Politics and the Singlish Language

Singlish - a uniquely Singaporean threat

No official recognition is given to Singlish as a marker of Singaporean identity or an indigenous patois. This is despite political leaders using Singlish during election campaigning to better connect to a local audience.

The government recognises that Singlish cannot be eradicated but it will not take kindly to attempts to promote it.

The concern is that any mixed signals on Singlish will undermine efforts to raise English language proficiency. A similarly tough and consistent stance is taken against Chinese dialects, in order to promote Mandarin Chinese proficiency.

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Do You Speak Singlish?

Is the government’s war on Singlish finally over? Our wacky, singsong creole may seem like the poor cousin to the island’s four official languages, but years of state efforts to quash it have only made it flourish. Now even politicians and officials are using it.

Trending at the moment is “ownself check ownself,” which was popularized by Pritam Singh, a member of Parliament from the opposition Workers’ Party. He was mocking the ruling People’s Action Party (P.A.P.) for saying that the government was clean and honest enough to act as its own guardian.

Singlish is a patchwork patois of Singapore’s state languages — English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil — as well as Hokkien, Cantonese, Bengali and a few other tongues. Its syntax is drawn partly from Chinese, partly from South Asian languages.

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The Reality Behind Singlish

Gwee Li Sui’s “Politics and the Singlish Language” (Opinion, May 13) makes light of the government’s efforts to promote the mastery of standard English by Singaporeans. But the government has a serious reason for this policy.

Standard English is vital for Singaporeans to earn a living and be understood not just by other Singaporeans but also English speakers everywhere. But English is not the mother tongue of most Singaporeans. For them, mastering the language requires extra effort. Using Singlish will make it harder for Singaporeans to learn and use standard English. Not everyone has a Ph.D. in English Literature like Mr. Gwee, who can code-switch effortlessly between Singlish and standard English, and extol the virtues of Singlish in an op-ed written in polished standard English.

The author is the press secretary to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore.

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Wah… need to have PhD to speak Singlish leh!

In Singapore, the official language for work is English. Why ah? Orh… Because hor… you see ah… last time Singapore was an ang moh colony mah. Then hor, because our gahmen think that if we stuck to using English, it would help us better communicate with the rest of the world. The gahmen think that would make it easier for us to do business. That’s why our official language is English lor.

But hor. You know lah. Singapore is multi-racial and multi-lingual society. And not everyone’s English is steady bom pi pi one. So when people from different cultures come together hor, they bo bian will add a bit of their own language, whether it is Malay, Tamil, Mandarin, Hokkien, or whatever. This helps us understand one another better. The result. Singlish lor.

Recently, even the ang mohs have seemed to accept Singlish. In March this year, 19 Singlish words were added to the Oxford English Dictionary. A consultant editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, Dr Danica Salazar, said that Singlish doesn’t destroy the English language, but enriches it. Buay pai leh! Steady la!

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Sharp sting from poet’s op-ed – PM Lee’s press secretary responds

Poet and literary critic Gwee Li Sui wrote an opinion piece which was published in the International New York Times on May 14-15 with the headline “Politics and the Singlish language“. In his piece, Gwee chronicled how years of state efforts to quash it have not only made it flourish but also state institutions and officials, like National Service from Singapore Tourism Board, have nourished it.

In the article, Gwee pointed out how in 1999 Mr Lee Kuan Yew had declared war on Singlish describing it as “a handicap we must not wish on Singaporeans”, and how his son Mr Lee Hsien Loong seemed to have eased-up on this war. He pointed out how during a naturalization ceremony in 2012, the younger Lee had encouraged new citizens to integrate saying, “and if you can understand Singlish, so much the better.”

Gwee’s article also pointed out Workers’ Party MP Pritam Singh had popularised “ownself check ownself,” by mocking the People’s Action Party (PAP) for saying that the government was clean and honest enough to act as its own guardian.

