From words to deeds, attention to detail matters

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.

22 Responses to “From words to deeds, attention to detail matters”

  1. 1 Eric Alagan 3 January 2014 at 08:44

    Very true about quality standards in English – even your post contains several errors. Hopefully, you’ll spot and correct them.

    Please don’t beat yourself over this, because even NYT bestsellers – with all their editing talent – contain errors!

    What you mention about FW compelled to remain to testify but barred from working is downright wrong of the authorities. You’ve brought up a very valid point that the authorities must address.

  2. 2 Whatever 3 January 2014 at 11:33

    Also, it is “motorists”, not “motoris”. He is very annoying.

  3. 3 l'ingenieur 3 January 2014 at 16:32

    An MNC corporate trainer once remarked to me, “The most widely spoken language in the business world is bad English.” In an MNC environment working with subcontractors and talent from all continents, getting your point across is sufficiently good English gets the job done. If Singapore is to evolve as a nation as one that singularly gets the job DONE (of which we are proud of), we must be mindful not to lose the underlying soul of our lingua franca.

  4. 4 Kai 3 January 2014 at 16:52

    I beg to differ with ONLY the first portion of your post on language. I agree with the rest of this post especially feeling strongly for the injustice done to foreign workers being essentially ‘held hostage’ by the authority to help with legal cases without giving them a financial means to survive! This is so lacking in plain common sense!! (And it’s not the first time you’ve written about this.)

    I must say I’ve been a long-time follower and supporter of your blog and causes, and this is the first time I find myself disagreeing with you completely on a matter! Indeed, I’m kinda surprised at the two incidents you describe as examples of bad English, because I honestly don’t think they are nearly infractions of the English language, let alone serious enough to warrant such adverse reactions. If I were to read the cited MPS notice, I would not surmise any disdainful connotation from it. To me, the word “some” in the phrase “due to some function” just refers to an “unspecified” or “unknown” item. In fact, “some” could mean “remarkable” in some (see!) context which is just the opposite of being derogatory, as in “he is some writer!”

    If I had seen the LTA video before reading your post, I also wouldn’t have come to the same conclusions as you did regarding the spoken English. To me, the voice-over in the video does not have a Singlish accent but is done with a neutral, standard pronunciation. This is like a BBC announcement in standard Received Pronunciation instead local accents which might not be easily understood by an international audience. Not only do I find the LTA announcement not sounding “affected”, I feel it’s very fortunate that it wasn’t spoken with a typical Singlish accent that’s natural and unaffected to many Singaporeans but would be extremely jarring to an international English speaker. Indeed, Singlish as it is spoken locally is probably mostly unintelligible to native English speakers around the world in terms of the words used, sentence structure, rhythm and most notably pronunciation/intonation. (Incidentally, an example of this also concerns the word “can” which is used to mean “yes” or “certainly” in Singlish but would not be recognized as such by other English speakers, especially in the repeated form for emphasis as in “can, can, can!”)

    Of course, my reactions above could be due to my own level of mastery of the English language. I wonder why I have such opposite reactions to Alex’s in regard to these two examples! Perhaps “some” readers here with more expertise would like to adjudicate?

    • 5 GG 3 January 2014 at 21:28

      I agree with most of Alex’s post but I disagree with almost all you say. The word “some” as used in the meet the MP notice is casual in the extreme. Used in a conversation, one would direct it at something of no compelling value , as in “some guy”. When you say ” he is some writer” , we all understand it as being said with admiration. However it hardly qualifies as proper English. It is somewhat colloquial. In casual speech , that’s fine, maybe even preferred. In print, ” he is quite a writer”, that would be proper.
      I agree with you that Singlish pronunciation is ugly and should it disappear forever, I will not miss it. However I think we are entitled to our Singlish words and expressions in ordinary casual speech.
      Now for the video. I think Alex is actually being moderate by picking on the misplaced stresses. In fact the entire narration is amateurish. The flow of the delivery is bad and he occasionally affects an American pronunciation. This is someone who does not speak properly in daily life and has to adopt a persona for the VoiceOver. Many people do that but in my opinion it is mainly women who code switch with facility ( here I have to declare I am a guy). If you really want to hear misplaced stresses do tune in to FM 90.5 when a prominent DJ of a certain age is hosting.
      As for being comprehensible to native English speakers, do not assume all so called Native Speakers understand each other. There are accents in some parts of England that will confound you as much as Singlish.

      Every country has colloquialisms. The Singapore ” can ” is an example and I think it is fine in casual speech. It has taken root here I think because the Chinese equivalent is used to indicate ” yes” or ” certainly”. Any Native English speaker of ordinary intelligence should be able to catch on. We are entitled to our slang.

      • 6 yawningbread 4 January 2014 at 16:02

        You’ve made an important distinction — between formal speech and casual speech — which I agree with. Liberties can be taken with casual speech, but when people defend similar distortions in situations when formal speech is expected, it is usually an excuse for a lack of competence. That’s the very point I hoped to make: We need to strive for quality.

