Singlish also can!

Singlish also can!I recently had an out-of-body experience. I was in a jewelry store (quite a few rungs down from the kind with the iconic blue boxes) trying to buy a battery for my watch. It was an uphill battle, mostly because I’d landed one of those salespeople for whom customer service and product knowledge are decidedly murky concepts.

I watched as she worked her way through every battery in the store in the hopes that one of them would fit. Frustrated by the growing pile of alkaline rejects littering the counter, I picked up a battery that looked exactly like the one in my watch and asked for clarification: “This one no good, is it?”

That’s when my soul hit the eject button and hovered above my body in stunned silence. I’d done something I’d never done before* — something I’d never intended to do.

I’d spoken Singlish.

Singlish is it?

For those of you who aren’t familiar with this uniquely Singaporean delight, Singlish is a glorious linguistic stew that began life as a pidgin language in Singapore’s early days. Nowadays it’s spoken in varying degrees all over the island.

The vocabulary is a mash-up of English, Malay, various Chinese languages such as Hokkien and Cantonese, and Indian languages such as Tamil and Punjabi. Here’s a sampling:

  • Ang moh: Caucasian. (Literally, “red hair.”)
  • Atas: snobby, high-brow.
  • Blur: stupid, slow to catch on.
  • Cheem: profound, complicated.
  • Chope: to reserve a seat. (In the video shown below, Terry uses tissues to chope a seat in the hawker centre.)
  • Dowan: short for “I don’t want”.
  • Is it?: used at the end of statements as a question particle.
  • Kancheong: nervous, uptight.
  • Kaypoh: annoyingly curious or being a busybody.
  • Kayu: lousy.
  • Lah: used at the end of a sentence (sometimes every sentence) for emphasis. The Canadian counterpart is eh.

There’s a lot of variation in the degree to which Singlish can be spoken. Some Singaporeans speak the full-on version that’s completely incomprehensible to the uninitiated. Others merely pepper their English with Singlish words and phrases, a practice I found only slightly confusing (probably as confusing as speaking with a Canadian was for them. I had to explain certain Canadianisms — such as Molson muscle, tuque, chesterfield and double-double — many times in Singapore. And everywhere else, for that matter.)

Bookjunkie, who blogs at Tiny Island and Singapore, Actually, is a pepperer. “I tend to use some words and expressions when I am in causal conversations with people close to me,” she says. “I hardly say lah even though my mum uses it quite a bit. I hear people in the office using Hokkien Singlish expressions like sien, which means ‘fed up with life and boring’ but I don’t really like that term because I find it so negative.”

Singlish: the battle lines are drawn

Even though Singlish is the “unofficial” fifth official language of Singapore, its use has become increasingly controversial. Prime Ministers past and present have expressed a clear preference for Standard English — the global language of commerce — over the vernacular. In fact, the government launched the Speak Good English Movement (SGEM) in 1999 to encourage Singaporeans to reject what then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong called “English corrupted by Singaporeans.” The campaign slightly shifts its focus every year, and is still running today.

Many Singaporeans think Singlish is an abomination. My friend Sally, for example, refuses to allow her children to speak it. “It just sounds horrible,” she told me. Spending five minutes in any kopitiam (coffee shop) on the island, however, gives the distinct impression the majority of her compatriots disagree.

Hwee Hwee Tan, writing in Time magazine, had this to say:

“Singlish is crude precisely because it’s rooted in Singapore’s unglamorous past. This is a nation built from the sweat of uncultured immigrants who arrived 100 years ago to bust their asses in the boisterous port. Our language grew out of the hardships of these ancestors. And Singlish is a key ingredient in the unique melting pot that is Singapore.”

Bookjunkie, echoing the feelings of many Singaporeans, agrees that Singlish is a unique reflection of national identity. “I feel that it is so much a part of us,” she told me, adding that Standard English is taught in schools, and that Singaporeans are generally quite adept at switching from one to the other, depending on the situation.