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Glocalisation, English And Singlish: Creating A Singaporean Identity – Analysis

The English versus Singlish debate reflects an element of the social fabric of Singapore. The concept of glocalisation brings a deeper understanding to a weak argument on Singlish’s role and imperative for competence in English. The need to redouble efforts at teaching Standard English is underlined.

English and Singlish do not exist in a zero-sum equation where one gains at the expense of the other. Rather, both exist as two sides of the same coin and share equal currency when viewed through the lenses of glocalisation. Raising the level of Standard English in Singapore thus does not require the eradication of Singlish.

The recent re-visiting of the perennial debate on Singlish’s place in Singapore in recent weeks suggests that the wrangle is more fundamental than one of speaking proper English. The anti-Singlish camp stresses that Singlish handicaps one’s ability to learn and speak Standard English; an essential ability for citizens of a cosmopolitan city in a globalised world. This argument was made most recently by academic Eugene Tan who expressed concern that Singaporeans’ competence in Standard English and hence Singapore’s competitiveness in a global economy would be compromised by the valorisation of Singlish. For the pro-Singlish camp, the argument advanced is that Singlish is an organic Singaporean manifestation, a local phenomenon that should be treasured much like Scottish English or Australian English.

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Singlish/English: for peace and harmony

SO THE G has come out to whack Dr Gwee Li Sui for his column in the New York Times, “Do you speak Singlish?”

Cannot tahan. I don’t know why Dr Gwee kena tekan like this because he certainly didn’t ask that Singlish be taught in schools or anything so crazy.

In my view, what he made light of was the G’s confused manner of dealing with Singlish, using it when it suits them and whacking it when it gets on its high horse to promote standard English.

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PM's press secretary rebuts NYT op-ed on Singlish

The press secretary to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has responded to an opinion piece on Singlish in the New York Times (NYT) newspaper, saying it makes light of the Government's efforts to promote the mastery of standard English by Singaporeans.

In a letter published in the International NYT yesterday, Ms Chang Li Lin said: "The Government has a serious reason for this policy.

"Standard English is vital for Singaporeans to earn a living and be understood not just by other Singaporeans but also English speakers everywhere," she said.

Singlish all abuzz
Can guess not?
'Chinese helicopter'? Latest entry in Oxford Dictionary has us scratching our heads

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To the government: Don’t tell Limpeh what to say

Singlish holds a special place in the hearts of most Singaporeans. The off-grammar creole is spoken almost exclusively by inhabitants of our small island-nation and very often prompts strong emotional responses from people when it is challenged or belittled. It is also a source of comfort, according to some, especially when stuck in a foreign land where the only thing you miss most is the sights and sounds of a far away home.

A personal anecdote should illustrate this: while travelling recently through the metropolitan Chinese city of Shanghai, a friend and I stepped into a famous restaurant, seating ourselves down next to a couple and their two young children. Perched on their seats were several shopping bags emblazoned with the names of luxury brands – it was apparent that they had just returned from a shopping trip at a nearby luxury chain street.

I gestured to my friend, “Looks like Singaporeans.”

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Gahmen, don’t like that leh

Wah lau. Just when I thought it was safe to speak Singlish, the gahmen came along to remind us that it is a literal threat to our survival.

Many will have seen Monday’s (23 May) letter to The New York Times by Chang Li Lin, press secretary to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Responding to academic Gwee Li Sui’s op-ed celebrating the role of Singlish in our society, Chang chastised him for “making light” of the government’s efforts to promote the mastery of standard English by Singaporeans.

Chang’s arguments are not new: Singlish undermines standard English, it makes it harder for Singaporeans to compete in the world economy, not everyone can code switch between Singlish and proper English. Curiously, Chang seemed to suggest that it requires a PhD to do the latter, which leaves millions of Singaporeans like me out in the cold.

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PA celebrated Singlish as part of national identity

“Using Singlish will make it harder for Singaporeans to learn and use standard English.” – Chang Li Lin, press secretary to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, New York Times 2016.

Do you all remember National Day Parade 2015? Singlish was glamourised on the national stage, in front of thousands, and the Prime Minister, in big bright neon signs. “Something that is truly Singaporean – Singlish”, said the commentator.

