Speak Good English Movement

Singapore Infopedia


The Speak Good English Movement (SGEM) was launched on 29 April 2000 by then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong to “encourage Singaporeans to speak grammatically correct English that is universally understood”.1 The movement was introduced as a response to the growing concern that Singlish was becoming the standard among Singaporeans, which was said to have an adverse effect on Singapore’s goal to be a first-world economy.2 Held annually since then, the SGEM focuses on different themes and target groups over the years. A range of events and programmes are held so as to reach out to Singaporeans from all walks of life.3

By the end of the 20th century, English usage in Singapore was no longer limited to the social elite, and a critical mass of English speakers had emerged among the younger generation of Singaporeans. While standard British English was upheld by the government, Singlish – the emergent homegrown colloquial variety of Singapore English – was popular among Singaporeans. Although Singlish represents ungrammatical English often not readily understood by foreigners, it was used by many young Singaporeans in informal conversations with their peers. Useful in maintaining solidarity and friendship, Singlish gained ground as the lingua franca in modern-day Singapore.4

English-language proficiency became a concern in 1999 after The Straits Times reported on the declining English-language standards in Singapore, which some attributed to the pervasive use of Singlish.5 On 14 August 1999, then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew highlighted the importance of speaking good English so that Singaporeans can function effectively in a global setting.6 A similar message was delivered by Goh during his National Day Rally address on 22 August 1999. He stressed that young Singaporeans must learn and speak standard English, not Singlish, so as to communicate with people globally and develop Singapore into a first-world economy.7

A week after his speech, Goh announced that an annual campaign for speaking good English would be carried out the following year, as part of the government’s efforts to expand the use of standard English and discourage the use of Singlish.8 On 9 March 2000, then Minister for Information and the Arts Lee Yock Suan announced that the SGEM would be launched in April to get younger Singaporeans to speak proper English. He highlighted that the movement would not disparage Singlish, as there were Singaporeans – particularly those from the older generation – who did not have the opportunity to learn English formally and hence could not speak the language well.9

The inaugural Speak Good English Movement
The first SGEM was officially launched by Goh on 29 April 2000.10

The inaugural campaign adopted a light-hearted approach to encourage Singaporeans to speak good English and move away from the use of Singlish. Programmes and activities such as plays and speech marathon were organised in conjunction with the year’s theme, “Speak Well. Be Understood.” In support of the movement, the Regional Language Centre launched Grammar Matters, a series of five comic books to illustrate the correct use of grammar.11

Events and programmes over the years
Held annually since its launch in 2000, the SGEM reaches out to Singaporeans from all walks of life by organising a variety of events and programmes such as seminars, workshops, skits and competitions all year round. It also develops learning content such as audio lessons and tips for those who need help to improve their English.12 These initiatives are often jointly carried out with organisations such as the British Council, Society for Reading and Literacy, Singapore Retailers Association, National Library Board, as well as entities from the private sector such as food-and-beverage chains Ya Kun and Kopitiam.13

In 2001, the British Council produced English lessons accessible by the public via toll-free telephone calls.14 For women who wanted to learn English to communicate with their children, free classes were made available in 2004 at 12 community centres through the Women Learning English, or “Wish”, programme.15

Sticky notes were deployed for the SGEM in 2010, when Singaporeans were encouraged to paste the notes over signs written in poor English to correct grammatical errors. The initiative aimed to get Singaporeans to be conscious of their English usage and help others rectify their mistakes.16 In 2012, Singaporeans were urged to stick a note of a favourite English phrase or quote on a personal item, so that the phrase or quote could be readily referenced and used. As awareness of the importance of speaking good English was deemed to have been sufficiently created by then, the objective was to translate the awareness into practice.17

The 2013 SGEM focused on disseminating tips and reminders on the importance of speaking good English. Food-and-beverage outlets such as Ya Kun, Toast Box, Kopitiam, as well as restaurants in Little India, participated in the movement by helping to distribute mugs printed with the tips and reminders.18

Jointly organised by SGEM and The Straits Times with support from the Ministry of Education, the annual Inspiring Teacher of English Award was launched in 2008 to recognise outstanding teachers who play an instrumental role in improving their students’ English-language proficiency.19 This is the first national award for English teachers in Singapore.20 In 2014, the Leadership Award category was introduced to recognise leaders of effective English programmes in their schools.21

