Monday, June 30, 2014

The Unrepentant Speak Good English Movement is Back!

Earlier this year, I published many posts in this blog concerning the shocking errors perpetuated by those who claim to be Singapore's language experts. I had chanced upon two books published by or under the auspices of the Speak Good English Movement and as I said in my blog posts, you can barely read a single page of these books without encountering something unbelievably wrong on grammar, a subject which the books purport to teach their readers.  If you are interested, here is a list of the links to all the posts in this blog that deal with the errors in these two books: CLICK HERE

In the second half of May, I was suddenly seized by a need for a beach holiday and I went away to a nudist resort where I divested myself of not just my clothes but all thoughts of home and spent my days lazing in the sun and acquiring a perfect tan while sipping coconut juice and listening to the incessant waves and squawking of seagulls.  Unbeknownst to me, the Speak Good English Movement had sprung back to life and was making waves of its own in fair Singapore.

I knew nothing about what the Movement was up to until late last night when I saw an online news article dated 28 May. There are two online articles that are of interest to me, both dated 28 May and they are found in: 


Both articles tell the same story. Singapore's Speak Good English Movement has embarked on an ambitious programme to make the learning of grammar interesting. Comedian Kumar will star in a series of videos which are designed to teach grammar in an entertaining way.  What truly sent chills down my spine was their plan to publish more grammar notebooks as if the two shamelessly flawed grammar books they currently have to their name aren't bad enough.  I will say more about their two grammar books later.

If you have read my previous blog posts (and if you have not, you can always do so by clicking on the link in the first paragraph above), you will know that I would play a game with their two grammar books. I would turn at random to a page in one of the two books and write a whole blog post on some error I was certain I would find there.  Each time I tried, there was some error so shocking that my friends were outraged that the language experts who wrote the books were not sent to the gallows.  I will deal with the two books later, complete with a photo of them.

Let me go back to the two online news articles and we'll see if perhaps the Movement has got its act together and can now be trusted to at least get their basic grammar right. Let me pick no less a personage than the Chairman of Singapore's Speak Good English Movement himself.  Naturally, I can only quote from the online newspapers what the Chairman actually said and I will have to assume that the reporting is accurate.  Let me begin with the Straits Times.

This is what the Movement's Chairman said (I'm copying and pasting directly from the online newspaper):






I will confine myself strictly to grammar and I will not comment on the obvious inelegance of that very awkward sentence since the Movement is only interested in grammar and not style.  In that one sentence, however, the Chairman has shown himself to be rather confused over a very fundamental part of basic grammar commonly called "Parts of Speech" which appears at the beginning of every grammar book. It's elementary and nobody who is familiar with the English language can be excused for getting it wrong, far less the Chairman of the Speak Good English Movement.  I need scarcely explain to my readers that the correct sentence should read "...you can check yourself far more easily..."  What we must have is an adverb and not an adjective.  Without a doubt, that sentence the Chairman of the Movement constructed is ungrammatical.  But let's not just stop there.  Let me go further. I want to convince you that you are better off reading my blog (which is free) than paying good money for the Movement's grammar notebooks.

Those of us who love the Bard and have read most of what he's written, as the whole world should, may be tempted to quote from Sonnet 109:

As easy might I from myself depart  
As from my soul, which in thy breast doth lie: 

I have not known of anyone who has the temerity to edit that sonnet to read "As easily might I from myself depart".  Burchfield declares that it is hard to say why Shakespeare's line is "acceptable, even harmonious" while any other departure would be, to quote the OED, "vulgar".  But of course it's not hard to understand why Shakespeare wrote "easy" and not "easily".  The sonnet (as is the case with most of Shakespeare's works) is written in iambic pentameter. "Easily" would destroy the flow and metrical structure completely.  Woe betide anyone who has the nerve to write "I might depart from myself as easy as..." and call on the Bard for his defence.

Let us be clear here. "Easy" is an adjective and, unless you are writing a poem and the metrical structure does not permit you to use the adverb "easily", there is really no excuse for you to ditch the adverb for the adjective. But can "easy" be used only as an adjective?  Are there exceptions?