    • 7 MS 6 January 2014 at 11:48

      “kinda”? Really…?

  5. 8 georgia tong 3 January 2014 at 17:51

    Those HDB lift up grading projects which now use China made ones instead of Japan lifts – the pronunciation of the floor level is so horrible. If a blind person depends on it – bound to end up on the wrong floor.

  6. 9 Jake 3 January 2014 at 21:44

    Totally unrelated to your post was how LTA was behind a curve on using Web resources to get the word out and familiarize everyone with the MCE. A simple way to do this would be to work with Google maps to get maps updated before the express way was opened.
    After getting lost on New Year’s Eve, I had checked Google maps for the correct route and found that the map was actually not updated. If this had been done, people could have googled the routes to take to get to their specific destinations and there would have been less or minimal confusion.

  7. 10 Jake 3 January 2014 at 21:50

    Maybe the person who put up the MPS notice was trying to convey disdain. As in, “your MP is skipping the MPS again due to some function”.

    It’s like if someone wanted to know who you just spoke with and for some reason you didn’t feel like explaining, you’ll say “just some guy”.

    • 11 yawningbread 4 January 2014 at 15:53

      The same thought occurred to me too, but it is unlikely that the underling who put up the notice would risk his job doing that.

      • 12 Broken 5 January 2014 at 21:12

        Agreed. But I believe that sentence shed some light on the priorities of the underling. If it were up to me, I’ll simply say something like: “The Meet-the-People session on have been cancelled. blah blah..” Since the exact reason for the cancellation(MP need to attend some function) is unimportant, I’ll probably leave it out.

        I get the feeling that the underling believes that providing a valid excuse (I not trying to “chao keng” okay! I got “reason” one!) is vastly more important than informing the residents that the session have been cancelled. Hence, the line “due to some function” was forcefully included inside the notice even though it’ll make the entire sentence sounds weird…

        In short, the “Cover your backside” culture is alive & well in our government! 🙂

  8. 13 yuen 3 January 2014 at 21:58

    language rules are restrictive over freedom of expression, just as traditional morality restricts sexual freedom; why do you want to defend them?

    in the past, sex was considered “bad”, and traditional marriage makes sex “good”; today sex is considered “good” in itself; it then follows that more sex is better and marriage is “bad” because it restricts one’s freedom to have sex with others; it also follows that different varieties of sex are good and gays should have the same rights as heterosexuals, and so on; in the future it might be believed that polygamy is good, and indeed has been part of human behaviour since historical times

    in the past, grammar and dictionary spelling are “good” and one should not be free to make up one’s own words and sentence rules; this seems not in tune with the current trend towards enhancing individual choices

    BTW, I happen to be a traditional kind of person myself and prefer to see less free expressions in sex, dress, language, drinking, drug taking, driving, etc, but I dont expect many people to agree with me

    • 14 Flax 9 January 2014 at 05:19

      I don’t think language rules necessarily restrict our freedom of expression. Quite the contrary – bad English often confuses, and a mastery of the language often conveys a lot more. For example, I could say the universe is very big, or I could say the universe is unimaginably vast. Same essential meaning, very different images painted.

      That said, I do agree that certain liberties can be taken as language evolves, but often I feel that you need to first know the rules before knowing how to bend them. Not knowing tenses and subject-verb agreement, for example, is arguably unacceptable as it muddles up the meaning of sentences; on the other hand, for example, using nouns as verbs (“we’re lunching at 12”) may be more acceptable and indeed, sometimes very humorous and creative – “verbing weirds language” from the classic Clavin and Hobbes.

      I think the difference boils down to whether one is making the effort to convey a clear, accurate message in the appropriate setting. There’re people who know how and when to bend the rules, and when not to get too caught up in them; then there’re those who aren’t even aware of the rules in the first place. I think the latter group are the ones with a rather compromised freedom of expression.

  9. 15 Zen 3 January 2014 at 22:15

    As a longtime voice/voice over, I too winced at the reading of the LTA annct,
    and the stress on ”can” and ”will”. It’s not the first annct I’ve heard where the wrong words were emphasised… Sorry to say, some of these were done by the same voice, who is/was a DJ.

    Listen, too, to the radio ad about race and age not mattering. It’s a rather good one which involves an orchestra. Pity the voice mentions a ”flOUtist”…

    What is also sad, is that so Many anncts today use an angmo voice.

    As an editor, I was tickled by ”some function”. Yah boy, it must have been one helluva function the minister was attending. However, we all don’t care one lah about whatever that event was…

    TRE ran a piece recently which highlighted the grammer mistakes in a PA annct. Those commenting on it were pretty sure that the annct was written by a foreigner, not a Sporean. And just about every comment that followed – and rapped the writer of the annct – had grammer mistakes…

    The problem is, not many appreciate those who attempt to do a decent job. Don’t talk about aiming for perfection. Forget trying new approaches.