And guess who celebrated Singlish as part of our national identity? Why, it was the People’s Association!

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Singlish is not the enemy

Thinking about all that with regard to the current debate over Singlish in the New York Times, I am prompted to ask a different but related question: Is Singlish the enemy?

The enemy of what, you might ask? Well, the government’s stand has long been clear—Singlish is the enemy of learning standard English. That was recently reiterated by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s press secretary in response to Singaporean poet and literary critic Gwee Li Sui’s New York Times article, “Politics and the Singlish Language”.

In that article, though, Dr Gwee for his part spoke of Singlish as an “enemy of the state”, thanks to official policy against it, and as a language that has in fact developed as a vehicle of “political resistance”. That, of course, should be unsurprising for any common, self-developed language of the people. (It is said that London’s Cockney Rhyming Slang was once used by thieves to dodge the police who didn’t understand it.)

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Singlish is recognized, but not by Singapore

The last two weeks created much buzz about Singlish after 19 Singlish words were added to the Oxford English Dictionary and Gwee Li Sui’s piece in the New York Times. This was not the first time Singlish gained international attention, but in a post-SG50 climate, the Singlish “problem” was dealt with a new sense of urgency, interest, and vitality.

Of course, the talk of the town—at least on social media—was the rebuttal by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s press secretary in the New York Times to Dr. Gwee’s Op-ed. Ironically, the rebuttal only proved Dr. Gwee right, that government condemnation of Singlish made it more cool. But as a fellow non-Ph.D. holder, the press secretary’s letter read as a somewhat surprising and perhaps misleading account of why Singapore needs English.

If learning English indeed requires “extra effort”, why would Singlish, and not bilingualism, diminish our ability to speak English?

related: Singapore Jetstar adopts Singlish as official customer-facing language

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Singlish vs Standard English: I say, RELAK, lah!

Confession: I possess no PhD in English Literature or, for that matter, a MA, Int’l Relations or a BA (Hons), Sociology & Int’l Relations (the last 2 from UK universities, no less). But I do speak and write fairly decent English – and communicate in Singlish as and when.

It is no surprise to me how Chang Li Lin, press secretary to PM Lee, came down hard‘ on
Gwee’s ‘Politics and the Singlish Language’ (original title). The NYT editors might have thought of Singapore’s media being ranked progressively at a new #154 out of 180 low and its parallel to George Orwell’s 1946 ‘Politics and the English Language‘.  To Orwell, language is an ‘an instrument which we shape for our own purposes’. And one where ‘political and economic’ causes and effects inter-play.

That might have motivated Chang to respond i.e. the hint of political manipulation of language use in Singapore is a No-No. Her key defence: ‘Standard English is vital for Singaporeans to earn a living’, highlighting the economic – while deflecting and eluding discussion of the political causes and effects.

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Singlish debate redux: Dr Gwee Li Sui is the new Phua Chu Kang sia

What we got was an epic lecture from then PM Goh Chok Tong during his National Day Rally speech about how PCK was leading the youth of Singapore astray.

He said:
  • “One of the problems MOE (Ministry of Education) has getting students to speak standard English is that the students often hear Singlish being spoken around them, including on TV.
  • “So they learn wrong ways of speaking.
  • “Teachers complain that their students are picking up catchphrases like ‘Don’t pray, pray’ and using them even in the classroom.
  • “The students may think that it is acceptable and even fashionable to speak like Phua Chu Kang...
  • “So in trying to imitate life, Phua Chu Kang has made the teaching of proper English more difficult.”
And that’s just an excerpt.

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Who's afraid of 'chao ah beng'?

In a classroom in the mediaeval city of York, northern England, university students discuss the use of Singlish terms such as "chao ah beng" and Singapore's history and socio-political context.

They are studying poet-playwright Alfian Sa'at's poem, Singapore You Are Not My Country, which has been taught in a global literatures module at the University of York for the past three years.

