By John Lui
All it took was a handful of words uttered by a 19-year-old beauty queen in a video interview.
But they have triggered a storm of online debate, complete with hand-wringing over Singapore's education system, the state of intelligence of today's youth and whether the use of Singlish in popular culture has gone too far.
The words mispronounced by Ms Ris Low, winner of Miss Singapore World 2009, included 'preens', 'rad', 'pis', 'bigini' and 'boomz'.
These mispronunciations of prints, red, piece, bikini and the infamous use of the sound effect 'booms' as a made-up word, boomz, to describe a dazzling outfit, have resulted in outpourings of scorn from Singapore netizens.
Their posts, ranging from the erudite to barely understandable, branded her as a poor example of a young, educated person and unfit to represent Singapore at the Miss World finals.
The video that set off the gnashing of teeth, not to mention mangled messages, was a RazorTV interview with her about fashion which was put on its website prior to her July 31 win. The finals will be held in South Africa in December.
Now, however, respected voices in the language field are speaking up for the hapless Ms Low.
Mr Goh Eck Kheng, chairman of the Speak Good English Movement, says that mocking her should be the last thing many should be doing.
'How many people are you laughing at, if you laugh at Ms Low?' he asked.
As Ms Jennifer Yin, head secretariat of the movement, says: 'Lots of Singaporeans speak this way. She is not unusual.'
The public scorn heaped on Ms Low is a symptom of that attitude, they say.
If her issues with English are not uncommon, how did things in Singapore get to such a state?
Experts whom LifeStyle spoke to blame the lack of intensive grammar drills in school, the rise of instant messaging and texting and simple laziness.
Ms Pek Siok Lian, journalist and film-maker, has noticed the rise of what she calls 'half-baked Mandarin and half-baked English' here. There is a price to be paid for taking a 'utilitarian, functional' attitude towards language, she says.
'Language here is chop-chop and a mish-mash. There is no appreciation for words and language,' she says.
The cultural emphasis on sciences and engineering has taken attention away from language skills, she adds.
Ms Yin believes that schools get a bad rap. There is only so much they can do when parents are not doing their part, she says.
'If you can't speak good English, don't even attempt to speak to them in broken English because the child will think it is standard English. Read good books to them instead,' she says.
Mr Goh believes that when Singaporeans with good English 'code switch' using different flavours of English depending on the social situation, they are making the problem worse. Those being spoken to will never hear good English and so never improve, he says.
The movement has contacted the pageant organisers, ERM World Marketing, offering to help Ms Low, a first-year diploma student at the Management Development Institute of Singapore (MDIS).
The pageant organisers have not ruled out coaching by a specialist recommended by the group, if it deems the person to be suitable, Ms Yin adds.
Ms Tracy Lee, events director at ERM World Marketing, turned down a request from LifeStyle to interview the beauty queen, saying that she is busy preparing for the Miss World contest.
In an e-mail, Ms Lee defended Ms Low: 'This is a beauty contest where beauty is most important. This is not a test of oratorical speech or a debating contest.'
Whatever happens next in the saga of Ms Low and her vowels is bound to be keenly followed, going by the reaction to the interview so far.
Since July, when Ms Low's three-minute interview video appeared on RazorTV, a video news site owned by Singapore Press Holdings, it has garnered over 44,000 views.
Two videos of Ms Low, extracted from the RazorTV original, have also appeared on YouTube and together they have earned over 85,000 views.
Comments on the websites run the gamut, but the majority have been negative.
They diss her diction, her unusual choice of words and her odd pauses. Many question her selection as winner and feel she would put Singapore in a bad light.
But language experts say the critics fail to see that spoken English here is riddled with words, sounds and grammar borrowed from Mandarin, dialects and other languages.
Ms Yin says Ms Low's speech patterns are common: 'On the train you will hear young people speak this way.'
Mr Goh points out that in the video, Ms Low is not speaking Singlish and has only minor problems with syntax and vocabulary.
All it took to provoke the online mockery is the way she said 'preens' for prints, 'rad' for red, 'hospitaterlity' for hospitality and 'bigini' for bikini.
Ms Noorlinah Mohamed, a speech and drama educator, says Singaporeans 'slur, rush through words, drop end consonants and confuse the 'r' consonant with the 'd' or 'l'.''
However, a sponsor of the Miss World Singapore 2009 pageant, Mr Kelvin Koh - founder and chief executive of Young and Healthy health supplements - says the winner should be able to hold her own in English on stage.
Ms Low would not have been his first choice as winner, he points out. 'It's really important that you have good speaking skills when you are representing Singapore on the world stage.'
Still, he says he feels an enormous amount of sympathy for Ms Low, whose main weakness is her youth and lack of experience in public speaking.
On the wider problem of mangled English, a Singaporean teacher of English with over two decades of experience, who declines to be named, is blunt.
She thought the fact that there is a Speak Good English Movement is an indication of just how bad things have become.
'I see students who cannot string two sentences together after 10 years of education,' she says.
She attributes this to a lack of rigour and formal, intensive drilling in the basics of grammar at primary and secondary school level.
Once students reach tertiary level, their essays and presentations in the sciences and humanities are graded mainly for content, not language, further removing the incentive to improve, she says.
'Students don't love reading as much as they used to. Books and newspapers, even online newspapers? Forget it. The instant messaging and texting all weaken their English,' she adds.
Ms Low is a symptom of the 'erosion all around' in the teaching of English, she says. Pointedly, she declares: 'It's good that she has become Miss Singapore World. Her language abilities are representative of the population.'
Additional reporting by Tara Tan
This article was first published in The Straits Times.