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21 Essential Phrases You'll Need in Singapore

Picture of Jaclynn Seah
Singapore Travel Writer
Updated: 23 January 2018

Singapore is one of the few countries in Asia where English is commonly used, but visitors are often baffled when the locals start speaking Singlish – that is English interspersed with a lot of local lingo from the languages found around the region, mixed up in one rojak patois that is uniquely Singaporean. Want to be a properly kiasu Singaporean and prepare yourself with some essential Singlish phrases before your trip? Read on for more, don’t say we bojio.

Note that most Singaporeans do speak English, so you don’t really need to learn any special phrases for basic communication. But these examples are Singlish slang you might hear from locals. We have decoded them for you to better understand.

You’ll first notice that Singlish is a very efficient language – what takes a full sentence in English is often reduced to just a few key words in Singlish.

Ordering food

Food is serious business in Singapore, and there is a whole local lingo involved in procuring your favourite dishes. Here are some essential food-related phrases.

Let’s makan (mah-kahn) / Let’s have a meal

Makan is the Malay word for eat, so anyone asking you to makan or ‘go makan’ is asking you to join them for a meal. ‘Jiak’ is another word commonly used by Singaporeans that also means eat and comes from the Chinese Hokkien dialect.

People eating satay at Lau Pa Sat | Courtesy Singapore Tourism Board

Eating or makan is a communal affair in Singapore | Courtesy Singapore Tourism Board

Tabao (da-bao) / Takeaway

Takeaway or to-go is more often used in fast food restaurants. Use tabao when ordering from hawker centres and you want it packed up to takeaway. The Chinese translation for tabao is literally big bag. Fun fact: tabao is also used by students to describe that they failed a test or subject, e.g. ‘My maths exam tabao’ means ‘I failed my Math exam’.

Singapore Hawker Food Takeaway Tabao EdselLittle

Singapore hawker food takeaway typically comes in a paper, plastic or styrofoam container | © Edsel Little/Flickr

Quick go and chope (cho-pe) / Hurry, reserve that table

When visiting a busy hawker centre, you might often see seemingly empty tables with strategically placed tissue packets, umbrellas or water bottles used to indicate that someone has already ‘choped’ or reserved that seat. You can also tell people you want to ‘chope them’ when you want them to join your team. The practice of chope-ing is also considered a classic kiasu Singaporean trait (more on kiasu below).

Singapore’s ‘Chope-ing’ Culture

Kopi (ko-pee) / Coffee

Kopi is what you call coffee with milk and sugar in a local coffee shop or kopitiam, and ordering it comes with a whole set of instructions on how you want it done. Kopi-O is getting your coffee without the milk, Kopi-C means replacing the milk with condensed milk. Kopi-Siu-Dai means less sugar, while Kopi-Gao means the coffee is extra thick. Tea lovers can replace Kopi with Teh for their orders.

Note: If someone asks you to go and ‘Lim Kopi’, he may be asking you to literally grab a coffee with him, but it is more often used as a general term to ask someone to hang out with you, coffee optional.

Singapore Kopitiam in Geylang at Night

Going for kopi at a kopitiam | © Insights Unspoken/Flickr

Rojak (ro-juck)

Rojak is a delicious mixed street food dish found in Singapore hawker centres, but it is also used to describe something that is all mixed up. Singlish itself can be described as a rojak language, and the Singapore culture is also pretty rojak with its melting pot of ethnicities and practices.

Rojak is a delicious mixed dish

Merlion (mer-lion)

Most people know of the Merlion, the odd half lion half fish statue created by the Singapore Tourism Board to represent Singapore’s past as the Lion City and fishing village roots. But if someone tells you that they are ‘going to Merlion’ after a few drinks, get out of the way because you might end up with vomit all over your shoes. In case it’s not obvious, the phrase is a reference to the fountain of water perpetually spouting from the statue at Marina Bay.

Having to ‘Merlion’ is not a good thing! | © Travis/Flickr

Describing people

Listen closely to how people are describing you or people around you – English just doesn’t properly convey some of these expressions as Singlish can.


Why so Kiasu (kee-yah-soo)? / Why are you so afraid of missing out?

Oxford Dictionary defines Kiasu as having a ‘selfish grasping attitude’ and ‘not wanting to miss an opportunity. Singaporeans are often accused of being kiasu and wanting to be ahead in everything, even if that sometimes translates into pushing your way to the front of a very long queue or chope-ing extra seats at hawker centres. Kiasu translated from Chinese literally means ‘scared to lose’.

Kancheong Spider (kan-chee-yong)/ A nervous or uptight person

If you are overly nervous about something and keep asking someone the same question incessantly, don’t be surprised if that person calls you a ‘kancheong spider’, or tells you to ‘don’t kancheong spider’, which means to chill out and relax a little.

He think he so atas (ah-taas) / He thinks he’s such a high-class person

Atas comes from a Malay word that means over or above, and can be used to describe anything considered high class or expensive, like a fancy hotel lobby or someone carrying around an Hermes bag. Atas has a slight negative connotation and is often used to deride snobbish people who think too highly of themselves, e.g. he’s too atas for us.