From Britain to the United States and India, more texts by Singaporean writers like Boey Kim Cheng, Arthur Yap, Edwin Thumboo and Stella Kon are being taught at universities across the world, at undergraduate and postgraduate levels

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Embrace your national identity with Singlish emojis

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently highlighted 'identity' as one of challenges to beset Singapore over the next 50 years, lest we CMI.

What is CMI? CMI is the acronym for Cannot Make It, and such abbreviations form a core part of the Singlish syntax.

Singlish has been lauded as one of Singapore's distinct and unique identities, besting even the government's valiant attempts to purify our lexicon

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Singapore Right in Rebutting NYT Piece on Singlish

Singapore rarely takes media criticism in its stride. That has often made me think the government need not always be belligerent.

For once, though, I tend to agree with Singapore’s rebuttal of an op-ed piece in The New York Times that touched on how Singlish was thriving in the country. That despite the government taking every effort possible to promote standard English!

The New York Times published a rejoinder yesterday from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s Press Secretary explaining the rationale behind encouraging Singaporeans to gain a mastery of standard English.

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Can’t use Singlish, but Indian English can?

Dey. Do you have a PhD in English Literature? If you don’t, you can’t use Singlish! And you better ensure that your kids correct common errors in their English from a young age! So you may think that it’s a good idea to get a book titled “Common Errors in Pupils’ English”. You may think that that will help you guide your kid to avoid the potential pitfalls in learning the langauge.

And you would be dead wrong.

According to the book, it’s ok to use “revert” to mean “reply”. As in it’s ok to tell someone that you will “revert to him” when you mean that you will “reply to him”. No. it doesn’t work that way. When you say that you will “revert to someone”, it means that you will change back to that person. Unless you have some mutant power, I highly doubt you are able to change from one person to another and then change back. So no. If you are using “standard English”, there is no way you can “revert” to someone.

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Singlish must not be allowed to displace Standard English

I agree that the Government cannot afford to ease up on its strict stance on Singlish ("PM's press secretary rebuts NYT op-ed on Singlish"; yesterday).

Singlish has indeed taken on a life of its own, and has flourished as a vernacular with a distinctly Singaporean heritage. We use and flaunt it like a badge of national pride.

While poet and literary critic Gwee Li Sui, in his opinion piece on Singlish published in the International New York Times, said that even politicians and officials use Singlish, I believe most do so with an awareness of the specific context and register that Singlish should be used in.

related: Singaporeans know right time, place for Singlish

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Don't use Singlish as the scapegoat!

Is my mother an uneducated, illiterate Hokkien speaking old woman? No, actually, she is a retired primary school teacher. To be fair to her, most of the time, she is able to speak in grammatically correct English (albeit with a really strong Singaporean accent). But the whole reason why people like her think that can-can is actually English (and not Singlish) is because so many people in Singapore speak like that - it feels natural, comfortable and completely normal: if you said 'can-can' instead of 'yes' in Singapore, you would be understood.

My mother had slipped into Singlish without realizing it and that actually happens a lot in Singapore, when Singaporeans are speaking amongst themselves. However, if my nephew were to say 'can-can' instead of 'yes' during his English oral exam, he would be penalized for using non-standard English. But if the woman teaching him English is already using Singlish instead of standard-English during the lessons, what hope does my nephew have of mastering standard English?

Even if my mother did teach my nephew standard English, guess what? He's still going to use Singlish anyway because that is what his classmates speak. So perhaps it is somewhat unfair to blame my mother for her use of Singlish as it was hardly going to make any difference when you look at the big picture. Such is the nature of peer pressure - the people in my nephew's life are not forcing him to speak Singlish, rather, they exert their influence on him in a far more subtle manner. If the vast majority of people around him spoke Singlish rather than standard English, then he is far more likely to use words like 'can', 'got', 'want' etc instead of 'yes' and 'cannot', 'don have' and 'dowan' instead of 'no'. Thus in this context, Singaporeans often feel that there's absolutely nothing wrong with using Singlish if almost everyone around them uses it - it feels familiar, normal and completely acceptable. So I say, good luck to the teachers (such as my buddy, Mr Angmohdan) trying to stop their students from using Singlish in the classroom.

