Leonard Yip is a third Singaporean student at Wolfson CollegeNoella Chye

A student like Leonard Yip (Third Year, Wolfson) is a rarity in the English Faculty. An international student, Leonard hails from Singapore, a country known for producing pragmatically-minded students. One only needs to walk by the Law or Economics faculties to hear the intonations of Singaporean English. Yet, Leonard’s choice of academic discipline has yielded intellectual fruit, particularly in thinking through the reconstitution of the English language within Singapore’s context.

To Leonard, the approach to rethinking the canon of works that undergraduates are exposed to on the English Tripos demands some nuance. He opines that we should not preclude the opportunity to engage with cultures– in literature we find ourselves instantaneously transported across kilometres and oceans, and the act of reading broadly often serves to emphasise our collective similarities, not differences. Having grown up reading the tales of King Arthur, Leonard mentions that we should not excoriate ourselves for loving things that are not our own. Yet, he also notes that there exists a finer point of distinction between being an international student and a BME student. Being of Chinese ethnicity, Leonard had the privilege of being a part of Singapore’s ethnic majority. Moreover, he had the luxury of engaging with works of English literature as cultural imports. To that extent, his experiences bear sharp differences from being a minority in Britain.

You cannot call yourself a student of English without paying heed to stories and Englishes from around the world

​“English is the language I’ve grown up speaking and the only language I’m fully proficient in”, Leonard remarks. Not only is it the language that he uses to express his thoughts and address his academic engagements, but it is also the language that he uses to unpack his identity. Perhaps this is unsurprising given that English is one of the official languages of Singapore as enshrined in government policy. Singapore’s decision to adopt English as an administrative language is emblematic of a broader phenomenon: that English is no longer the domain of the English. A distinct offshoot of colonisation, the avalanche of people who speak, write, and think about their country’s heritage and history in English brings particular credence to the fact that much of the Anglophone world has never stepped foot in England.

In thinking through the reclamation of the English language, Leonard points to Chinua Achebe’s seminal novel Things Fall Apart as a powerful example. “We were 13-years old in school when we studied it,” Leonard notes with a laugh. “Nobody expected us to be thinking about postcolonial theory”. Yet, his teachers chose to emphasise how Achebe’s novel was crafted as a response to colonial literature and the English language was used as a vehicle for African languages, traditions, and ways of life. Leonard remarks that Achebe details and recomposes Igbo idioms, stories, and songs often disregarded by colonialists. Looking back, Leonard identifies a recurring question that came up through the study of the novel: How is Achebe reclaiming language from the mouth of the coloniser? Leonard argues that Achebe acts as a linguistic ventriloquist, making the language say what he wants it to say, making the language his own to engage with the heritage and history of his own country.

We should not excoriate ourselves for loving things that are not our own

“I think many people often overlook the fact that language is always political. The stringing of sentences always seeks to drive a point or express a perspective. Writing does not operate in a vacuum.” In recognising  that language cannot be disentangled from its context, Leonard believes that theoretical readings of texts often provide an ungainly way of deriving meaning. Rather, Leonard sees the study of English as the cultivation of a desire to strive for elegance in the way things are read. Leonard’s meditation on the polemic nature of language manifested in an essay he worked on for the long 18th century, a period spanning 1660 to 1870. Leonard analysed the first travel writing created about Singapore and the Malayan Peninsula, and in doing so addressed the rhetorical domination that lead to the commodification of the island and the ‘othering’ of the natives. It is with a tinge of irony that we recognise that when the English language first arrived in Singapore, it was used to define and colour the land through a foreign perspective, ultimately leading to a colonial enterprise that lasted 123 years.


Mountain View

Wrestling with tongues

“I felt that I owed it to myself as a specialist in English to grapple with this,” Leonard notes. “I’m in a strange position. English is the only language I can speak fluently, but it is not spoken by my grandparents and is not indigenous to the land I grew up in.” In poring over the writing of early travellers, including Stamford Raffles, the governor-general often regarded as the founder of modern Singapore, Leonard recognises certain distinctions from the Eurocentric travel writing of the time. These ventures beyond Europe facilitated the development of an orientalism that would lead to the subjugation of entire countries. In analysing the language of such travel writing, Leonard identified the dominating frameworks that were first used to control Singapore and the Malayan Peninsula. However, by speaking and thinking in the same language that was once used to dominate his country, Leonard remarks with a measure of discomfort, “I feel like I have one foot on the shores of Singapore and the other on the deck of Raffles’ ship. My academic work was an attempt to reconcile the two positions”.

It is amidst this that Leonard asserts that not only is it crucial to study how the English language came to be, but also how it has continued to change and transform beyond the ‘domestic context’ of the British Isles. He cites the meticulous attention paid in lectures to regional variations in the language of the medieval text Gawain and the Green Knight, but the comparative lack of focus given to the varieties of English from around the world. “It is a disservice to all English speakers to overlook geography-bound narratives”, Leonard argues, for one only needs to examine idioms, phrases, and creoles to recognise the shifts that have been induced by the particularities of context.

It is crucial to study how English Language has continued to change and transform beyond the ‘domestic context’ of the British Isles

As Leonard asserts, “You cannot call yourself a student of English without paying heed to stories and Englishes from around the world”. And perhaps this is the least we can hope to see reflected in a transformed English curriculum.