Themes and target audiences
The SGEM focuses on a different theme each year. The themes for the first 15 years of the movement were:22

2000–2004: Speak Well. Be Understood.
2005/06: Speak Up. Speak Out. Speak Well.
2006/07: Be Understood. Not Only in Singapore, Malaysia and Batam.
2007/08: Rock Your World! Express Yourself.
2008/09: I Can.
2009/10: Impress. Inspire. Intoxicate.
2010/11: Get It Right.
2011/12: How You Speak Makes a Difference.
2012/13: Make Good English Stick.
2013/14: 10 Tips to Improve Your English.
2014/15: Grammar Rules Matter. Use Good English.

Besides evolving themes, the SGEM is also aimed at different groups of people over the years.23 For example, the service sector was the focus in 2004, 2006 and 2008.24 The attention was turned to the youth demographic in 2007 and 2009.25

Employees in the sector, especially customer-facing workers, were prioritised as the target audience for the 2004 edition of the SGEM because the sector was experiencing significant expansion at the time.26 In that year, the SGEM reached out to taxi drivers, shop assistants, waiters and other workers in the service industry, while pamphlets on commonly misused phrases were distributed to sales assistants in 2006. The arrival of a significant number of foreigners for the International Monetary Fund–World Bank Annual Meetings held in September in 2006 was cited as one of the reasons for the SGEM’s target group.27 In 2008, frontline service workers – particularly foreigners and older Singaporeans – became the focus of the year’s SGEM to prepare them for the influx of tourists during the Formula 1 race hosted by Singapore later in 2008 as well as the 2010 Youth Olympic Games for which Singapore had just won the bid the same year. Communication courses were launched by the movement in partnership with the Singapore Retailers Association in 2008.28

The 2007 edition of SGEM was targeted at the youth demographic. Popular music and performing arts were used to encourage youths to speak good English.29 The spotlight was cast on young people again in 2009, as a survey in the previous year showed that many of them were not motivated to improve their standard of English. In the 2009 campaign, which touched on adopting appropriate linguistic expressions for specific situations, the SGEM reached out to youths through social-media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.30

The 2013 SGEM was focused on helping working adults aged between 20 and 39 to improve their workplace communication skills, while the 2014 campaign was the first to focus specifically on grammar. In order to interest the pubic in grammar rules, the movement launched a series of humorous videos in 2014 featuring local comedian Kumar. The skits focused on correcting commonly misunderstood grammatical practices such as tenses and countable/uncountable nouns.31

Organising committee
The SGEM is spearheaded by a committee comprising professionals and academics from both the private and public sectors. The committee’s first chairman was David Wong, then senior adviser of consulting firm Ernst and Young.32 He was succeeded in 2005 by Koh Tai Ann, an English professor at the Nanyang Technological University, who was in turn succeeded by Goh Eck Kheng, founder of local publishing company Landmark Books, in 2008.33

In 2002, the National Library Board took on the role of secretariat for the SGEM.34 The role was subsequently transferred to the National Heritage Board in 2012.35

