Singlish join Oxford English Dictionary

Update 14 Sep 2016: Aiyoh, atas, ah beng & char kway teow
A plate of char kway teow from Alexandra Village Food Centre. FOTO: THE NEW PAPER

More "Singapore English" words used colloquially here have been added to the lexicon of the venerable Oxford English Dictionary (OED), following its latest quarterly update this month.

Top on the list of new words - "aiyah" & "aiyoh", which are often used to express impatience or dismay, & "ah beng", a stereotype applied to Chinese men.

"Atas", an oft-used term by Singaporeans to deride people for being too arrogant or high-class, was also included in the list.

related: Shiok! 19 Singlish items added to the Oxford English Dictionary

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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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New Singapore English words

The OED’s March 2016 update sees the inclusion of a number of words from Singapore English. There are new senses of common English words like blur meaning ‘slow in understanding; unaware, ignorant, confused’; loanwords from Chinese, like ang moh (‘a light-skinned person, esp. of Western origin or descent;  a Caucasian’) and Malay, like shiok (‘cool, great; delicious, superb’);  and formations in English that are only used in Singapore, like sabo (‘to harm, inconvenience, or make trouble for (a person); to trick, play a prank on’) and HDB (‘a public housing estate’).

The terms lepak (‘to loiter aimlessly or idly; to loaf, relax, hang out’) and teh tarik (‘sweet tea with milk’), are characteristic of both Singapore and Malaysian English, while wet market (‘a market for the sale of fresh meat, fish, and produce’) is used not just in these two countries, but all over Southeast Asia.

Here is a list of all new Singapore English items in the OED. You can also click here for a visual timeline of Southeast Asian words in the OED, including words from or about Singapore, dating from 1555 to the present.

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Singlish enriches the English language, says Oxford dictionary editor
Oxford Dictionary consultant editor Dr Danica Salazar (Photo: Nurul Azliah/Yahoo Newsroom)

Back in 2000, the Speak Good English Movement (SGEM) was launched in Singapore in response to the government’s concerns that Singlish was becoming the standard language among Singaporeans. According to the National Library Board (NLB) database, Singlish was said to have an adverse effect on the state’s goal of becoming a First World economy.

However, the OED seems to have a more positive view of Singlish. “Be it Singaporean English, Shakespearean English, British English or American English, it’s all English. They are just different from each other,” said Salazar, who has worked with OED for four years.

Salazar, who has a PhD in applied linguistics from the University of Barcelona, also addressed the common misconception that when words are added to the 132-year-old dictionary, it means that they have been widely accepted by the English-speaking world. This is not the case.

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S’pore English part of language’s history, says Oxford editor
Dr Danica Salazar, World English Editor at the Oxford English Dictionary. Photo: Raj Nadarajan

For Dr Danica Salazar, world English editor at Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the Singaporean expression “blur like sotong” is like poetry to be proud of, and not something to be embarrassed about.

“I think the phrase is wonderfully evocative. When I hear it, I think of this squid lost in a cloud of its own ink. It’s so creative,” said Dr Salazar, who is Filipino. “It strikes me as strange when people think of (such words) as things that are ruining the language.”

Like creole in almost all countries, such “Singapore English” words and phrases reflect the speaker’s creativity and add to the richness of the English language, she said, noting that language is a convention where people agree to use words for specific meanings

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Singapore terms join Oxford English Dictionary
Gordon Ramsay, an ang moh, at a hawker centre

Several Singaporean and Hong Kong English terms, including "wah", "shiok" and "yum cha", are now officially recognised as acceptable English.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) added 19 Singaporean terms and 13 Hong Kong terms in its latest update.

"Wah" is an expression of delight or surprise, "shiok" means cool, and "yum cha" is a type of Chinese brunch.

related: 'Chinese helicopter': Singlish OED entry baffles Singaporeans

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What is MOE’s stance on Singlish words in dictionary?

Now that the Oxford English Dictionary has incorporated a cluster of Singlish words, what is the Education Ministry’s stand? (“S’pore English part of language’s history, says Oxford editor”; May 18)

It is not unforeseeable that pupils will be tempted to use some Singlish words when writing summaries.

“He was blur like a sotong when we found him in the forest” is a summary for “He was disoriented and unlike his former lucid self when we found him in the forest”. But will teachers accept that?

