You’ve just found your way to sunny island Singapore, and other than adapting to the humid weather, you find yourself getting confused at the local lingo used – they seem to be speaking English, but you don’t completely understand what they’re saying, or why they sound liddat.
Does this sound like you? Feel confused by this alien version of English that seems so unfamiliar to you? Or wish that you could really understand conversations and not have to smile and nod while words fly past your head? Don’t worry, we’re here to help! Here’s a comprehensive guide on Singlish and common phrases you may learn to recognize.
What is Singlish? For the purposes of this article, we’ll be referring to Singlish as a colloquial language that incorporates elements (such as vocabulary and syntax) from other tongues such as Malay, Tamil, Mandarin, and other Chinese dialects such as Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese.
For this reason, Singlish is considered an extremely unique language that Singaporeans pride themselves in using, as they consider it part of their national identity. In some ways, Singlish mirrors the unique multi-ethnic and racial background of the country, and reflects the level of racial harmony that the country celebrates. If you ever come to Singapore, be it for a visit or for the long term, to miss out on understanding and speaking Singlish would be to miss out on part of the Singapore experience. (It’s right up there with not trying our many iconic local dishes!)
Now that you’ve gotten a bit more insight into Singlish, here are some words that you will encounter often, especially in conversation with a Singaporean.
When greeting one another
The more emphatic form of Eh, usually used in context of frustration. It’s a more effective way to get someone’s attention, though it is also more aggressive.
“Oi ah boy, what are you doing?? Can you come over and help me move these boxes?!”
Used as an affirmative, and often replaces the words “yes” and “sure”.
"Can or not?” (Can you do it?)
“Can.” (Yes, I can.)
Singaporeans use this term to address anyone with a higher seniority. Instead of using Sir and Madam, we use Uncle and Auntie when talking to older strangers on the street, food vendors, and even our friends’ parents.
When eating out
A Malay word, literally meaning “eat”.
“Hey, wanna go makan? It’s lunch time.”
“You makan already?” (Have you eaten?)
A classic Singaporean custom where we use items (mostly tissue packets) to indicate our reservation of a table or seat, particularly at hawker centres.
“Just now I saw that group leave, so I quickly chope-d the table with tissue”
“Eh, I chope this table already hor!” (Hey, I’ve already reserved this table!)
Another classic Singlish word, used to describe something enjoyable or satisfying. (usually pertaining to food)
“Toast Box’s laksa is so shiok! I’m always craving it.”
A Chinese term, meaning to “takeaway”, “takeout” or “eat out”.
“Are you going to tapao lunch? Can you help me tapao also?” (Are you going to get takeout for lunch? Could you help me get some too?)
Common interchangeable terms for coffee (kopi) and tea (teh), especially popular at hawker centres when you’re ordering drinks.
By the way, did you know that when you order coffee, it comes standard with milk and sugar? If you want to know how to customise your coffee or tea order, check out our guide on coffeeshop talk here to learn how!
To receive or be subjected to something unpleasant, usually a scolding.
“If you tell boss you can’t finish the report on time, confirm kena scolded one!” (If you tell our boss that you can’t finish the report on time, you’re sure to be in hot water with him!”)
When someone pushes a task to you or specifically assigns it to you.
“I tell you, boss confirm got something against me. Everytime need to OT I always kena arrow first!” (I’m pretty sure that our boss has something against me. Everytime we need to stay overtime, I’m always the first one he targets!)
To put on an act or appear more impressive than you actually are.
Julia: “Wah, recently Andy so hardworking hor, even stay OT to finish up work.”
Karen: “Aiya, he’s only working hard because the big bosses are in town! Such a wayang king.”
12.On the ball
Referring to someone who is always on top of the job and seems to have everything together.
“Wow, James is so on the ball. The project was assigned today and he’s already finished it.”
13. Own Time Own Target (OTOT)
To do things at your own pace. This term probably originated from the SAF (Singapore Armed Forces), as a command to let soldiers know they could fire at their target boards whenever they were ready to.
“James, don’t worry about that project I just assigned you, its own time own target.” (Don’t worry about that project I just assigned you, you can complete it at your own pace.)
A Hokkien term, conveying boredom, frustration, weariness or monotony. This word is a quintessential word often used by many, and is basically a whole mood.
"I’ve just been staying home all week doing nothing. Damn sian…"
Also a Hokkien term referring to an embarrassing situation. It usually expresses a sense of shame or even shyness in some cases.
"Eh, paiseh, can you tell me that guy’s name? I forgot it already."
Literally meaning “not invited”. The term “bo” in Hokkien means no, while “jio” means invite, thus the term bojio usually used by someone who has not been invited somewhere and is feeling salty about it.
"You guys went to watch Frozen 2 without me yesterday? Bojio!"
A busybody or someone who often pries into the business of others. Used as an adjective or a verb, so sentences like “why you so kaypoh?” and “don’t kaypoh lah” both make sense.
"My co-worker is so kaypoh, she’s always asking me personal questions at work!"
Meaning complicated, intellectual or profound. Sometimes used with a condescending tone, as in “Wah, bombastic, such a chim word leh!”
“What is this teacher saying ah? His english too chim, I don’t understand anything!”
19. Blur Sotong
Literally meaning “blur squid”. This term is often used to describe someone who is clueless, oblivious, and straight up doesn’t know what is going on most of the time.
“He’s such a blur sotong, I told him to get me coffee and he brought tea.”
20. Steady / Onz
Basically an expression of agreement, the equivalent of “you’re on!”
“Eh bro, tomorrow’s New Years’ Party, you wanna come”
A Hokkien & Teochew term, “Jialat” literally means to eat (Jia) away strength (lat), but is used to describe troublesome situations. Times are hard? You’re tired? Work is complicated? All very jialat.
“The weather nowadays is so jialat, I’ve been sweating non-stop!”
Translated to “add oil”. A term of encouragement often used in all types of situations, usually when someone wants to provide moral support.
“Jiayou! You can do it!”
Don’t worry if you don’t get the hang of Singlish immediately – it’s a complicated language that takes a while to understand. Like many things, you’ll learn it over time, so just keep practising it with your local friends, have fun with it, and enjoy your time in Singapore! We’ll see you next time :-)
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