Yes, there are exceptions where "easy" can assume the role of an adverb but these are found only in some set phrases.  Apart from these set phrases and they are often colloquialisms, "easy" must always be treated as an adjective.  I can think of a few examples of set phrases where "easy" takes on an adverbial nature:

If you are fat, you might want to tell the cook to go easy on the oil.
You might want to tell someone who is visibly agitated to take it easy.
"Easy does it" is what you might say to the movers who are carrying your piano.

I am sure there are other such set phrases but what the Chairman of the Speak Good English Movement said above is not one of them.

Now, let's skip to the other online article which is from the Singapore government website. Once again, someone no less important than the Chairman of the Speak Good English Movement himself is quoted directly in this excerpt.

Mr Goh Eck Kheng, Chairman of the Speak Good English Movement says, “We are committed to encouraging Singaporeans to speak Standard English that is used all over the world. Just as we respect the authenticity of other languages, we need to respect grammar rules for the structure it gives to English.”

I was stumped when I first read it. What on earth does the Movement's Chairman mean by "the authenticity of other languages"? Why authenticity?  In linguistics, "authentic language" is simply real language used in real situations as opposed to language designed or contrived for the purpose of teaching grammar and vocabulary.  But it's obvious he's not referring to that.  Every known language has this authenticity in the linguistic sense. It's not something worth mentioning and if it's really the authenticity in languages that he's talking about, he would have said "authenticity in other languages". But even if he had said that, it wouldn't have made sense - what exactly is it that we are respecting? It doesn't at all accord with the overall intent of his speech.

What is more likely is the Chairman was confused over the real meaning of the word "authenticity".  Authenticity does not mean beauty or expressiveness or clarity. Or did the Chairman mean "authority" which although shares the first four letters with "authenticity" does not have any connection with it in meaning? The English language has a vocabulary wide enough to accommodate all these different meanings and nuances. Authenticity, in non-technical usage, can only have two meanings:

1.  Something is authentic if it is real or genuine and of undisputed origin. If you question the authenticity of a manuscript that is purported to have been written by Shakespeare, you are saying that the manuscript is not genuine and it wasn't written by Shakespeare.

2.  "Authentic" can also mean reliable or trustworthy e.g. "He gave an authentic account of the road accident".  Hence, there is authenticity in his testimony.

I have no doubt that the Speak Good English Movement consists of highly honourable people with the best of intentions. They have put in hours of hard work to help the people of Singapore speak and write better English. But I'm an honest man and I will speak plainly. I have in more than 20 blog posts shown quite conclusively that they are not really equipped or qualified to take on such an onerous task. They are clueless about correct grammar and we can't have a situation of the blind leading the blind. People in Singapore generally have an excellent command of the English language. Most of us are far more knowledgeable in grammar and usage than those in the Speak Good English Movement and if the Movement's two grammar books are anything to go by, we certainly will fare far better without the erroneous grammar tips and flawed language guidelines that they have so far come up with.

Let me now say a few words about the two disgraceful books that I have referred to repeatedly in this post.


English As It Is Broken and English As It Is Broken 2 are books written, supported or promoted by the Speak Good English Movement, the Ministry of Education, the National Library Board and the Straits Times. From what I can see, these two books are looked upon as the crowning glory of the Movement's achievements.  However, as I have shown in my previous blog posts, the English language "experts" who wrote these two books are so ignorant of basic English grammar that almost every page is riddled with shocking errors on grammar.  In some instances, students who wrote in to ask the panel of "experts" a point of grammar are taught to write ungrammatical sentences and what is really appalling to me is the fact that these students would have been better off not seeking their advice in the first place.  I've given a few examples in my earlier blog posts where students started out perfectly correct grammatically but the experts tell them they are wrong and give them rules of their own making which flout official grammar rules accepted by all grammarians. For the convenience of my readers I have listed in a single page all the links to my posts that deal with the grammatical blunders in these two books. Please click here.

It was not without some disquiet when I read last night that the Speak Good English Movement would be publishing "grammar notebooks".  Are they enlisting the help of the same "experts" who wrote their two erroneous books? Shouldn't the Ministry of Education look into this?

