Note: English is the main language of business and education in Singapore, so it’s easy for English speakers to communicate and get around. These Singlish phrases are uniquely Singaporean additions to the language and will help you score some brownie points with the locals.
Greetings and Essentials
Can / Yes, of course
‘Can’ is an extremely versatile word, and a large portion of what it actually means depends very much on the tone used when speaking and/or the Singlish modifier you use with it.
An example conversation:
Can or not? (Can you do this?)
Can. (Yes I can.)
Can meh? (Are you sure?)
Can lah! (Yes of course!)
Onz (on-z) / Yes, I can confirm
A very succinct and colloquial way to confirm your participation in something, or an affirmation of your agreement/consent. Another popular (but older) term is Steady bom pi pi.
Ulu (ooh-loo) / out of the way
In tiny Singapore, any place that requires more than an hour to get to by public transport, or is particularly hard to find, can be considered ‘so ulu’.
Tompang (tohm-pung) / hitch a ride
If someone asks you whether they ‘can tompang?’, they are usually asking you to give them a lift somewhere, or to help them pass an item to someone else.
Gostan (go-stun) / to reverse or go backwards
A Singaporean version of the nautical phrase to ‘go astern’ (to the back of the ship), this phrase is most often used by lost drivers trying to find their way around.
At the restaurant/bar
Makan (mah-kahn) / eat or food
This Malay term can be used to describe food (‘makan!’) or the action of having a meal (as in ‘let’s go makan’).
Tabao (da-bao) / Takeaway
This term is mostly used in hawker centres when you want to bag your food for takeaway. Some students also use this term when they flunk a test, e.g. ‘I tabao-ed my Maths exam’.
Shiok (she-oak) / very good!
Ate something delicious? ‘Shiok’ can be used for anything that gives you that indescribable awesome feeling. You’ll definitely make your stall owner happy if you tell them that the food was ‘shiok!’
Chope (joh-pe) / reserve
The Singaporean way of ‘chope-ing’ something is most commonly seen in hawker centres, with tissue packets indicating that the table is taken.
At the market
Lobang (lo-bung) / Opportunities or hole
Lobang is a Malay word that means hole, but if you ask someone if they ‘got lobang?’, you are usually asking if they have any leads or opportunities for you. A ‘Lobang king/queen’ is someone who always has some opportunities to tell you about.
Kiasu (kyah-soo) / afraid of missing out
Singaporeans are often described as suffering from ‘Kiasu syndrome’, which covers selfish FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) behaviour like piling plates high with the most expensive food in the buffet line, or sending children to a multitude of enrichment classes before school even starts.
Atas (ah-taas) / snobbish or high-class
‘Atas’ is what the layman Singaporean sees as fancy, expensive or high-class (and in some cases, even snobbish). A more fun term to describe someone ‘acting atas’ is to call them a ‘yaya papaya’.
Spoil Market (spoy-mah-ket) / Overachieve
‘Don’t spoil market!’ is what you say when you want to someone to maintain the status quo and not raise the bar, thus making it hard for you and others to compete. For example, when it comes to the amount you tip or the effort you put into providing a service, it may be in your interests to not overachieve!
Confirm plus chop / Yes I am very, very sure
The ‘chop’ here is an old colonial term and reference to an ink stamp or seal that companies use to sign off officially on contracts. This means that a person is very sure of the accuracy of their words. Another similar term often used is ‘Double confirm’.
Jio/bojio (chee-oh/boh-chee-oh) — to invite/why didn’t you invite me
‘I jio you’ is to personally invite someone along – and when you find out your friends went to a cool party without you, ‘Bojio!’ is the most common accusation used to show your displeasure at being left out.
Kancheong Spider (kun-chee-ong-spider) / jittery or nervous
Someone calling you a ‘kancheong spider’ is basically saying that you need to chill out and not be so nervous about things.
Lim Kopi (Lim-koh-pee) / to drink coffee or to hang out
If someone asks if you have time to go and ‘Lim Kopi’, they be asking you to literally grab a coffee from the kopitiam (coffeeshop) with them, or just asking you to hang out (coffee optional).
For everything else
Sian (see-yan) / Bored or tired of something
Like ‘shiok’, ‘sian’ is a very concise way to describe anything that’s bothersome or gets you down. ‘Sian jit pua’ or ‘Sian half’ is a more colourful expression, but doesn’t actually mean the boredom is any less.
Gahmen (gah-murn) / The Singapore Government
This mangled form of the word ‘government’ can often be found on online forums, or used as a colloqualism when Singaporeans complain about anything political or the public service.
Jialat! (ji-ah-laht) / very bad!
A Chinese Hokkien term that translates literally as ‘eating strength’, this is a multi-purpose phrase you can use to exclaim about most things bad – whether it’s a person, behaviour or circumstance.
Merlion (mer-lion) / To vomit
The mythical half-lion-half-fish symbol of Singapore is not something you want to be compared to, unless you are spewing up your stomach’s contents – just like the famous statue does all day at Marina Bay.