Singlish Reflects the Power of My People

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.

related: The Reality Behind Singlish

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"Who taught you to speak like that?"

Written in Singlish—the folksy patois of Singapore that combines English, Mandarin, Malay and Chinese dialects including Teochew and Hokkien—Sarong Party Girls has a narrative voice that’s a little unusual, certainly in the United States. At its best, the Singlish I grew up speaking with my friends and hearing in the colorful hawker centers and wet markets of Singapore is direct, often playfully vulgar, witty and self-deprecating. In short, it reflects rather well the spirit of my people.

As a Singaporean who’s lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years now, I’ve long held Singlish dear to my heart. People in the West often imagine Singaporeans as boring government stooges who love nothing more than to adhere to the endless rules my country has regulating everything from flushing the toilet to what fruit you can’t carry on public transportation. But listen to any Singaporean erupt in Singlish, and you’ll know that isn’t true at all.

When I hear myself speaking it, I feel as if I’m slipping into a different skin—my true Singaporean one. And this is why my father’s question perplexed me. I didn’t have to be taught Singlish—it’s always been around me, on the streets and in shopping malls, as well as in my aunties’ kitchens. Doesn’t Singlish as an informal dialect rather directly reflect who we are as a people?

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Shiok! 19 Singlish items added to the Oxford English Dictionary
Float bearing Singlish phrases and hawker food icons during the National Day Parade 2015 at the Padang. FOTO: ST FILE

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

In its March 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, loan words from Chinese & Malay, & formations in English that are only used in Singapore, OED said on its website.

Kiasu is Oxford English Dictionary's Word of the Day
Aiyoh, atas, ah beng and char kway teow

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Colloquial Singaporean English, better known as Singlish, is an English-based creole language spoken in Singapore.

While English is one of Singapore's official languages, Singlish is commonly regarded as having low prestige. The Singaporean government and some Singaporeans alike heavily discourage the use of Singlish in favour of Standard English. The government has created an annual Speak Good English Movement to emphasise the point. Singlish is also heavily discouraged in the mass media and in schools. However, such official discouragement and routine censorship is actually countered by other presentations in mainstream media, including routine usage by ordinary people in street interviews broadcast on TV and radio on a daily basis, as well as occasional usage in newspapers.

The vocabulary of Singlish consists of words originating from English, Malay, Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Tamil and to a lesser extent various other European, Indic and Sinitic languages. Also, elements of American and Australian slang have come through from imported television series and films

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Singlish - Uniquely Singapore

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.

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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 join Oxford English Dictionary
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.

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A Singlish Primer:
  • Pokkai (Pork-car-ai) Translates as “drop dead.” Means to go broke, e.g. “Aditi shops at Gucci until she pokkai.”
  • Bo hee hae ma ho (Boh-hee-hay-mar-ho) Equivalent to “Beggars can’t be choosers,” it means “When there's no fish, prawns are good too.”
  • Gone case - A lost cause.
  • Very the To say “very” in an incredulous way, e.g. “You know, you look smart but you talk very the stupid.”
  • Buay tahan (BOO-ay tar-hun) Means that you cannot tolerate something, e.g. “I buay tahan the weather these days.”
  • Kiasu (KEE-ya-soo) To behave in a competitive, self-serving way, e.g. “Those kiasu people have been outside the Apple shop since 3 a.m.”
  • “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.
  • “Steady poon pee pee,” from the Hokkien, means to be so poised as to deserve an admiring whistle.
  • “yaya papaya” is snooty person
  • “Blur like sotong” means to be clueless
  • “Eh, Goondu!” (“Hey, Stupid!”) and “Lagi Goondu!” (“Even More Stupid!”)
  • “talk cock,” Singlish for nonsense
  • "to prata" is to flip-flop on policy matters
  • “Why are you behaving in this way?” is transformed into a guttural “Why you so like that?”
  • “catch no ball” means to not understand

Chinese Dialects Revive After Decades of Restrictions
Tok Kim Kiok, left, and his wife, Law Ngoh Kiaw, both Hokkien speakers, look on as their English-speaking grandchildren play. Credit Sim Chi Yin for The New York Times

The Tok and Teo families are a model of traditional harmony, with three generations gathered under one roof, enjoying each other’s company over slices of fruit and cups of tea on a Saturday afternoon in Singapore. There is only one problem: The youngest and oldest generations can barely communicate with each other.

Lavell, 7, speaks fluent English and a smattering of Mandarin Chinese, while her grandmother, Law Ngoh Kiaw, prefers the Hokkien dialect of her ancestors’ home in southeastern China. That leaves grandmother and granddaughter looking together at a doll house on the floor, unable to exchange more than a few words. “She can’t speak our Hokkien,” Mrs. Law said with a sigh, “and doesn’t really want to speak Mandarin, either.”

This struggle to communicate within families is one of the painful effects of the Singapore government’s large-scale, decades-long effort at linguistic engineering.

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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
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