Friday, June 27, 2014

On Gambling and Gays



I attended a talk yesterday on “Gambling Addiction” organised by the NUS Alumni. The speaker, Mr Liew Heng San, has impressive credentials. He was in CPF and some other government portfolio but it was his religious affiliations that brought in the crowd. I saw countless people from my church and other churches. I met a friend of mine who is a clergyman and although he’s not an NUS alumnus, he received an email through the church network. Another church friend I met at the talk told me that the speaker spoke at a recent church camp and he was a dynamic speaker.

The speaker was very engaging and his audience which filled the hall in the Alumni building all listened attentively. He covered the destructiveness of gambling addiction and he talked about the social costs and what he considered the insufficient safeguards for citizens. Then came the punchline which was what I always look out for in a talk.

The speaker is of the view that the Singapore government is not doing enough to stop the citizens from going to the casino. The speaker has the most negative view of the casino. He says the casino is essentially a “temple” where time ceases to exist. That’s why there are no windows in a casino so you can’t tell day from night and time stands still and you gamble without ceasing. He also says the slot machines in a casino have subtle messages such as “May my luck be upon you”. He claims that they are using liturgy to indoctrinate the gambler. Although he is addressing the NUS Alumni which is not a religious group, it is not difficult to see that the talk was very much infused with the speaker's religious values and standard.

The speaker claims that the authorities are, in their protection of citizens from the evils of the casino,:

1.   Incompetent. Singapore adopts an opt-out system for those who want to be excluded from the casino. He is of the view that what the government should have done was to have an opt-in system, i.e. everyone is excluded from the casino unless he opts himself in. He shows statistics why an opt out system is not effective.

2.   Lacking in integrity.

3.   Lacking in benevolence.

For both the last two points, the speaker says that the government has a special form that allows foreigners to have themselves excluded from the casino. Singaporeans and permanent residents, he says, are not given the opportunity of excluding themselves from the casino unless they do so online through their SingPass and children and many old people do not have a Singpass account.

The speaker distributed this form to everyone in his audience.





It’s the National Council on Problem Gambling’s form for the Application for Self-Exclusion for Foreigners. He suggests that we should all fill in the form and take it to our MPs to insist that we register ourselves to be excluded from the casino. This will signal to the authorities that they should have a similar form for citizens and permanent residents.

I found the whole talk unnecessary and even laughable. Before I continue, I should make it clear that I’m not on the side of casinos or gambling. I have no vested interest in the casino. I have never gambled in my entire life. I have not even laid a bet for 5 cents in my whole life. I have been to Las Vegas but only to go on rides and watch the many exciting shows there. I was "beheaded" in a magic show in MGM Grand and it was fun and the show was free! I have never placed a single coin in any of the slot machines or laid a bet in any of the poker games or card games or roulette nor do I know how to play these games. When I watch a movie and there is s a card game and the cards are slowly revealed to the viewers, I can’t tell if it’s a winning hand because I really don’t know what hand wins in a card game. I have never laid a single bet in 4D or Toto or a football pool or anything that can however remotely be considered gambling. I’m really an absolute non-gambler and nobody can claim to be less a gambler than I.

But I don’t see the casino as evil and I don’t think the authorities have been slipshod in protecting the citizens from problem gambling. I believe it’s for the individual to decide whether he should or should not go to a casino. Casinos do not force you to go to them. I’ve not been to one and I have not received any death threat for not having patronised the casino. And not everyone who goes to the casino ruins himself. I’m sure the majority of gamblers only gamble a few dollars away each time. That’s no different from going shopping. Those who kill themselves and the speaker gave a few examples of people who commit suicide because of gambling debts are very few statistically. These people probably would have incurred other debts even if they had not gone to the casino. I really don’t see the casino as such a strong force for evil. And I really don't see why the government should exclude everyone from the casino. Isn't the government always criticised for being too interfering and don't Singapore's detractors label Singapore a nanny State? The government might as well legislate to make it an offence for citizens to eat too much fatty food. What's so inherently bad about the casino anyway? Why then was the speaker so dead opposed to the casino?

One common thread that runs through all the fierce opposition against anything, be it gambling, abortion or homosexuality, is religion. Many of us are blind to the fact that deep down, we religious people want very badly for the whole world to conform to our religious values. Even if we are not blind to this fact, we are usually not willing to admit it openly.