Singlish supporters claim their language captures certain aspects of the Singaporean experience better than English ever could. Even current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong admits, “There is a certain humour and nuance reflecting the Singaporean psyche which perhaps English may not express as adequately as Singlish.” Bookjunkie couldn’t agree more: “The best jokes are always in Singlish, which is why I love the standup comedy of Kumar.”

If you’ve never heard it, the video below will give you an easily digestible taste of Singlish.  And if that’s still not enough for you, here’s an interesting article on the subject, featuring an interview with the founder of the Speak Good Singlish Movement (the counter-campaign to the SGEM.)

You can also check out the Coxford Singlish Dictionary and try a little Singlish yourself. Don’t be pai seh!

*Okay, yes — there was also that time I accidentally blurted, “Park on Toh Tuck, can or not?” to the guard at the girl’s school in Singapore, when I’d fully intended to say, “Am I allowed to park on Toh Tuck Road?” He nodded vigorously and replied, “Can, lah!” That brief exchange netted me a $70 parking ticket, so you can understand why I’m so kancheong about speaking Singlish.


About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
This entry was posted in Culture Shock, Language, Singapore and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to Singlish also can!

  1. Tien says:

    Maria, the video very funny-lah! I can relate to this very much because I am a Malaysian. And we speak something similar, we call it Manglish. Manglish has a heavier influence of Malay to it rather than Hokkien to Singlish. But -lah is till there *wink*

    • Maria says:

      I love all the “glishes” — my Korean friends speak Konglish, and I’ve also heard of Germans speaking Denglish, Iranians speaking Finglish, and French speaking franglais. And yes, Terry very funny one, lah!

  2. Dowan a ticket, lah! I hadn’t heard of Singlish, but it makes perfect sense that there would be the ‘high brow’ English and a ‘street’ version. Gotta love the multilingual dexterity!

    • Maria says:

      Many Singlish speakers argue that Singlish is actually a separate language, with a distinct grammar and syntax as well as vocabulary. And honestly, to hear it spoken quickly, it really does sound as though it has no relation to English at all. I think it’s a fascinating example of how languages live and grow.

    • Wilson says:

      Its not called a parking ticket. Its called ‘kena summon’ in Singlish… 🙂

  3. bookjunkie says:

    Thanks for including me in your brilliant article. I am so excited that you have unknowingly morphed into a Singaporean 😉 It shows that you totally opened yourself up to a new culture and I think that’s just wonderful.

    Your use of Singlish is just perfecto Maria! I am sure your kids may have picked up a bit as well, since they spent their childhood here.

    I am so gonna tweet this and would love to hear more about Canadian English…we are so unfamiliar with it and it sounds awesome too.

    • Maria says:

      How could I write a post on Singlish without referencing my favourite Singaporean blogger? Thanks for being so helpful while I was struggling to put it together. I actually know very little about Singlish, but part of me wishes I’d studied it instead of Mandarin while I was in Singapore — it would’ve been more useful!

      Canadian English (Canglish?) post coming later this week….

  4. lyndasm says:

    Interesting post! Love the topic of how language is influenced and changed by culture, geography and history. Very cheem! (am I using that right?! ha!)

  5. Fascinating stuff! I’ve never been to Singapore so this taught me a lot, lah!

    When I lived in France I once arranged to meet my mom at the “plane station”, a terrible-if-direct translation of airport (aerogare.) I lost, as you did, the ability to speak my own language for a moment. I sort of liked it!

    • Maria says:

      I love it when non-English speakers translate literally from their native language — not only is it adorable, but it offers a glimpse into how their language works. I once had a French Canadian co-worker ask me, “Can you render me a little service?” because (as you know) that’s a transliteration of the French request for a favour. Formidable!

  6. Pingback: Canadian Expat Blogger Maria’s Singlish Moment | Tiny Island

  7. cythess says:

    I Maria, I am originaly from Malaysia married to a Canadian. I have been live in Canada for 3 years, but I still couldn’t speak proper in English. I HAVE TRIED SO HARD, but come out with little progress. Finally I registered an English course at Gran McEwan University, I will start to attend the classes on May. Its hard finad a job without English written and spoken ability. I don’t get any friend either….

