out the wrong vibes. Hey, kids may think it's cool to say "don't pray, pray [play, play]" when they mean "don't fool around." So cue script change. The series ended its season last month with Phua's younger brother laying it on the line: The ear-picking contractor must learn to speak Proper English (he was setting a bad example for his impressionable young nephew) or the brother would move out of their extended-family home with his wife and child. Can the cleaned-up series retain its distinctive flavor - and audience? After all, much of the humor derives from culture clashes. Chu Kang's family of "heartlanders" (often characterized as more insular, Chinese-speaking working-class types) usually find themselves at odds with his yuppie brother and his snob of a wife. The show's producers think the show will survive. Phua Chu Kang's success "is not solely dependent on the use of Singlish," says a spokesperson, though the contractor's patois was in keeping with his character. Some viewers wonder what the fuss is all about. Singapore's Singlish/English debate has missed the mark, says one academic. Schools have to maintain the highest language standards, but the needs of a shopkeeper in a public housing estate are different. In fact, a trader speaking standard English might have trouble being understood by some of his customers. Yet people with global dealings (the professionals whom officials think of as "cosmopolitans") invariably have the formal language skills. So why drag the show into the government's drive for better English? Poet Alfian Sa'at reckons the approach reflects a "colonial mentality" - American slang is accepted but not homegrown expressions. In other words, it's okay to chill out, but not relak (relax). Can't be too chin chai (sloppy), you know. Count on Phua being at remedial English classes next season, lah.  

Veteran Writer's Kiss More Incendiary Than His Steamy Novel
Perhaps his new novel's explicit content fueled the imagination of Pakistan's vernacular newspapers. The spark, though, was a kiss that Indian writer Khushwant Singh, was snapped giving to a guest at his book launch - a teenage daughter of Islamabad's envoy to Delhi, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi. Now press attacks on the action as "objectionable" and bringing "shame" to Pakistan threaten to develop into a row between the two countries. The diplomat has since been hauled up by his bosses for allowing his family to attend the event. Khushwant, 84, and Qazi are enraged by what they call a "gutter-press" bid to put a sleazy interpretation on the former's "grandfatherly peck" on the cheek. After all, their families are longtime friends (the writer attended college with Qazi's father in London). But the hue and cry may hurt the career of the high commissioner, who defended his daughter as a decent Muslim girl "who says her prayers five times a day." Khushwant, a prominent historian who revels in his reputation as a womanizer, might have warned his Pakistani guests about the contents of his novel, The Company of Women. By the author's admission, the book could easily have been titled "the [sexual] fantasies of an octogenarian."

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