But Singapore is a secular state and it’s very wrong of us to try to make it comply with our religious requirements. I read in the newspaper how a religious leader in a church has decided to join forces with a Muslim group in opposing the Pink Dot celebration tomorrow. He claims that he wants to affirm the importance of the family with the Muslim group. But that is of course nonsense. The Christian idea of a marriage is very different from the Muslim model. In Christianity, a marriage must be monogamous and there is no compromise here. Islamic tradition allows for polygamy.

That is one good reason why Singapore adopts secularism at the national level. Religions are all cultural and our cultures differ wildly and that’s not surprising since each culture is very much dependent on its past and the environment which shaped it in the first place. No group should force its own values down the throats of other people. What a government minister said recently is absolutely correct. When it comes to religion and personal preferences, you really should keep it to yourself and be sensitive and accept that others have the right to differ.

I was brought up in a no-gambling culture and to this day I have never gambled and don’t know how to and I probably won’t ever gamble for as long as I live. But my wife grew up in a different culture and my mother-in-law does gamble. Although my wife converted to my religion when she was still in school and she does not gamble, she has a much more tolerant view of gambling than I used to have when I was younger and more headstrong.

I hope the gay and lesbian community will have a lovely day tomorrow as they celebrate the Pink Dot day. It would be churlish if we who are heterosexual begrudge our gay friends the right to love and express their love openly. It’s my prayer that the love that dared not speak its name in the 19th century will shout it out from the mountaintops tomorrow at the Pink Dot celebration.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

WHEN BLASPHEMY IS SOMETIMES DESIRABLE


A superstitious Indonesian domestic maid once worked for me and my family. She said that her village was entirely Muslim and her first experience being in the company of non-Muslims was when she came to work for us. You would have thought that she would have been a Muslim extremist but she was not at all. Although she was schooled in a madrasah, she had a very tolerant view of religion and she held the view that Muslim suicide bombers would all be sent to hell. But in her village, she had recently witnessed the burning of a witch. I asked her if the witch was an old woman who lived by herself, a widow perhaps? She was surprised and asked how I knew. I told her our human history had seen many old widows being burnt to death for alleged witchcraft and it was nothing new. But she insisted the old woman was a witch and she claimed she had magical powers. She said if they hadn't burnt her, Allah himself would have done so and probably burnt half the village as well.

One day I was driving the car with her on an errand when the sky turned black and flashes of lightning could be seen accompanied by loud peals of thunder. She was cowering in the corner in fear. I asked her if God had the power to strike us with a lightning bolt. She tried to hush me but I went on talking.  From asking questions about God's power, I went on to questioning if God had the courage to strike us and what if I threatened him with physical violence? And then I crossed the line into outright blasphemy.  She told me that was the end. There was no way we would reach our destination safely. God simply would not allow us to escape with impunity after what I had just said. But of course we reached our destination without any incident.

On the return journey, she told me that this was the first time she had seen anyone who had so much courage to challenge God. She claimed that nobody in Indonesia would dare to do that. I asked her where she thought God was. She replied that God was at that point in time driving a car and talking to her. And she burst into laughter. I asked her if she wasn't afraid that God might strike her down with lightning. She replied laughingly that if God had no ability to do it during a thunderstorm when there were lightning flashes everywhere, he couldn't possibly have the power to do it when the rain had stopped and the sun was shining.

That was the moment for me to seize my opportunity. I told her it was all right to believe in God and in religion but the moment someone was going to be killed, that was the time to put the foot down. I told her there were no witches and witchcraft was all fictitious but even if there were witches, she should leave it to God himself to punish them. If he doesn't do anything, his followers should not do his dirty job for him. Leave it to God. It didn't matter if someone blasphemed God or if he were an apostate or witch or whatever he might be accused of being. If God did nothing, his followers must not attempt to play God themselves.

I'm just hoping that my blasphemy will save the next old woman from being burnt to death in her village. If I succeed in saving just one old woman from such a horrid death, I'm sure even God himself would be delighted that I could blaspheme better than any cranky old foul-mouthed sailor.