When (and if) you are in Singapore, besides standard English, you might also hear something that resembles English, but yet has its own queer sentence structure that may not seem to make much sense. You would be most prone to hear such ramblings in taxis, the heartlands and (wet) markets, but it not limited to those places. So what exactly is it? It's called Singlish and it is basically a mixture of English mashed with words borrowed from Hokkien, the Chinese dialect native to more than 75% of the Chinese in Singapore, and the Malay language. It is unique to Singapore and Malaysia, the latter having some variations of its own. The most well-known instance of a word borrowed from Hokkien is 'kiasu', which means "frightened of losing out", and is used to indicate behavior such as queuing overnight to obtain something. The most commonly borrowed word from Malay would be 'makan', which means" to eat".
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To the untrained ear, Singlish sounds uncouth and can easily give the impression of "broken English" or "bad English". Whatever you learned in grammar school, doesn't apply. Thus, in an attempt to curb this rising problem of substandard English, the government went on an onslaught with "Speak Mandarin" and "Speak Good English" campaigns. As a result, Singlish is heard less often in formal settings. However, it can still be heard in coffee shops and eateries. The debate is still ongoing and resurfaces from time to time. But is does entertain... lol
Understanding Singlish Phrases
The construction of Singlish is unlike that of English, and takes a little getting used to. There is a tendency when speaking in Singlish sentences to add in a 'ah', 'lah', 'leh', 'meh', 'ma', and 'one', at the end of spoken sentences. The words 'meh' and 'ma' are used most commonly at the end of questions.
A few examples are given below:
Can like that meh? - Is it possible to do it this way instead?
How come never show up? - Why didn't you/he/it show up?
Not good one lah. - This isn't good.
Tomorrow dun need bring camera. - You don't need to bring a camera tomorrow.
He not feel well, so he stay home sleep lor. - He's not feeling well, so he decided to stay home and sleep.
The Way They are Used
Below are examples how some words are used in sentences, from remarks to questions:
Can - It can be done
Can hor? - It can be done right?
Can wat - It can be done... shouldn't you know this?"
Can anot? - Can it be done?
Can meh? - Are you sure it can be done?
Can leh - Can't you see that it can be done?
Can mah - See?! It can be done!
Chop already - The seat(s) has (have) already been reserved.
Chopped le - The seat(s) have already been reserved.
Got chop seat? - Have you reserved any seats?
This bus got air-con or not? - Is there air-conditioning on this bus? / Does this bus have air-conditioning?
Got question? - Any questions? / Is there a question? / Do you have a question?
These are but a few examples of how words are used in the Singlish context.
The above is but an introduction to some Singlish basics. Check out the video below of some more 'chim' (slightly more difficult) Singlish words and ang mohs attempting to say and guess what they mean.