Sunday, April 13, 2014

Image, Identity and Talking Cock in the SAF

I overheard some young officers expressing their frustration at how older officers mangle the English language by their insistence on misusing words, or making up their own words. "Why do they keep using words like delayering or invidious or spiral", the youngsters lamented. I experienced such a strong sense of deja vu, to my early years in the SAF, and I thought, I've been there. My own personal list of pet peeves includes words like revert, agnostic, irregardless and operationalise. I felt so strongly about it that I actually wrote an essay on this, almost a decade ago. (Well, we were all forced to write essays anyway, so I figured I might as well write something I felt passionate about. This also explains the formal language used.) And I figured this is the best way to share it with them, and others.


In everyday discussions of Singapore’s national identity, the topic of Singlish always comes up. This is not surprising since we have evolved a rich local lingo that combines the common English language with the colourful vocabulary and grammar constructs of our diverse Asian cultural heritage. The result is a linguistic potpourri that is often more emotive and concise than any of its derivatives. As Singaporeans, we are proud of our Singlish. And as soldiers, we should be proud of the shared years of national service, that have spawned so many Singlish’s colloquialisms. A cursory glance through The Coxford Singlish Dictionary reveals just how many common terms and phrases have their popular roots in the Army – phrases such as own time own target, arrow or wayang – and this is further evidence of the indelible mark national service has left on the national psyche.

This essay sets out to make several observations about the usage of words and phrases specific to the SAF, termed here as Military Lingo (Lingo). The first is to highlight the centrality of Lingo in defining the military identity, and how it reflects on the image of the SAF. The second is to deconstruct the roots of Lingo and discuss the specific situations where it is helpful to the task at hand, and other occasions where it may detract from mission success. The purpose of this essay is not to criticize the use of Lingo, but to analyse how it can be used to best effect.


The Importance of Military Lingo to Image and Identity

Language is a powerful part of culture, and can quickly polarise people by defining group identities. Even within Singapore, our Lingo extends beyond words that have entered common parlance. The Army has evolved a huge vocabulary of its own, many of which would not be understood by the general populace, especially the fairer sex. We have all experienced those group discussions suddenly transformed into recollections of national service. As the menfolk fervently reminisce, a bond grows among them borne of shared experience, even though they may not have gone through NS together. Meanwhile, the ladies adopt the eyes-glazed expression that can only be interpreted as sheer boredom and a frustrated reprimand afterward. They are left out. When a strong shared identity exists, its members become part of the in-group, while the others form the out-group, pushed to the periphery. And this phenomenon is even worse in situations involving other nationalities.

The United States of America has the most multi-racial society in the world. Over the last century, immigrants have swarmed there from all over the globe to make a better life for themselves. They have adopted the English language, baseball and beer; many come with the desire to assimilate and be accepted into society. The huddled masses from countries such as Vietnam, China, Ireland and South America all arrived to scrape a living, climbing up the social and corporate ladders, and have become successfully integrated into American culture. Yet there is one ethnic group that has inhabited the continent longer than almost any other, and still maintains a distinct divide from the mainstream: the African Americans. Unlike even the Chinese and Irish, who started below them on the social ladder, the African Americans have been unable or unwilling to integrate into society. Sociologists attribute this to their Black Pride movement, which promotes the preservation of nigger styles of speech, dressing, music and general outlook on life. This distinct identity has hurt the group as a whole, keeping them apart from other Americans, and handicapping their chances for social advancement. In the same way, insensitive use of Singlish or Lingo with other nationalities builds barriers, and can only make it more difficult to achieve objectives in the international arena.

Identity is built on a common language and culture; the in-group is strengthened in its cohesion and common purpose, but the out-group becomes alienated, uncomfortable and uncooperative. It is important to be aware of this double-edged sword, in order to fully utilize its sharp edge without stabbing ourselves. If we hope to work with others, we must be careful not to alienate them; we must be even more careful not to alienate ourselves.

Linguistic choice is also an important part of Image and professionalism. There is a common saying that first impressions count, and we are often fixated on ensuring the perfection of appearance: starched and ironed uniforms, shiny boots and an erect posture. Yet in the course of interaction, the way a soldier carries himself, the words he chooses, the formality and poise of his delivery are just as important as his physical appearance. Whether it be a junior officer trying to impress his senior commander, or any soldier on a humanitarian mission featured by the international media, language matters to Image.

There is no best language for all occasions. Just as the vision of IKC2 is to the deliver the right information to the right people at the right time in the right form, a successful communicator should adjust the material and delivery to suit his audience. Imagine trying to discuss the macroeconomic benefits of the GST increase using Queen’s English with a hokkien peng. Similarly, it may not be appropriate to engage foreign counterparts in Singlish, and even when dealing with fellow countrymen we should avoid the overuse of some types of Lingo.


Types of Lingo

During the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong devised an ingenious method of torture. The victim was tied to a chair and placed some distance under a cistern, or water pipe. A slow and steady stream or water droplets was directed to land on the victims head. What may have seemed like an occasional irritation soon grew into an unbearable commotion, as the number of droplets ran into the ten thousands, each one landing like a thunderclap upon the hapless prisoner below. It was credited with breaking men; or driving them mad.

