Singaporelang, what the Singlish ?

Here is an opinion piece I wrote for the introduction of the book: Singaporelang, what the Singlish ? : a visual Singlish dictionary / by Zinkie Aw. Find it in your nearest library here

A few weexks ago I was waiting in a Primary School canteen to meet the English Language Head of Department. The place was quiet with a scattering of students standing around the long metal tables. A sound caught my attention as a small Primary one boy ran past me shouting at his friend. I stared in bemusement as he ran back towards me. He stopped, looked straight into my eyes and said, “Go where?”

Even after twelve years of living in Singapore these little nuggets of Singlish still fill me with joy and delight. In the above example the boy was interested in where I was going. He could have said, “Where are you going?” However, Go where? is much more efficient. This is one of the appealing features of Singlish.

Singaporeans are efficient people, and prefer to take less time and words to express themselves. When time is money, they really can’t afford to spend time on those extra syllables when it is possible to get the meaning across with far fewer words.

However, as an instructor I teach proper pronunciation, English presentation skills, and therefore I do have to worry about words and syllables. Isn’t it therefore right to assume that Singlish is a corruption, a hindrance to proper English usage?

Interestingly there is much to learn from this English-based creole and to see a living breathing ‘language’ that in many ways mimics the way English originally evolved. Singlish is controversial and creates a lot tension, and arguments. In fact the Singapore government does try to limit its use. For this reason, as a teacher, I spend most of my time not conversing in Singlish.

The history of Singlish is well documented; however what I find fascinating is the similarity to the way English originally evolved. In Britain there was also a melting pot of cultures, with immigrants from around Europe. Words were borrowed and taken from Latin, German, French, and Scandinavian languages. Over hundreds of years words came and went, accents changed and even more words were borrowed as the British explored the world. Take for example: ‘Shampoo’ from India and ‘Ketchup’ from China.

Today there are many English accents, dialects, and slang being used. Some notable examples are: Cockney Rhyming Slang of East London, Scouse of Liverpool and Geordie of North East England. Each of these have their own set of vocabulary, accents and grammar. It is possible to visit London and hear some cockney rhyming slang such as “think about it; use your loaf”. Loaf means ‘head’ because it is taken from the line “Loaf of Bread” and Bread rhymes with Head. I’ll let you digest that for a while.

In Singapore the original immigrants found an efficient yet colourful way to communicate using words from English, Malay, Hokkien and Indian languages. The grammar is based in some way on Chinese and the intonation and sound draws a lot from the indigenous Asian cultures.

The sound of Singlish is one of its important features, and is the main reason why non-Singaporeans sound weird when attempting to say any word or phrase. Not only is Singlish spoken at machine-gun speed, but also there are less consonant and vowel sounds compared to Standard English. Words are also pronounced abruptly with missing plurals and ‘ed’ endings.

Like any other language you have to master the grammar, vocabulary and then work on the pronunciation. The timing, intonation and syllable stress of Singlish phrases are of upmost importance. If you say something as simple as no lah or why you so like that, a Singaporean can spot a non-Singaporean very easily. I know this from experience.

In the classroom it is very useful for the students to listen to a native English teacher attempt to speak Singlish. It is extremely hilarious for the students too. The students are not afraid to say, “You sound funny”. There are reasons for this and they do help the students to understand the differences in pronunciation, word stress and intonation.

As a British ang moh I do find the etymology of Singlish terms of a British origin fascinating. This also extends to day-to-day vocabulary that is used in Singapore but not so much in Britain.

Oei (to draw attention or to express surprise or indignation) and chop-chop (hurry up) are two Singlish phrases which are also used in Britain. They are also used in the exactly the same way. Many Singlish phrases do originate from the Army. Some of these changed from the initial British terms into truly Singaporean phrases.

Singlish is becoming popular outside of Singapore and people are even visiting this little red dot to learn about it. It is interesting to note that a few Singlish words have slipped into the official English Oxford dictionary. These include kiasu, lah and sinseh.

The concern for the use of Singlish is really about code switching. Ultimately you have to be able to switch between Singlish and English based on the social occasion. This is why there is a worry if people can only speak Singlish, it doesn’t leave much room to communicate with the rest of the world. Having said this, Singaporeans are very capable and can, and do code switch with ease.

Language is fascinating; it is a mirror to one’s culture. There is so much to learn about people and the way they think from language. I’m still learning even after twelve years. Singlish gives Singapore a sense of community and a shared identity. For such a young nation this is really important.

While the argument for or against Singlish will continue for many decades, there is no doubt that it is an important building block for a Singaporean cultural identity. No one person invented or owns Singlish, it is a legacy of a very unique Singapore history.

Have fun with this efficient, culturally rich language that is spoken by all classes of Singaporean society. However, do remember to code switch lah.

By Dan Kerson


  • The term ‘Ang Moh’ is used to refer to a Caucasian or white person in Malaysia and Singapore. The literal translation is “red hair”.
  • Angmohdan = Rambutan (The hairy tropical fruit)


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