Bao ga liao (bow-ga-lee-yow) / Someone who does everything

Some people describe themselves using this Hokkien phrase ‘bao ga liao’, which means to take over everything or all-in-one. It is usually used to describe someone who is a one-man show, or a person who takes on an entire job and its various roles from start to end.

Swiss Army Knife Multipurpose Tool

Bao ga liao people are like Swiss army knives, ready to take on anything | © Jim Pennucci/Flickr


Truly Singaporean ways to express certain emotions.

Shiok (shee-oak)! / Great!

This quintessential Singlish word is a feeling that’s not adequately described by the English language. It’s that good feeling you have after you finish an awesome plate of chicken rice, or the warm sensation in your belly of scoring a good bargain at the Great Singapore Sale – if anyone asks how you are feeling, ‘shiok’ is a great answer.

Singapore Tourism Board YourSingapore Presents “Shiok!” from freeflow productions on Vimeo.

Kena (ker-nah) / To suffer the consequences of something

Kena is a Malay word that means to come into contact with something. But in Singlish it has a more negative connotation where you suffer the consequences of something happening to you. For example, you can ‘kena saman’, which is similar to that of ‘tio saman’ (see above). Another popular use of the word is in the phrase ‘I kena arrow’, or you were pinpointed to do something against your will.

Finger Pointing a2gemma

kena arrowed | © a2gemma/Flickr

Jialat (Ji-ah-laht)! / Very bad!

Many of the best Singlish exclamations (and curse words) are in the Chinese Hokkien dialect, and ‘jialat’ is a pretty multipurpose exclamation you can use when things are not going well. It translates literally into ‘eating a lot of strength’. Missed the last train home – ‘jialat’! Spotted someone misbehaving – this person ‘damn jialat’. It suddenly started raining down on you – why this weather so ‘jialat’!

Got Lobang? (got-lo-bung) / Do you have any opportunities to recommend to me?

Lobang is a Malay word that means hole, but in Singlish it also means opportunity. ‘Got lobang?’ is something you would ask a friend or acquaintance if you were looking for a recommendation. ‘Lobang king/queen’ is used to refer to someone who always has some opportunities to tell you about.

Don’t say bo jio (boh-chio) / Don’t tell me that I never invited you

Jio is a Hokkien word to invite someone. So when your friend gets invited to a cool party but doesn’t ask you along, you are perfectly entitled to give him an exasperated ‘bo jio?’ to show your displeasure at his lack of friendship. ‘Don’t say bo jio’ is another common preface people use when telling others of their ‘lobangs’ or good opportunities coming their way.

Can / Of course

‘Can’ is an extremely versatile word, and a large portion of what it means depends very much on the tone used and/or the Singlish modifier you used with it. Asking if someone can do something just requires ‘can?’ or ‘you can?’, and the answer is just ‘can’ or ‘can lah’.

Sian (see-yan) / Bored or tired of something

This expression comes from a Hokkien phrase that sums up a feeling or being very bored or tired of something. Going to work everyday with a boss you hate can be ‘sian’, you could find a dull movie very ‘sian’, or you could repeatedly play the same song on radio until you are ‘sian already!’

Getting around

These are some words you might encounter while finding your way around Singapore.

Why so ulu (ooh-loo)? / Why is this place so out of the way?

If someone exclaims that your destination is very ‘ulu’, that means you are headed somewhere out of the way or hard to get to. In Singaporean context that means locations like Kranji and the Singapore Zoo, which are often considered ‘ulu’ as they are far from where the general population lives and with fewer public transport options. Ulu comes from a Malay word ‘hulu’ that means head or start.

Uluru | © nosha:Flickr

You could say that Uluru in the middle of the desert is pretty ‘ulu’

Can tompang (tohm-pung)? / Can I hitch a ride?

‘Can tompang?’ is what you might say to someone if you wanted to hitch a ride from them. It can also apply to asking someone to hold something for you – like if you ask to ‘tompang something’, or more broadly just to ask a favour from someone. Tompang comes from a Malay word that means to ‘take shelter with’.

Hitchhiking isn’t common in Singapore, but asking a friend to ‘tompang’ is | © Unsplash/pixabay

Tio Saman (dioh sa-mun) / Receive a summons or fine

‘Saman’ came from the word summons and while it can refer to any legal orders you receive, you are most likely to hear this phrase from angry errant drivers parked illegally, who have been issued traffic tickets or summons by the roving traffic wardens. These wardens are often older ladies and are known as the ‘Saman Aunties’, and their sighting at a car park or along the street incites eagle-eyed drivers to go sprinting back to their cars to avoid getting ‘saman’.

These ladies have become such a Singaporean icon that they were the subject of a movie called 3688 by Singaporean director Royston Tan.

Gahmen (gah-mun) / The Singapore Government

Gahmen is simply a rather mangled form of the word Government. If you are taking a taxi around Singapore, the drivers usually have a lot to say about what the ‘gahmen’ or the Singapore’s public service is up to. From newly enacted laws to rising prices or the local news of the day, everything ultimately boils down to what the ‘gahmen’ is or isn’t doing. Gahmen is a slang that you will often find on Singaporean online forums and news comments as well.