    • Maria says:

      It’s very hard to learn English, I know. The course will help you a lot, and so will your new blog. Have you heard of the International Friendship Group (IFG)? It’s an organization in Edmonton that helps international students practice their English, and it’s free. It’s a Christian organization, and I don’t know if the discussions are about faith, but it might be worth trying. I hope better English skills will make life in Canada easier for you. Good luck!

      • cythess says:

        Thank you for your suggestion, I absolutely will join the IFG. My parents in law has friends living in KL Malaysia, the husband is working with one of oil and gas company. They have been lives there almost 20 years. They decided to stay, because they bought houses in KL, Bali and Laos. Don’t you miss to be an expat again? I myself like Canada. Many things that I like about Canada and Canadian. But only my first year is worst, because I think shovel the snow is a tough job for a newcomer like me. I have no choice, because my husband sometimes working far away from home for 3 weeks. It would be better if I have many friend in Canada.

      • Maria says:

        I love Canada, but I do miss the expat life. Maybe when my daughters are finished school my husband and I will move overseas again. (And you’re not the only one who thinks shovelling snow is a tough job! I do it when my husband is away, and I hate it.)

      • cythess says:

        Again Maria I like to thank you about IFG, what a blessing from God, I drive passed the church almost everyday for grocery shopping, it’s only 3 blocks away from my house, its at 122 ave my house is at 119 ave. I notice the sign board, but I never take it seriously because I am a Catholic. I feel so calling to join the group.

      • Maria says:

        I’m so glad! Once you have regular practice and make some friends, your English will improve so much. I hope you’ll be happy at IFG.

  8. Sine says:

    Great post, and great blog! I lived in Singapore once as well, and your post brought back many memories. I’m not in Johannesburg, South Africa, which has its very own language yet again. Eish!

  9. Anonymous says:

    My comment:

    Atas: snobby, high-brow (Malay, Literally, “Up, top or above”).

    Blur: (In Singlish, blur means can’t see clearly).
    Usually to refer to someone who is a dreamer, not knowing
    or “the last to know what is happening”.

    Cheem: Should mean “not easy to comprehend” (Hockkien, Literally, “Deep”).

    Kancheong: Usually to describe a person who is not “cool/calm”.

    Hasty. Literally, “anxious”.

    Kayu: Should be “a dull-witted person” (Malay, literally, “wood”, i.e.

    stiff like wood : rigid/dull thinking; usually to describe an unromantic person or someone incapable of solving simple problems).

  10. Anonymous says:

    Sorry if my entries are not accurate.
    The official ones should be from here:

  11. Pingback: Singlish Movie: I Not Stupid 2 — Singapore Actually

  12. kirsten says:

    Oh I just love me my Singlish. When I was living in NZ it was one of the things I missed the most!

  13. Gerald says:

    Wah Maria! Not bad sia!

    Having lived in Singapore all my life and now an International Student here in Canada, I can totally relate to both your articles on Singlish and Canadian English.

    I’ve caught myself many a times unwittingly entrapped in the midst of both sets of cultural and linguistic influences – like going “Hey, how’s it going?” to the server at Mcdonalds in Singapore, to be met with a blank stare… or screaming hokkien expletives at a pub while catching a hockey game (yes! it’s playoff season!)

    But what is really really amazing about all of this is that, even when we physically leave the places or cultures we have been to or interacted with, there will always be an indelible part of that culture which resonates within us in one form or another.

    • Maria says:

      You’ve said it beautifully, Gerald. We always take a little bit of each culture with us — sort of a psychic souvenir.

      I laughed at your examples of cultural code-switching. I was once sharing a table at a dinner theatre in Beijing with a Chinese couple. I politely said “nin hao” as I sat down, and was gobsmacked when the man replied, “how’s it goin’, eh?” in a perfect Canadian accent. Turns out his brother lived in Ottawa (or “Yaddawa,” as he said it), and he’d learned his English there. He sounded like a complete hoser and it made me smile all evening long.

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