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Oxford English Dictionary confirms: “That ang mo is blur like sotong,” is a perfect English sentence

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is widely regarded as the accepted authority on the English language. It is an unsurpassed guide to the meaning, history, and pronunciation of 600,000 words— past and present—from across the English-speaking world.

OED updates and revises existing entries, as well as add new words to its dictionary every three months. The March 2016 update to the Oxford English Dictionary sees the inclusion of more than 500 new words, phrases, and senses, and among the new words are items of Singapore English.

So with the new additions, the following words can be officially used in an English sentence:

  • ang moh
  • blur
  • char siu
  • chilli crab
  • Chinese helicopter
  • hawker centre
  • HDB
  • killer litter
  • lepak (as a noun)
  • lepak (verb)
  • lepaking
  • shiok
  • sabo (noun)
  • sabo (verb)
  • sabo king
  • sotong
  • teh tarik
  • wah
  • wet market
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More Singlish words are now recognised
Should we be proud that more Singlish words have been added to the Oxford English Dictionary?

The recent inclusion of these Singlish terms has generated significant buzz among netizens about our unique language.

Many Singaporeans were surprised by the decision to add more Singlish words into the OED. Some have maintained that English should remain "pure" as the Queen's English, without the inclusion of such colloquial terms.

"I don't think Singlish should be considered as proper English because Singlish is a combination of Chinese, Malay and English. It'll be strange to consider it English," she said.

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Singlish all abuzz
Don't play-play, Singlish is very the powderful, okay?

The authoritative Oxford English Dictionary (OED), in its quarterly update 2 months ago, took in 19 Singlish terms. Terms such as the exclamatory "wah" and "sabo", a contraction of "sabotage", are now part of "the definitive record of the English language", as the OED describes itself on its website.

Although those Singlish terms were not the first to be included in the OED - "lah" and "sinseh" made it in 2000 and "kiasu" was included in 2007 - the recent development is seen as an acknowledgement that Singlish is a deeply ingrained part of local culture by some of those who have long championed it.

Poet and literary critic Gwee Li Sui, 45, says: "The list is quite choobi (cute). I don't think any Singlish speaker would have made the same selection, but then the heart of the list is meant to be ang moh lah."

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Shiok! 19 Singlish items added to the Oxford English Dictionary

Who needs the Queen's English when you can use Singlish?

In its Mar quarterly update, the hallowed Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has added 19 new "Singapore English" items in its lexicon.

There are new senses of common English words, loanwords from Chinese & Malay, and formations in English that are only used in Singapore," OED said on its website.

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LOOK: Is this the Singlish cover letter of the future?

Wah! The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has recognised 19 words from Singapore English (Singlish, to us) in its latest quarterly update – including blur, ang moh, hawker centre, shiok, and even the less-than-encouraging adjective, Chinese helicopter.

A total of 13 terms have also been added from Hong Kong English, including those widely-used in Singapore as well, such as char siu and wet market.

Clearly inspired by the range of new words introduced, Jonathan Dent, senior assistant editor of the OED, wrote: “Looking beyond the UK and US, there’s also an (almost complete) alphabet of newly added terms from World English to explore, from ang moh (a Singapore English term for a light-skinned person, especially one of European origin—literally in Hokkien Chinese ‘(a person with) red hair’) to yum cha (a Chinese meal, usually of dim sum and tea, eaten in the morning or early afternoon).”

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Some find new Singlish terms in Oxford dictionary 'ridiculous'

An ang moh and a Chinese helicopter have landed in Oxford. Well, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

Feeling blur like sotong? Don't. Get yourself a teh tarik at the hawker centre and celebrate.

Those are just a sample of the Singlish terms that have been accepted into the esteemed publication. Wah, you say. No, Oxford said so themselves.

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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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Speak English, Hold Singlish

I call this generation a transition generation, especially those born in the late 80s and early 90s, the two decades that experienced an information and telecommunications revolution with smart phones, touch screens, modern computers and the internet boom.  Majority of us are well-travelled, better educated and thus have a greater global exposure in contrast to our parents’ generation. We have the power of being well-connected and are at the disposal of an unlimited flow of information.

This generation of Singaporeans is thus aware of the edge English speakers have over the others and thus can ensure that it is spoken at dinner tables. This generation needs to transit from the pidgin English to the correct form of standard English without the fear of losing Singlish. The teachers need to explicitly state the differences between Singlish and English in schools and the right circumstances under which each may be appropriately used while laying enough stress on the correct grammar.