Like the water droplets, verbal tics can also become an unbearable irritation, especially during presentation. These are words that add no meaning, but serve to fill in the silence when silence would actually be preferable. The occasional “err” or “ok” may seem innocuous at first, but as they repeatedly punctuate each sentence, they begin to distract the listeners from the message being conveyed. In the military, these verbal tics have taken on more sophisticated forms than mere “err” or “ok”. How many times have you had a conversation or listened to a presentation that was persistently interrupted by the speaker’s favorite catchphrase such as so-called, per se, squared away or side of the house. Precisely because these words do not fit into standard speech patterns, and are often used in an ungrammatical context, they can be particularly jarring on the ears. But there is another class of verbal tics that is even more prevalent, although much less noticeable.

Words that bear the badge of cowardice are those that smack of deferential, non-threatening tonality. In our Asian culture, we often choose the passive over the active voice, the indirect over the direct and above all we avoid being too assertive. But in our military, the over-use of such cowardly words gives the impression of lack of confidence or conviction, both of which are undesirable for our image. Like the first set of verbal tics, these words add no information to the communication, they only serve to soften the impact of what is spoken. We often here people say “I was just wondering …”, “I think …” or “actually, …”. Just implies the insignificance or the low cost of a request. I think implies that I don’t know, or I’m not sure. And actually is a defensive word, implying that the preceding statement is just a little off the mark, but without constituting a direct challenge. In most cases, these words are unnecessary and are filtered out by our subconscious. Of course, there are also times to use such words, but care should be taken not to make a habit out of them. Listen carefully, and you will hear them everywhere.

Another common source of Lingo are words that are stolen lock, stock and barrel from the English language. The problem is that these often cheem words are then used not as a gun, but merely as a club to bludgeon some seeming sophistication into prose or speech. And because they sound good, they have proliferated within the organization, as their meaning becomes increasingly distorted and misunderstood. Some commonly misused words are irregardless, which is a non-existent word sometimes used in place of “regardless” and revert, which means to return to a previous condition. We have also developed some peculiar indigenous grammar constructs such as double confirm, or chop stamp plus guarantee. The danger of such words and phrases is that they will lead to confusion and contempt when used with people outside the military, who are familiar with the proper meaning. Because they are actual English words, they would be seen as poor English rather than Singlish. And even within the military, the meanings often have to be inferred as there is no official definition.

A final useful type of Lingo that adds further colour to our vocabulary are militarized modifiers. Words such as obstacalise or operationalise do not exist in any standard English dictionary, yet they have clear meanings and contribute to the efficiency of communication. It is much more elegant to state the need to “operationalise IKC2” than to “make operational IKC2”. While they may cause outsiders to raise an eyebrow, there is much less danger of misunderstanding, as compared to those taken lock, stock and barrel.

In most cases, we just need to be mindful of our audience, to decide whether we can use Lingo, Singlish, or stick to plain English. The level of formality in speaking should also be adjusted to the occasion as well, as this reflects on our professionalism. Hence it is important to be able to distinguish ourselves which words fall into which category, and use them only in the appropriate context.


Effective Communication to Enhance Image and Identity

If the SAF were a closed organization with little external interaction, there would be less concern over the use of Lingo. After all, the creation of a common lingo lubricates social interactions and working relationships, by reminding individuals meeting for the first time that they have a shared culture, heritage and identity. Conversely, the employment of Lingo in interactions with external organizations achieves the opposite effect; it highlights cultural differences and confounds communication, leading to frustration and a lack of common understanding. In the new paradigm of SAF operations, the ability to collaborate with external agencies is more important than ever, and the overuse of Lingo will build walls before we can build bridges.

One motivation for writing this essay is a memory I hold from NDP, watching some of our officers negotiate the terms of sponsorship with the partners of a big multinational corporation. His presentation, often punctuated by his choice verbal tic, “so-called”, sounded more like he was briefing recruits. Each tic made me shudder as I wondered then what image of the Army did these civilians hold in their minds, and just how wide is the divide between SAF culture and the rest of Singapore? What does this bode for civil-military relations and a question that is perhaps closer to our hearts: what are the implications for our future second careers, when we need to integrate back into the private sector and the larger society?

In the new paradigm, the SAF has to deal with a much wider range of external interactions. In Operations Other Than War (OOTW), we work with Inter-Governmental Organisations (IGOs) and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), in addition to coalition forces and foreign militaries. Cooperation is needed with local organizations and civilians, many of whom would still be suffering the aftermath of some natural disaster or civil war. In such circumstances it is difficult to expect everyone to be patient and understanding if initial efforts at communication fall through, and every effort should be made to get it right the first time. We also have to carry out CMR, and deal with local and international media. Any soldier could conceivably become the next face of the SAF, and how they speak and carry themselves is perhaps more important than how they dress, or even the actual work that they do. Hence Image and Identity, as well as all the attendant trappings of language and culture, are intricately tied to our choice of words.



Singlish and Lingo are marvellous languages, and when used correctly they can build instant rapport and shared identity between two people meeting for the first time. However, when used in the wrong context, they reflect poorly on the speaker’s professionalism and can be a hindrance to communication and relationship building, especially in an international context. This essay sets out to highlight the importance of language and communication to the SAF’s image and identity. While there is no single right choice of linguistics, a good communicator must be sensitive and versatile to adapt his style to that of the audience. By doing so, he will be able to portay the best image of himself and the organization, and also build on the shared sense of identity with those within the SAF, while not alienating those without.


1., The Coxford Singlish Dictionary, Singapore: Angsana Books (2002).