    Just getting poorly penned articles and anncts to a level where it’s merely okay can almost guarantee you’ll be told off for being fussy and making life difficult for others. And of course you’ll be told you’re hard to work with…

    This is how things are these days.

  10. 16 AMS 3 January 2014 at 23:30

    I think it was intentional to make a claim process as tedious and difficult so as to dissuade the rest of the workers from following suit.I have a dispute with my employers 20 years ago and I went to see my MP during MPS.The helper told me that that the MP was unable to help,But since he is a lawyer,he is willing to help me draft a letter for $80!.I went to MOM to file a claim of $60 of transport allowance from my previous company.The MOM’s office,from day has been using very discouraging words about the claim,telling me to drop the case every time when we met up for Mediation session,I knew I have a case,so I persisted and they change another officer for my case.Same story,drop case,no chances of winning!Finally,they give me a date which is 6 months later for a appointment at Labor Court.On the appointed date,My Ex-boss was busy,so they postpone it to 1 year later.I won the case presided by the assistant commissioner of labor after 2 years for $60.00!All the hassle was intentional to tired you out,
    About electronic filling,MOM has this issue too.The submission for the monthly workers manpower so difficult to transmit on line and the status returned is nonsense,yet the BCA approved the firm’s IT productivity grants over a few hundred thousand.Guess how they “sloved” the issue?The construction firm’s IT vendor assigned someone there to “help” to do a manual transfer to the right comany and then sent an acknowledgment letter to the site via email to confirmed!.Can you believe how they spent our tax money to feed those parasite?

  11. 17 Richard Lee 4 January 2014 at 07:44

    Mr. Au, you are wrong about MIW and their minions not taking painstaking care over details. But this attention to detail is aimed solely at increasing Multi-million Dignity of our Lord LKY, the HoLee Family, their Ministers & friends.

    Could even Sir Humphrey Appleby have devised the new MDA regulations that were foistered on .. I mean carefully explained to Bertha Henson et al.?

    The traffic congestion .. including obfuscating instructions etc are all a carefully planned segue into the introduction of (preferably pre-) paid use of Expressways.

    The use of English as she is spoken is just part of this Grand Design.

    Of course, Expressways will remain free for friends of our Lord LKY etc.

    I apologise for any offense my inappropriate use of CAPITALS, punctuation etc may have caused to those versed in the Queen’s English.

  12. 18 The Wrath Grapes 4 January 2014 at 10:02

    The latest TV commercial by Mediacorp really gets my goat. They are trying to advertise how their staff are similar to other professions.

    Example 1: I serve my country, but I am not a soldier. I am a reporter.

    My counter to that is that by misreporting or slanting the reports to curry favour with the power that be, they are not only not serving the country, but are doing the country a dis-service. Denials and manipulating facts and figures certainly are not doing the country any good.

    Example 2: I unite a nation, but I am not a politician. I am a producer.

    This is an even worse example. It is not even factual. The only politician I can think of who united a nation is the late Nelson Mandela. Most politicians divide their nations. Just look across the Causeway and see how the politicians divide the nation by race, language and religion. In Singapore, see how the politicians divide the nation by branding them as stayers or quitters, metropolitans and heartlanders, etc. By branding them as xenophobic when it is the uncontrolled massive influx of foreigners that Singaporeans are really against. By saying citizens are daft and need to have spurs kicked up their behinds.

    Politicians here do anything but unite.

    • 19 GG 5 January 2014 at 22:37

      This is a somewhat conceited ad from Mediacorp. Even taking them at their word, the most that could be said is they try to serve their country and try to unite a nation. One wonders if they ever considered serving their readers.

  13. 20 Saycheese 4 January 2014 at 13:34

    Light duty may have been left out to allow for wriggle room.

    By deliberately not being precise, loopholes are created for interpretations like inside a polling station is not within the prohibited distance from the perimeter.

    The ingenuity of our elites knows no bound.

  14. 21 Harry 5 January 2014 at 13:30

    Very good that u bring to light the sloppiness of so many government departments especially their websites. They r so user unfriendly compared to the websites of the Australian government. The language and tone are are also different. This patronizing attitudes of the civil servants will lead to the undoing of the PAP government. They have been protected for far too long.

  15. 22 gwailo54 9 September 2014 at 11:11

    Not been following your blog much since my partner died and now only coming back to life myself.

    Don’t worry about English in Singapore, worry about English in its native land. Things are worse there (especially in London, where I live).

    I am accused by educated people of being a language Nazi when I complain about apostrophes in plurals and the incorrect usage or omission of “whom”. Language is precious. I don’t mind it evolving, but when it is due to ignorance and poor education, as it is in Britain, then I despair.

    I’ll catch up on the rest of the blog later!


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