Language Use in Boom

In Boom, Jean Tay combines Standard English use with a lot of Singlish. As a playwright, it was a decision that she made to make the play sound much more authentically Singaporean, and for many, makes the characters much more believable. We notice that some of the characters can only speak in Singlish (Boon’s mother, the female neighbour, the corpse), some can ‘code switch’ between the two (the agents) and some speak mainly in Standard English (Jeremiah, the Director). It marks out a character’s social position, level of education, their age and the role they have in the play.

For instance, Boon’s mother is an older Chinese Singaporean, with a low level of education (although this isn’t directly stated, we can assume it) who represents the older generation for whom English is not a naturally spoken language. At the start of the play we see Boon and the agents speaking mainly in Standard English when delivering their sales pitch, but slipping into Singlish when they wish to express a point or when they are speaking to one another informally (such as in Act One, Scene 4). We can assume that they have been schooled in English, but they do not have the quality of education that someone like Jeremiah has. Characters such as Jeremiah and the Director speak mainly in Standard English, showing that they have a higher level of education (Jeremiah is a scholar) and that they understand the need for English in order to be able to reach the highest levels of society. Jeremiah only uses Singlish terms when he is speaking informally with his colleague, although his colleague does make more use of it.

An example of Singlish use:
In Act One, Scene Two we are introduced to Boon’s mother, and begin to get a sense of the relationship between the two. They speak to one another in Singlish, combining Malay, Cantonese and Hokkien phrases in their speech. The result is a very touching, comic and realistic portrayal of a Singaporean mother and her son, particularly one living a very normal lifestyle.

If the scene had been written in Standard English it might have sounded something like this:

Mother
Hey, put that down!
Boon
I’m just trying to…..
Mother
Put that down. Do you know how hard it is to find those nowadays?
Boon
How am I supposed to know? Where did you get this from?
Mother
That one? I got it in Malacca in September 1974, on my honeymoon
Boon
And this one?
Mother
I got that one in Penang, in July 1978
Boon
Have you got anything from this century? Everything here is from ages ago. And this one is the best, its got scotch tape on it! It’s broken, just throw it away.
Mother
You broke that one
Boon
Oh. I’ve forgotten.

Although it would make it more universal, and perhaps more appealing to an international audience, it does not sound authentically Singaporean. As a reader (specifically Singaporean) it is not as realistic and you probably don't relate to the characters as closely and the relationship between Boon and his mother here does not appear as close as the style of conversation might sound stilted to a Singaporean ear. In such an informal situation, we would expect the pair to be speaking in their own dialect, or at least an informal version of the English that many people in Singapore speak.

So why did Jean Tay not write the whole scene in Hokkien instead? Local playwright Haresh Sharma uses a lot of dialect in his plays, and the audience often have to rely on surtitles to understand all that is being said. In his play Model Citizens, characters speak in Bahasa Indonesian, Malay, Mandarin and English – but his intention is to display issues with the increasing focus on English within Singapore and how it alienates a lot who still don’t speak it. Although this may seem more authentic (and Jean Tay has been questioned whether it is realistic that Boon’s mother would speak English at all), it identifies Boon and his mother as distinctly Chinese Singaporean - so in using Singlish, I feel she ensures that it is a more universal Singaporean experience. His mother could be a Singaporean Chinese, Malay, Tamil or any of the other many racial groups in the country. The play is about society as a whole, not issues with language, so arguably by choosing to use Singlish over Hokkien or any other dialect, Jean Tay focuses the attention onto other themes than language. On a further point, Jean Tay herself professed that her Hokkien was not that good (a lot was developed in conjunction with the actors in the first performance of Boom who spoke it), so it is perhaps a personal choice on her behalf, that she herself identifies more with Singlish and English than with dialects.
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