Cheryl Sim

1. M. Nirmala, “Buck Up, Poor English Reflects Badly on Us: PM,” Straits Times, 30 April 2000, 4 (From NewspaperSG); “About Us,” Speak Good English Movement, accessed 24 November 2021.
2. Melissa Lin, “History of Singapore’s Language Drives,” Straits Times, 30 March 2013, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Rani Rubdy, “English and Mandarin in Singapore: Partners in Crime?” in English Language as Hydra: Its Impacts on Non-English language Cultures, ed. Vaughan Rapatahana and Pauline Bunce (Ontario: Multilingual Matters, 2012), 234. (Not available in NLB holdings); Speak Good English Movement, “About Us.”
4. Rubdy, “English and Mandarin in Singapore: Partners in Crime?” 233; Chua Mui Hoong, “Dangers of the Singlish Language,” Straits Times, 29 October 1999, 52. (From NewspaperSG)
5. M. Nirmala, “Moves to Prevent Erosion of English,” Straits Times, 29 October 1999, 1; M. Nirmala, “Teachers to Go for English Upgrading,” Straits Times, 25 July 1999, 1; “Campaign to Get Under-40s to Speak Good English,” Straits Times, 10 March 2000, 67. (From NewspaperSG)
6. “Singlish ‘A Handicap We do Not Wish on S’poreans’.” Straits Times, 15 August 1999, 26. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Goh Chok Tong, “First-World Economy, World-Class Home,” speech, 22 August 1999, transcript, Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts. (From National Archives of Singapore document no. 1999082202)
8. Irene Ng, “Speak Good English Campaign Next Year,” Straits Times, 30 August 1999, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
9. “Campaign to Get Under-40s to Speak Good English.”
10. Nirmala, “Buck Up, Poor English Reflects Badly on Us: PM.”
11. Nirmala, “Buck Up, Poor English Reflects Badly on Us: PM”; “Speak Well,” Speak Good English Movement, accessed 24 November 2021.
12. Rubdy, “English and Mandarin in Singapore: Partners in Crime?” 234; Speak Good English Movement, “About Us”; “Speak English Everyone Understands,” Straits Times, 6 April 2001, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
13. Speak Good English Movement, “About Us”; Joanna Lee, “Let’s Drink to Speaking Good English,” Straits Times, 16 May 2013, 6; Fiona Low, “Getting It Right – from the Start,” Straits Times, 1 September 2010, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
14. “Speak English Everyone Understands,”
15. “Serving Up Good English in S’pore,” Straits Times, 22 April 2004, H5. (From NewspaperSG)
16. Lim Wei Chean, “Don’t Ignore Poor English, Fix It – with a Sticky Note,” Straits Times, 8 September 2010, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Stacey Chia, “Time to Make Good English Stick,” Straits Times, 20 September 2012, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Amelia Teng, “Get Good English Tips with Your Cuppa,” Straits Times, 8 May 2013, 4; Farah Mohd Ismail, “Fancy Mugging Up on Your English? Straits Times, 15 June 2013, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
19. Sumathi V. Selvaretnam, “English Language Teacher Inspired You? Nominate Him for Award,” Straits Times, 27 June 2008, 51; Joanna Seow, “Speak Good English Drive Focuses on Grammar Rules,” Straits Times, 29 May 2014, 13; Malani Nathan and Lim Pow Hong, “They Light Up English Lessons,” Straits Times, 30 October 2008, 33. (From NewspaperSG)
20. Lee, “Let’s Drink to Speaking Good English.”
21. Nur Syahiidah Zainal and Ang Yiying, “Honouring a Special Crop of English Teachers,” Straits Times, 22 October 2014, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
22. Speak Good English Movement, “About Us.”
23. Speak Good English Movement, “About Us.”
24. “Serving Up Good English in S’pore”; Maria Almenoar, “Wrong: Can Fit or Not? Right: Is That the Correct Size? Straits Times, 19 July 2006, 7; Tessa Wong, “Good English Drive Focuses on Services,” Straits Times, 20 August 2008, 27. (From NewspaperSG)
25. Wong Chun Han, “Good English Is Music to Their Ears,” Straits Times, 1 August 2007, 33; Serene Luo, “Signs with Good English, Please,’ Straits Times, 29 August 2009, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
26. “Serving Up Good English in S’pore.”
27. “Serving Up Good English in S’pore”; Almenoar, “Wrong: Can Fit or Not? Right: Is That the Correct Size?.”
28. Wong, “Good English Drive Focuses on Services.”
29. Wong, “Good English Is Music to Their Ears.” 
30. Luo, “Signs with Good English, Please’; Speak Good English Movement, “About Us.”
31. Teng, “Get Good English Tips with Your Cuppa”;  Teng, “Get Good English Tips with Your Cuppa.” 
32. “Campaign to Get Under-40s to Speak Good English”; Speak Good English Movement, “About Us.”
33. Felix Soh, “‘You See There Got, Got. Not There, No Got’,” Straits Times, 15 May 2005, 32; “He Talks the Talk,” Straits Times, 26 May 2008, 46. (From NewspaperSG)
34. K. K. Seet, Knowledge, Imagination, Possibility: Singapore’s Transformative Library (Singapore: Published for National Library Board, Singapore by SNP Editions, 2005), 93. (Call no. RSING q027.55957 SEE-[LIB])
35. Stacey Chia, “Heritage Tour for Tamil Festival,” Straits Times, 30 March 2013, 1. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at 4 March 2015 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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