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Let The People Sing(Lish)

Recently, a New York Times’ opinion piece by local poet Gwee Li Sui critiqued the state’s hostile approach towards Singlish, where despite numerous attempts at correcting this native English creole over the years, this unique language remains. This drew flak from the Prime Minister’s Office, where Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s press secretary Li Lin Chang argued that standard English was central to Singapore’s survival as it allows the country to connect effectively with the world, while Singlish impedes one’s ability to adopt standard English effectively (unless you have a PhD in English Literature like Mr Gwee). Ironically, despite the fluidity of language and the human capacity to learn, unlearn and relearn languages, the Singlish issue has been portrayed as a zero-sum issue by the latter’s rigid approach to something native to Singaporeans.

Singapore’s relationship with Singlish has been a paradoxical mess tangled in a love-hate struggle over the years. This debate has been complicated by the state’s pro-standard English direction and its implicit acceptance of Singlish in the public sphere. At its core, Singapore is driven by standard English in the aspects of our economy, education, and diplomacy. As a global city-state, it is with pragmatic concern that Singaporeans are able to connect with the world primarily through proper English.

Nevertheless, while we see standard English being adopted nationally on a official basis, Singlish has been playfully experimented with by politicians, businesses and even the media all year-round. As they try to add a human touch to an otherwise larger-than-life presence through Singlish, they are implicitly supporting Singlish and indirectly lending credence to it. The desire to connect with the masses through Singlish ultimately brings these institutions back down to earth. In a macro sense, this spelt the tensions between the Singaporean state’s pragmatic approach in connecting with the world as a global city-state and the innate desire of Singaporeans to have that unique sense of identity shaped by our common tongues.

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A Singlish Conspiracy?

As an academic -- OK, a failed academic, if you insist -- finding and citing the source of information is critical.

I took little notice of the excitement about Singlish in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) until the debate about the NYT article and a certain response from 'on high' came into the picture.

I did notice that the person who put the Singlish in OED is a delightful young Filipino consultant who is known to want to include ‘Filipino English’ in the OED: ‘English’ terms that had hitherto been deemed inadmissible.

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Speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at Ang Mo Kio GRC and Sengkang West SMC Citizenship Ceremony (English)

Becoming a citizen is a big step. But it’s one step along a journey. I hope that now you have become a citizen, you will integrate even more closely into our society. Those of you who have been here some years, some ten, twenty, some maybe even thirty years – that’s not a problem. But those of you who have come more recently, I hope you will make the effort.

Don’t just mix amongst yourselves, or with people who have come from the same country as you, but make friends with Singaporeans – with your neighbours, with your colleagues, with your children’s schoolmates, and pick up Singaporean customs, lifestyles, norms, social rules.

And if you can understand “Singlish”, so much the better!

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SinGweesh on Wednesday: Politisai

No wonder Singlish speakers feel so sian about having to make meaningless sounds like a hard “s” ending! That last squeeze on the tongue muscle can be very siong, OK. By not doing it, many England words – and almost every long word that ends with “-ise” – has kena pumchek. So, instead of “Don’t criticise!”, you hear “Dun critisai!”. Instead of “Can subsidise?”, you hear “Can subsidai?” When you walk into your neighbourhood MacDonald’s to order a meal, the counter auntie smiles and asks: “Upsai?”

Which brings me to our current tok kong term “politisai” – because it’s all that and more. “Politisai” is a sibei long word that is hardly shortened by a missing hard “s” sound. At least it follows Singlish’s preferred simplification of verbs, which buangs conjugation (simi sai?) and tense (go Zouk and tense ha?) so long as the context isn’t lost. Thus, there’s no colonial rubbish like “I politicise”, “You politicise”, “PAP politicises”. Everybody – I, you, PAP, WP, whatever-P steady poon pee pee, The Online Straits Times Citizen, hampalang – politisai. You also dun say “I politicise”, “I am politicising”, “I have politicised”. It’s just “I politisai”, “I politisai”, “I have politisai”.

