I see bad English all over Singapore, but because I don’t want to sound like a language Nazi, I hold myself back, seldom writing about it. On the other hand, I don’t think I need to be apologetic about it. Getting language right takes the same attitude — attention to detail — that stands a person in good stead. More generally, a culture or economy that devalues the striving for excellence shortchanges itself. I sometimes think a widespread neglect of language quality in Singapore reflects a neglect of perfectionism, which shows up in a myriad ways from train breakdowns and bus delays to stark gaps in the social safety net.
This post germinated with the video put up by the Land Transport Authority (LTA) about the Marina Coastal Expressway. It annoyed me beyond tolerance. Yet, before I could even begin writing about it, I see yet another another example of bad English put up by quasi-governmental body. Oh boy, do they come thick and fast.
That example was posted as a picture on Facebook:
The notice pinned to the door of a People’s Action Party branch said that a Meet-the-People Session had been cancelled “due to some function”. Oh dear. Whoever wrote this seemed to have no idea that such phrasing has a disdainful tone. What the writer probably meant was that the session was cancelled because the member of parliament had to attend a function (using the standard indefinite article). Unless, of course, it was deliberate and the writer wanted to convey to the public his or her contemptuous view of whatever event the member of parliament had chosen to attend, or to signal that he or she was miffed at not being informed what that other function was. Both these meanings are connoted by “some function”.
Had this example stood alone, I would have just shaken my head. But coming a day after seeing Donald Low’s comment on Facebook about the inappropriate use of the word “can” in the LTA’s advisory video about the new Marina Coastal Expressway, I had to include the above in this post.
It so happened that I had chanced upon the video earlier and was already annoyed by the intonation of its voice-over. Donald Low’s point was a different one. He said the choice of the word “can” at several places in the video could have misled drivers into thinking there were alternative ways of exiting the new expressway to reach certain desired destinations when saying “should”or “must” would have been clearer. He was referring to the fact that on the first working day (30 December 2013) after it opened, massive traffic jams built up. There were many online comments about poor design, choke points, inadequate or confusing signage, and how the Maxwell Road exit wasn’t open on the first day. All these by themselves make for salutary lessons about the need for attention to detail.
But since I first saw the video before the expressway opened (i.e. before the traffic jams became news), what crossed my mind wasn’t the possibility of viewers being misled by the script and piling into four-hour jams. Instead, I was squirming at the misplaced stresses the voice talent placed on the words “can” and “will”. He did this repeatedly through the three-minute video. Moreover, the stresses he chose took the form of a high-pitched, slightly rising tone which sounded very strange.
Listen again at these moments:
At 0:50 seconds — “… you can enter MCE by taking exit 14B …”
At 1:03 — “… crossing the undersea section, you will approach …” (which doesn’t call for any stress at all)
At 1:08 — ” … traffic junction, you will arrive at the Marina South Pier … “
At 1:20 — “… Marina Barrage or the Marina Bay Financial Centre, you can proceed further and turn right to … “
Also, there’s a weird rising tone given to the word “into” at
0:28 seconds — “… directly and seamlessly into Marina Bay downtown …”
It sounds ridiculously affected.
Did no one in the LTA pick it up? Surely, a video for such a major infrastructure project would have passed through several layers of management before being signed off. Nobody in the whole LTA said,”Hold on a minute — why can’t we find someone who speaks more naturally?”
Or did some folks in LTA spot the odd intonation but shrugged and said, “It’s good enough.”
That’s the problem with “good enough”. It often indicates lots of room for improvement.
* * * * *
As I mentioned at the start of this essay, my point isn’t restricted to language. I’m really talking about attitude. About being particular.
General Motors, Ford and Chrysler once dominated the US automobile market. But when Japanese cars entered it, buyers soon noticed that they had fewer defects and greater reliability. Japanese engineers cared and worked at it. We know what subsequently happened.
Readers may rightly wonder if the increasing unreliability of our metro system can be partly attributed to insufficiently high standards.
More seriously, shoddiness in Singapore is most in evidence at the design stage of many things, not just engineering and hard stuff. Government websites are notoriously unwieldy and unfriendly. The recent incident where someone could insert code into the website of the Prime Minister’s Office via the search box was, according to software experts, such a fundamental oversight, you’re left reeling in disbelief.
From websites to social safety nets, planning and design in Singapore often reveal a lack of stress-testing. What do I mean by this? When we see failures after roll-out that can be ascribed to poor anticipation of user behaviour or unexpected circumstances, we would naturally ask: Why wasn’t it anticipated?
Example: The Registry of Societies (ROS) wants all annual filings to be done electronically. But for years, we at the non-profit organisation Transient Workers Count Too faced a series of problems, among which was the difficulty in submitting scanned documents. I don’t think we ever figured out why it wouldn’t accept our documents, but through repeated tries, we reckon that the ROS website has a file size limit that is set absurdly low.
Another example: Just earlier tonight, a worker complained that he wasn’t paid while he was on ‘light duty'; his boss said the law was silent on this, so he had no obligation to pay him. Most employers do recognise that it is only fair to pay, but strictly speaking, the law makes no mention of ‘light duty’ and what obligations follow from it, thus bad employers now think they have a loophole. Yet, all over Singapore doctors commonly prescribe ‘light duty’ through a period of recovery; it’s a well-known and customary classification. Whoever drafted our laws did not stress-test them for real-life situations. If they had, they’d find that they’d need to address ‘light duty’.
And here’s a third: From time to time, I see workers who are required to stay on in Singapore as witnesses to testify against their bosses, who might be facing charges from salary non-payment to illegal deployment. Having to stay on for six months or more is not unknown. Yet, these workers are barred from working while they remain here at the insistence of our government. How are they going to support themselves? How are they to provide for their families back home? Who thought up this cockamamie idea that we can demand that people remain in Singapore — and the authorities hold these persons’ passports! — without providing for them? Why is it that all these years when such workers have complained about the flawed system, nobody has fixed the defect?
Attention to detail matters. It adds value to output, whether that output is an export product or customer service or a factor in social wellbeing. Getting things right saves a lot of grief. Being thorough, meticulous and perfectionist counts. Alas, the shoddiness in speech and communication we see around us betrays an attitude that doesn’t augur well.