If you’re a soon-to-be expatriate planning a move to Singapore, you have undoubtedly heard of Singlish, the peculiar creole English spoken by most native Singaporeans. It is a mix of Malay, Chinese dialects, and English. Most people who bother to write about Singlish know it well, and they produce in-depth dictionaries cataloging the dialect’s nuances. These books are an ever-present facet of every Singaporean bookstore, and if you want to learn more the material is definitely out there.
However, I feel the end result for most foreigners that pick up Singlish dictionaries is terminal information overload. People just don’t learn much from picking up a dictionary. Even-tempered expats become overwhelmed and give up and the more adventurous look silly as they misuse and mispronounce words. (Excuse me, did you see that ang kat makaning char siew cheem bye? Lah-lor.)
I don’t claim to be an expert on Singlish, but I will share ten words that I guarantee that you’ll hear in Singapore.
This is a racial label for white people. It literally means “red hair.” If you’re white you’ll be called an angmog. Don’t get offended; just get over it. Singaporeans might also use this word as an adjective. There are angmoh countries (USA, Britain, New Zealand, etc.), angmoh food, and angmoh movies.
The words on and off are used as verbs in Singlish. Don’t correct someone when you hear them say “on the lights” or “off the lights.” It is a common expression. Who needs the word turn anyway?
This word is frequently used because there’s not really a direct, English translation. A paiseh person is shy, humiliated, and embarrassed, or any combination of the three, at the same time. You might hear a sentence similar to the following: “The new employee doesn’t want to correct his boss because he is paiseh.”
Singlish is a very efficient language. In America we tend to say “air conditioned.” In Singapore they just say aircon. You have an aircon in your house. Singapore is loaded with aircon theaters and aircon shopping centers. I’m lucky enough to teach in an aircon classroom.
Makan is the Malay word for eat. Singaporeans will frequently say, “Let’s go makan.” They also might invite you to a makan session.
Eating is, perhaps, the most important thing in Singaporean culture. On many occasions I’ve been greeted the phrase “have you eaten,” instead of “hello” or “how are you?”
This isn’t a Singlish word, but it is used uniquely in Singapore. Recce (pronounced reki) is short for reconnaissance. If you’re in a planning or business situation you might hear someone ask, “Should we go recce the venue to make sure that it is right for our presentation?” Its wide usage probably stems from the fact that every Singaporean male has served in the nation’s military.
These words are common English words, but in Singlish they tend to be used in place of yes and no. The reason for this stems from the use of the phrases ke yi (can) and bu ke yi (cannot) in Mandarin.
You might hear a dialog like this:
“Will you donate to help the Little Sisters of the Poor?”
“No money. Cannot.”
When something is incredible or desirable, Singaporeans often describe it as shiok. Food can be shiok, fashion can be shiok, and sports cars can be shiok. Some people may use this word with a sexual connotation, but it is not a common usage.
Cheem is another word where there is no exact English translation. To be cheem is to be intellectual in a profound, yet stuffy, sort of way. I’ve heard of some university professors and pastors being described as cheem.
Lah is the grandaddy of all Singlish words, and you’ve reached the upper levels of Singlish when you can use this term authentically (I can’t). Just as the subtle nuanced usage of like defines stereotypical valley girl slang, lah defines Singlish as a dialect. Lah is used to emphasize certain words and make sentences more emphatic. You may hear Singaporeans say, “Cannot, lah” or “Don’t hurry, lah.”
You also shouldn’t confuse lah with le or lor. Le is commonly tacked onto questions asked in Chinese, and this grammatical quirk has slipped its way into Singlish. I still can’t quite figure out lor; to me its usage is the same as lah, but I am assured that it is different.
I could go on and on about Singlish, but the purpose of this post is simply to reveal a list of words that you’re guaranteed to hear if you move to Singapore. The good news if you’re a Caucasian expat is that no one really expects you to learn Singlish. Each year the government launches its “Speak Good English” campaign, and many locals are quite sheepish about their use of Singlish around foreigners. If you do muster the effort to master true Singlish, the benefits will be there (especially in comprehension); but some Singaporeans may view you as an oddity. Imagine a Chinaman that speaks speaks perfect Appalachian-American (Hillybilly) English or a man in a British bolo speaking African-American vernacular English. In case you’re wondering, the angmohs that I’ve met that have truly mastered Singlish are French and Germans that had poor English skills when they arrived in Singapore.
The web has a variety of sources to learn about Singlish.
I fact checked this article using The Dictionary of Singlish and Singapore English.
In print, the Coxford Singlish Dictionary is a comprehensive source on the subject.