Singapore has four official languages – English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil – but there are thought to be up to 21 languages spoken on the island. That four languages are officially recognized reflects the diverse nature of Singapore’s history and the multiracial make-up of the population. Singapore has a bilingual education policy that sees English taught to all pupils as their first language, and their ‘mother tongue’ (one of the other three official languages) as a second language. You can therefore expect to find that most Singaporeans (and almost certainly everyone under the age of 40) are bilingual in English and another official tongue (to a greater or lesser extent).
English is the lingua franca, and is the language used in business, government and schools. Originally a minority language, it was chosen as the country’s working language as a tool of nation building in Singapore’s infancy. It was thought that choosing Mandarin or Malay would, in the words of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, “split the country wide apart”, and so the adoption of the then ‘neutral’ language was seen as a vital part of creating a national identity for the fledgling nation. With hindsight, this has proven to be a cornerstone of Singapore’s subsequent rise and success, and one of the reasons it has become the leading center for commerce and higher education in Asia.
In another thoughtfully considered move, Malay was adopted as the country’s ‘national’ language in recognition of the Malay people as Singapore’s indigenous inhabitants. It is used for the national anthem and motto, Majulah Singapura, although its position in the hierarchy is largely symbolic, as it is estimated that over 80 percent of Singaporeans do not speak it. For instance, official documents written in Malay are required to be translated into English, while translation is also required if a person wishes to address a court in Malay.
Chinese (Mandarin and other dialects) is the most widely spoken language ‘at home’ in Singapore, with around 50 percent of the population using it. Despite the fact that the majority of Chinese Singaporeans are descendants of immigrants from the south of China who spoke Cantonese and other regional dialects, Mandarin owing to its universality was chosen as the official Chinese language and the one that would be taught in schools as a means of fostering Chinese culture and identity. For this reason it has become the dominant form of the language in Singapore today (spoken at home by about 80 percent of Chinese speakers). Officially, Singapore uses simplified Chinese, the system used on the Chinese mainland, although it is not uncommon to find signs and advertisements using traditional characters.
Although it is not unusual to hear Malayalam, Punjabi, Telegu and Hindi spoken in Singapore, and they are permitted to be used in schools, Tamil is the official language of the South Asian community in Singapore, who are largely ethnic Tamils from India and Sri Lanka. It is estimated that about 3 percent of the population speak Tamil ‘at home’ (around 150,000 people), although it cannot be used in official documents or in a court of law without a translation being provided. However, it is estimated that around half the members of Tamil community speak English as their first language.
Singlish is thought to have had its origins in colonial Singapore, when British schools educated European and Eurasian communities in English, and what was taught in the classroom then made its way onto the playgrounds and streets in a highly distinctive, elastic form. It is essentially a creole language, an amalgam of English, Malay and the Chinese Hokkien dialect, with fragments of Singapore’s other languages thrown into the mix.
Informal, unpredictable and, for the uninitiated, unintelligible, Singlish is both revered and reviled by Singaporeans. There are those who use and promote it with pride, seeing it as one of the truly distinguishing features of a unique Singaporean identity, while others frown upon it, the government actively discouraging its use in schools and formal business settings and creating the Speak Good English Movement as a counter. The argument is that the use of Singlish prevents its speakers from learning formal English and inhibits communication with foreigners, which runs contrary to Singapore’s positioning as an international city.
There have been attempts – both light-hearted and scholarly – to create Singlish lexicons, the best-known in the former category being The Coxford Singlish Dictionary (2002) and Eh, Goondu! (1982) and Lago Goondu! (1986) by Sylvia Toh Paik Choo. A more serious, yet still accessible volume is A Dictionary of Singlish and Singapore English, available online.
Perhaps the main distinguishing feature of Singlish is its use of exclamations at the ends of sentences, such as ‘lah’, ‘leh’, ‘wat’, and ‘mah’, but is also marked by its use of different (although often related) meanings for English words.
Examples of Commonly-Used Singlish Words and Phrases
Exclamations at the ends of sentences
Don’t be so kiasu lah. Don’t be so difficult (can also imply selfishness, or over-competitiveness)
Not good one lah.That’s not good.
Why you so liddat ar? Why are you like that?
Got problem ar? Do you have a problem?
Don’t play play ar! Don’t mess around!
Wah liao so expensive lah. This is really expensive.
He so blur lah. He’s very vague / He doesn’t know what he is doing.
Dun worry, he can one lah. Don’t worry, he can do it.
But he very good at sports wat. But he’s very good at sports and you should know that.
He do that ar? He did that?
Examples of Singlish phrases
Oh, izzit? Oh, is that true?
Dohwan. I don’t want it.
So how? So what do we do now?
Can can! Yes, definitely!
Lai dat also can? Is that acceptable?
Wah, you a bit the late, hor! You are very late!
Don’t act blur! Don’t pretend to be innocent
Boh tai ji. Nothing’s wrong
He never go school one. He doesn’t go to school.
He kena scold. He got scolded.
Later den say. We’ll discuss this later.
Oi! Hear me can! Hey, listen to me.
Dun have work to do, den go home lor. If you’ve finished your work, you should go home.
You call her walk there, very far leh. If you ask her to walk there, it will be a long journey.
Har? He really ponned class yesterday ar! What? Is it true that he played truant yesterday?
You want 10 cent? Go away!
Examples of Singlish Words
Alamak! Signifies dismay or incredulity
Ah then?/Arbo/Arbuthen. A sarcastic response to something obvious
Aiyah! Signifies exasperation
Balek. To return home
Cheem. Something that is difficult to grasp or understand
Cheena. Conservatively Chinese in appearance or outlook (referring to a person or place)
Corright. Correct (with the connotation that it is glaringly obvious)
Habis. Finished or done with
Kopi. Coffee, usually sweetened with condensed milk
Koyak. Damaged or broken; disordered and untidy
Liao. Depending on the context, it can mean finished or already
Makan. A meal, or to eat
Mug. To study (with the connotation of learning by rote)
Sabo. To play a trick on someone, or to do something careless that causes harm
Salah. Signifying something is wrong
Shiok. Something is fantastic or marvelous (very often applied to food)
Siao. Referring to a crazy person or action
Tau tiah. A task that is very difficult or troublesome