Some friends from overseas were visiting Singapore this weekend and they went on one of those cruises that ply the Singapore River. As expected, it was not exactly cheap: $12 for 30 minutes or $15 for 45 minutes travelling in an un-airconditioned bumboat — yes, those old ones that used to transport goods and supplies from the ships moored off what is Marina Bay today. Back then (i.e. as recent as the early 1980s), the bumboats moved cargo up to warehouses and godowns along the Singapore River. Today, they ferry tourists.
I didn’t tag along for the ride with my friends. After all, I’m the one that rolls my eyes when I see tourists on those cruises and resists the urge to shout at them, “You’ve been cheated!” I mean, how exciting can it be to be chugging along a sanitised river with concrete riverbanks in the tropical heat?
I’d even warned my friends to be prepared for a tacky pre-recorded audio tour that would play during the cruise. It’s loud enough to be semi-audible from the riverbank on a quiet afternoon. My friends thought that was preferable to having an actual tour guide who’d try overly hard to be entertaining and/or hip.
But, as they reported to me via astonished SMSes, what they weren’t prepared for was a pre-recorded audio tour in an American accent.
On the one hand, it seems logical (if culturally imperialist): an American accent is, by far, the most recognisable English language accent worldwide, so it’s probably the easiest one for a group of international English-speaking tourists to follow.
On the other hand, this meant that words like “satay” and “Palembang” ended up being rendered as “suh-TAY” and “PAL-um-bang”. That’s hardly how they ought to be pronounced! Any hapless tourist who picks up the pronunciation from the cruise recording and asks a Singaporean for recommendations on where to get some “suh-TAY” is likely to be met with a blank stare.
Admittedly, most Singaporeans are relatively used to parsing peculiar foreign interpretations of local words and can eventually suss out what was meant. But tourist-oriented media really doesn’t have to replicate (and hence perpetuate) such mistakes.
Tourists and non-native speakers of Singapore English who want to get a handle on the right pronunciation of local terms, check out the mrbrown show. It’s also more entertaining and authentic than any pre-recorded audio tour at a tourist desination.