I am Singaporean. I was born in Singapore to parents who are of Chinese descent. I also used to have a strong American accent.
Now, let’s get all the usual questions out of the way.
Was I faking it? No.
Do I have an “ang moh” girlfriend or boyfriend? No.
Am I “mixed”? Not that I know of.
Did I study in America? Yes, for a semester.
How did I pick up the accent so fast? Why and how did I lose it?
Funny you should ask.
Adding To A Blank Slate
As many Singaporeans with accents should know, picking up a new accent as a Singaporean is actually incredibly easy. Why? Because the ‘Singapore accent’ is pretty much a blank slate.
Everyone says that their own country’s accent is no accent at all, because that’s the one they’re most familiar with. In the case of Singapore, however, that might be especially true.
The Singapore accent is defined almost entirely by a lack of what typically constitutes an accent. Intonation, emphasis – all of these are almost completely missing in the Singapore accent, which employs constant and unchanging monotone, loudness, and tempo. So lacking in tonal character is our accent, in fact, that we have to invent and add non-English words a.k.a. Singlish to our speech in order to convey any sense of emotion or nuance.
With its minimalistic nature, the Singapore accent thus becomes surprisingly easy to overwrite when exposed sufficiently to another accent. You just have to talk to people.
There will always be a large portion of dyed-in-the-wool Singaporeans who believe that any Singaporean who speaks in a foreign accent is either “faking it” or just “not a true Singaporean”. Chances are, these people have either never lived overseas in other English-speaking countries, or lived overseas but refused to socialize actively with the locals.
After returning to Singapore with an American accent that I couldn’t hide, I faced no small amount of judgement from this group of people. They just couldn’t fathom how a Singaporean could genuinely speak with an accent. They gave me funny looks, and snarky questions and comments like, “Why are you talking like that?”, “You’re faking right?”, “It feels so weird talking to you now,” or, “Your accent sounds confused.” Because apparently, the manner in which words came out of my mouth had to match up perfectly with my skin colour and nationality.
Eventually, the stress and discomfort of being judged whenever I spoke and sounding different from everyone got to me, and I slowly lost my American accent. It took about a year before my accent was virtually undetectable, a much longer time than what it took for me to gain it, and sometimes I wonder if I should have stood up to the judgement and done more to maintain that part of me. Or perhaps it was just a matter of exposure, and there was nothing I could do.
When a white person speaks with an accent in Singapore, no one bats an eye. But when an Asian speaks with an accent, tongues start wagging and eyebrows furrow with confusion.
“Is he Singaporean?”
“Is he ABC?”
“Is he faking? I can’t tell.”
How about you mind your own business, you racist little tw*t?
Maybe, it’s the strong sense of nationalism that our government has hammered into us from childhood, or maybe it’s the irrationally strong connection we subscribe to between race and language, perpetrated by the ‘mother tongue’ syllabus. In any case, a modern, metropolitan Singapore would certainly be better off understanding that different people talk differently, and that’s okay.