Volume 24
Graduate Working Papers

“Ownself Check Ownself”: The Role of Singlish Humor in the Rise of the Opposition Politician in Singapore

Velda Khoo
University of Colorado Boulder


  • sociocultural linguistics, Singlish, language and identity

How to Cite

Khoo, V. (2019). “Ownself Check Ownself”: The Role of Singlish Humor in the Rise of the Opposition Politician in Singapore. Colorado Research in Linguistics, 24. https://doi.org/10.33011/cril.24.1.5


The People’s Action Party (PAP) have won every election in Singapore since 1959 when the citystate was first granted self-governance. Over the years, its regime has been described as authoritarian by political observers (Rodan 2004; Tan 2012), the subjugation of the media a commonly brought-up example of the party’s ability to shut down contrasting political views (Seow,1998). With media laws that dictate the freedom of the press and protect the PAP’s interests, opposition parties have found it difficult to break their stronghold on the nation-state, and there has been no real political contestation in the general elections. Since 2011 however, the PAP, amidst social pressure to ‘keep up with the times’, have cautiously lifted the total ban on online campaigning and as a result, Singapore politics have undergone rapid mediatization. This has led to two major changes in the local political arena. Firstly, the shift in symbiotic relationships between the mainstream media, political organizations and the electorate in Singapore, has encouraged the paralleled rise of "newly competitive" opposition parties able to capitalize on newer, non-traditional spaces of communication to question the ruling legitimacy of the PAP (Ortmann, 2010). In order to brand themselves as alternative voices to an elite PAP, their public performances have appealed to growing populism, and tap on Singlish, an ideologically valuable linguistic resource, to do so. This paper analyzes the creative, patterned use of Singlish, indexically tied to "the common Singaporean" (J. Leimgruber, 2013), by opposition politicians in rallies to humorously attack PAP candidates and ideas. I argue that such linked uses of humor to language allow for opposition politicians to simultaneously position themselves as fellow lay members of the Singaporean community, and reinforce their own political stances through the deriding of the ruling party. Secondly, the rise of social media and alternative new media on the Internet have created an increasingly sophisticated citizenry (cf. Mazzoleni and Schulz, 1999) that exhibit greater degrees of "open political dissent" (Ortmann, 2010) and scrutinize political actors closer than before. This paper tracks online Singlish memes in which Singaporean netizens mock the PAP’s ’inauthentic’ expressions of Singaporean-ness and legitimize opposition politicians’ use of the language. As such, an alternative linguistic marketplace (Bourdieu, 1977) emerges in which Singlish humor is a symbol of populist resistance and solidarity. Through the analysis of these metalinguistic commentaries, I make a case for the commodification of Singlish as an ideological resource through which Singaporeans construct intersubjectivity and discuss how the nation-state is aligned with certain ways of using language.