Singlish, the unofficial local lingo of Singapore, is a patois influenced by the city-state’s four official languages: English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil. Although the government has gone back and forth on its support of Singlish, the current view of locals is that it’s an important part of Singapore’s multicultural identity. Last year, the Oxford English Dictionary recognised its significance when it added nearly 20 Singlish terms to the dictionary. Here’s a list of 10 phrases you need to know.
This is an important one: to order a brew from a local coffee shop or in a hawker stall, you need to know the specific lingo. Ask for a kopi if you’re after coffee with condensed milk or a kopi-o for black coffee with sugar. If you’re a caffeine purist, pick a kopi-o-kosong and you’ll receive a black coffee. Add peng at the end of these terms for an iced beverage.
This popular word comes from Malay and means ‘great’; it follows that it’s used to express appreciation of something. You’ll often see it printed on notebooks and badges, sometimes with other words like ‘so shiok’.
When you arrive at a hawker centre, you need to chope (reserve) a table. Simply pick one and note its number, which you then tell the uncle or auntie when ordering food. The way to prevent others nabbing your table is to put something on its surface – most commonly a packet of tissues, but any small personal item will do the job.
Die, die, must try
A favourite among local food bloggers, this phrase is used to say something is amazing and other people need to try it. For example, when sampling a new restaurant, reviewers may say: ‘That place makes the best assam laksa (sour mackerel soup) in Singapore, you die, die, must try.’
Ang mo translates literally to ‘red hair’ from Hokkien, but is used to refer to Caucasians and Western expats in general. You’ll hear neighbourhoods like Clarke Quay and the Civic District as being popular ang mo hangouts. Depending on the tone, this can be said conversationally or derisively.
Catch no ball
Another Hokkien phrase, this is typically used to describe a lack of understanding during conversation. For example, when you’re talking to a local and they say: ‘Can you speak slower and repeat your idea again, I catch no ball’, this means they have no idea what you’re trying to say.
Lah is the word you’ll hear most often in Singlish – and is the one with the least concrete definition. It’s used as a qualifier tacked on to the end of sentences, similar to how Canadians say, ‘eh’, but with more variety of tones. Someone who says, ‘Okay lah’, or, ‘Can lah’, is expressing agreement, but with different levels of enthusiasm. No lah! is an emphatic ‘no!’, whereas ‘Don’t like that lah’ is a less harsh disagreement.
An evolution of the English phrase, ‘a cock and bull story’, in Singlish it suggests the person speaking isn’t saying anything useful or is talking nonsense. Confusingly, the expression is often extended to ‘talk cock sing song’, which has a completely different meaning and refers to getting together and catching up with friends you haven’t seen for a long time.
The direct translation from Hokkien means ‘embarrassed’, but in Singlish it’s evolved to something more akin to ‘sorry’. Singlish speakers use this term when they’re feeling red-faced about making a mistake such as: ‘Paiseh, I’m late because I thought we were meeting tomorrow’.
Perfectly suited to Singapore’s highly competitive environment, this Hokkien term means someone is afraid of losing out, but in a pejorative way. Describing someone as kiasu implies the person is selfish and trying to get ahead of others. For example: ‘Tutoring is very popular in Singapore, because of kiasu parents who want their children to get the top grades in school’.