Then, there’s the whole point of “sai” itself that is so shiok when used in relation to politics. “Sai” in “politisai” isn’t the same as “sai” in “ay sai” and “buay sai”, which agak-agak mean “can be done” and “cannot be done”. In those Hokkien phrases, “sai” denotes ability. But the “sai” in “politisai” – despite its gentler tone – invokes sai the shit. I can prove this with the solid Singlish saying that has made the word itself famous: “Simi sai also politisai”. See how a pun and a rhyme make you see “politisai” in terms of “sai”? The more geena version goes “Everything also politisai”, but it isn’t as shiok lah. The real meaning is: “It’s amazing how any shit can get politicised.”

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MOE: No penalty for using Singlish appropriately

MOE's clarification on when Singlish words are allowed comes as a number of Singlish words were recently added to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

Several parents interviewed are glad that students will not lose marks if they use Singlish terms in compositions appropriately.

Housewife Lydia Tan, 38, who has a six-year-old son, said: "Students sometimes express themselves better with Singlish.

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Who else besides PhD holders are qualified to use Singlish in Singapore?

In a letter to the New York Times, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s press secretary, Ms Chang Li Lin, rebutted Singaporean poet Gwee Li Sui’s opinion piece headlined “Politics and the Singlish language“.

In rebutting the poet Ms Chang said, “not everyone has a Ph.D. in English Literature like Mr. Gwee, who can code-switch effortlessly between Singlish and standard English, and extol the virtues of Singlish in an op-ed written in polished standard English.”

But besides PhD holders, who else are qualified to use Singlish?
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Wah! Not bad-lah! Oxford shiok

A few days ago, Singapore slang terms officially made it into Oxford English Dictionary – it’s fantastic, lah!

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) announced it has added yet even more Singaporean English words and phrases (also very familiar to Malaysians) to its lexicon. Among the 19 latest entries that made it to the March 2016 update are: char siu, chilli crab, sotong, ang moh, teh tarik, blur and lepak. This follows the earlier incorporation of suffix lah in the dictionary’s online version; and the inclusion of kiasu in February last year as the dictionary’s ‘Word of the Day’.

Singaporean English (known locally as Singlish) borrows a number of words from Malay and Tamil words, and local Singapore Chinese dialects such as Hokkien. Shedding light on the origins of some words, the dictionary explains that ang moh, for example, is Hokkien for a Caucasian. Shiok and lepak are Malay respectively for something that is great or tasty, and hanging out, taking it easy or relaxing, respectively.

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Singlish - Uniquely Singapore
Singapore's famous spouting Merlion statue - in Singlish "merlion" means to vomit profusely

Singapore's government has long insisted that everyone in the island nation should speak English - it's the language used in schools, at work, and in government. But in practice many people speak a hybrid language that can leave visitors completely baffled - Singlish.

Singapore is known for its efficiency and Singlish is no different - it's colourful and snappy. You don't have a coffee - you "lim kopi". And if someone asks you to join them for a meal but you've already had dinner, you simply say: "Eat already."

Singlish first emerged when Singapore gained independence 50 years ago, and decided that English should be the common language for all its different races. That was the plan. It worked out slightly differently though, as the various ethnic groups began infusing English with other words and grammar. English became the official language, but Singlish became the language of the street.

related: A Dictionary of Singlish and Singapore English

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A Confused Singaporean Society
Singlish Reflects the Power of My People
Singlish - Uniquely Singapore
Politics and the Singlish Language
Wah! Not bad-lah! Oxford shiok
Singlish join Oxford English Dictionary
Chinese Dialects - The Real Singapore
Chinese Dialects Revive After Decades of Restrictions
Chinese Dialects - Uniquely Singapore
Putting Packets of Tissue to “Chope” Seats
Couple in "Chope" table incident arrested
Bickering over a Reserved MRT seat
Malay President, Chinese Prime Minister & Indian Chief Justice
Kopi Siew Tai