And this explanation needs to be done using correct, well-drafted sentences. We cannot blame a grammatical error in English on Singlish. We cannot valorise Singlish in the name of cultural ethos and compromise the progress of generations to come owing to language barriers. We need to find a balance that retains correct Singlish phrases/slangs to foster cultural identity while at the same time put in much more effort in ensuring that grammatically correct English which is widely understood, is spoken across the island.

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A Language’s Lexicon: Singlish, Bilingualism And More

Being the boliao* and rather kaypoh** Singaporean that I am, I feel the need to throw in my two cents worth in response to all the blog posts and forum editorials that have been popping up non stop ever since the Oxford English Dictionary recognised an additional 19 Singlish words in their dictionary. What’s with all the big hurrah and debate about it? Does this make Singlish more recognised in the international language arena, perhaps, to the horror of the government and the organisers behind the Speak Good English campaign? I think many authors before me have argued extensively on the Singlish issue, and many authors will continue engaging in that discourse. So let’s talk about something else.

The Singapore government had tried to stamp out Singlish (and Chinese dialects, but that is another story) over the years, particularly with the Speak Good English campaign in 2000. But good colloquial Singlish has prevailed over the years, and government leaders seem to be accepting it, even tapping on it to appeal to the masses at times (e.g.: political campaigning). To be fair, I think what they are targeting more on is the fact that we speak bad English, not so much on the Singlish proponent. I think there is a difference between bad English (which frankly, we are remarkably good at speaking), and Singlish, even though the two are closely intertwined. But why do we speak bad English in the first place? Or more specifically, why are our language skills so poor at times? Personally, I think that that stems from a flaw in our bilingualism policy, and the socio-economic structure of families in Singapore. As an ethnic Chinese, I feel that knowing and learning dialects can aid in the learning of Mandarin.

Look at Hong Kong for instance. Not only are the people proficient in Cantonese, they are able to speak proficient Mandarin and standard English as well. And then we have Singapore, where the discouragement of dialects and the propagation of two main languages had pretty much led us to be a “Jack of all trades, master of none” when it comes to languages. Too often I hear people using a mishmash of poor Mandarin and standard, or even bad, English together. Is this Singlish? Well… Not really. Is this a reflection of poor language skills? Quite definitely so. And more often than not, the environment we are in influences how we pick up languages, and the proficiency of our mastery. If you come from an environment that speaks poor language, something that seems more prevalent in the neighbourhoods, chances are that you would mix with people with similar proficiency levels, and perpetuate bad language skills.

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The Chinese Helicopter has landed…

The term, ‘Chinese helicopter’, has not gone so insensitive and derogatory as much and as offensive as ‘nigger’ has. ‘Nigger’ was the keystone word in Chris Rock’s ‘most famous and most controversial stand-up comedy routines…(and) is widely considered to be the breakthrough routine that established his status as a comedy fixture after he left Saturday Night Live.‘ It must have helped bring in a few million bucks for Chris.

Nigger is hardly ever used anymore in America just as Chinese helicopter now strikes a strange, unfamiliar note with Singaporeans. So, what’s the problem?

Further, the misgiving that, ‘With it (Chinese helicopter) in the dictionary now, it will give the impression that it is an acceptable term, when actually it is insensitive and highly derogatory’ is completely misguided. An inclusion in a dictionary merely serves as a record of the etymology of the word.

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On Chinese helicopters in the Oxford English Dictionary

I was so surprised to read that the OED had just included the term “Chinese helicopter” as part of their new Singlish entries.

I had only heard this being used in my late teens in the early 1970s, listening in on the chatter of NS boys from English stream schools explaining this term they had learnt during their BMT about their NS mates from Chinese stream schools.

They had also told stories about being scolded by their sergeants for being “blur like sotong” too, not to mention the expectations and disciplines of “stand by bed”.

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Chinese helicopter

Singapore English derogatory a Singaporean whose schooling was conducted in Mandarin Chinese and who has limited knowledge of English. For an unverified explanation of the term's origin, see quote 1985:
  • 1981   Straits Times (Singapore) 15 July 15/6   A student I know..passed all his papers except the English proficiency paper... Chinese Helicopter.
  • [1985   M. Chiang Army Daze 43   The story goes that a recruit, when asked what school he came from, answered ‘Chinese helucated’, which went down in the army annals as Chinese helicopter.]
  • 1997   Straits Times (Singapore) (Nexis) 20 July 18   It took him two years..to get rid of his ‘Chinese helicopter accent’.
  • 2008   D. Leo Life's so like Dat (rev. ed.) 25   Lee will have you know that he came through an English medium school. He feels insulted by any suggestion that he is a ‘Chinese helicopter’.
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What's a 'Chinese helicopter'? Latest Singlish entry in Oxford Dictionary has us scratching our heads

Singaporeans often take pride in our ability to converse with others using 'Singlish' - an unique amalgamation of various languages from different races and dialect groups in the country.

When Oxford English Dictionary (OED) announced its latest update, many found it quite 'shiok' (cool) to see 19 of these commonly used terms and phrases appear in the esteemed tome's lexicon.

We can now 'lepak' (hang out) with family and friends after a long and busy week of work and school, while foodies can check out local fare at the 'hawker centre' which offers yummy dishes such as 'char siu' (roast pork) and 'chili crab'.

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‘Chinese helicopter’ degrading to Chinese-educated Singaporeans

Another Singlish term added to the OED also supposedly reeks of insensitivity and discrimination but so far nobody has filed a petition about it: Ang Moh (Caucasian) . Until the OED decided to make some Singlish words official, including the inexplicable ‘WAH’, ‘Chinese helicopter’ was an obscure, rarely-uttered term familiar only to Singlish scholars. Now that some people want it banned for good, they’ve unwittingly cemented it in our lingua franca.

The New Paper explains that ‘helicopter’ originated from the local book Army Daze, in which a Chinese-educated recruit mispronounced ‘educated’ as ‘helucated’, though I never heard it uttered once during my NS days. I knew what ‘bayi’ (derogatory term for Singhs) and ‘abnn’ (derogatory to Indians) were though, and those seemed more racist and insensitive than describing someone untrained in the English tongue as a flying military machine.

Without further elaboration I would have thought that ‘Chinese helicopter’ referred to a specific position in the Kama Sutra only for advanced practitioners. Or, literally, a description of the quality of an actual helicopter. Just like how people use ‘Malaysian’ to imply reckless drivers, or ‘German’ (gas) to describe farts.

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Hey, are you a Chinese helicopter?

MAYBE we shouldn’t use the phrase, not when there is an online petition to get the venerable Oxford English Dictionary to withdraw this new addition to its lexicon. Amid (some) celebration that Singlish – or 19 words and phrases – has gained traction internationally, there’s some hand-wringing over the term which describes the Chinese-educated.

The dictionary itself made no bones that it is a derogatory term for a Singaporean whose schooling was conducted in Mandarin Chinese and who has limited knowledge of English. ST reported the petition organiser Goh Beng Choo as saying:

” ‘Chinese helicopter’ is unequivocally a painful reminder of their long and difficult struggle to find their rightful place and dignity in the Singapore society. Fortunately, by the 1980s, this highly derisive term had mostly lapsed into disuse with the closure of Chinese schools. Not many younger generation Singaporeans have heard of ‘Chinese helicopter’, much less understand its meaning. My friends and I are therefore shocked and saddened that an almost forgotten Singlish term now resurfaces in the OED, rubbing salt into an old wound that never healed.”

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OED did not invent 'Chinese Helicopter'
Look! Up in the sky.

It's a bird!

It's a Chinese helicopter!

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Looks like Ho Ching supports petition to remove ‘Chinese helicopter’ from Oxford English Dictionary

It appears Ho Ching has weighed in on the Singlish debate.

In a Facebook post on June 2, 2016, she posted a view that supports the petition that has been going around since late May to remove the term “Chinese helicopter” from the Oxford English Dictionary.

This was after the derogatory term was one of the 19 Singlish terms added into its lexicon recently.

related: OED legitimises 19 Singlish terms by adding them to its lexicon

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The Age of ‘Chinese Helicopters’ and their Soft Powers

Oxford English Dictionary does a good job of remembering the past history of ‘Chinese helicopter’ in Singapore. Chinese Singaporeans, who only know Chinese but speak little English or ‘broken English’ are treated differently from their English speaking elites and the government. Thanks to OED, ‘Chinese helicopter’ has officially entered the mainstream English speaking world.

Why is it significant?

It records a past history of discrimination, prejudice and insult. Some Chinese educated Singaporeans have voiced out recently and even protest for such a listing. However, it serves as a reminder of our ugly past and a proof of how the PAP government intentionally insults their own citizens.

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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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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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Politics and the Singlish Language

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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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