WHILE THE MAJORITY of Singapore’s population is Chinese, Malays, Indians, and various other Eurasians form significant minorities. To reflect this diversity, the country has four official languages: English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil.
However, in social settings, eavesdrop on a conversation and you’ll hear a language consisting of a mixture of these four, plus different Chinese dialects such as Hokkien, Teochew, and Cantonese. This lingua franca is what the locals commonly refer to as “Singlish,” or the country’s variation of English.
Below are some commonly heard Singlish expressions that visitors may find useful:
1. Makan already? – “Have you eaten?” The word makan comes from the Malay word meaning “to eat.”
2. Sian ah! – “I am very frustrated.”
3. Alamak! Why you do that? – Usually used to show one’s unhappiness. In this instance, the person is asking why he/she did something.
4. Can meh? – To ask if a task can be done.
5. Why you like that one? – “Why did you behave in such a manner?”
6. You never eat meh? – “Have you not eaten?”
7. Oh yah hor! – “Oh yes, I agree with you.”
8. Ok lah! Give it to you lah! – “Alright, I’ll accede to your request.”
9. Toilet there. – “The toilet is over there.”
10. Don’t need to be so kiasu! – Say this to someone you think needs to take it easy and relax. The word kiasu comes from the Hokkien dialect and means “fear of losing.”
Singaporeans also lace their conversations with acronyms, which are pronounced by speaking the individual letters they contain.
For example, you may fly into Singapore using the national carrier, Singapore International Airlines, known to locals as SIA. Upon hailing a taxi from the airport, the driver may ask if you would like to take the PIE or KPE. The former refers to the Pan Island Expressway and the latter the Kallang-Paya Lebar Expressway. If you need to go to a local bank to withdraw money, you’ll be able to choose between DBS, UOB, and OCBC (Development Bank of Singapore, United Overseas Bank, and Overseas-Chinese Banking Corporation, respectively).
Singapore’s universities are also referred to by their acronyms. There’s NUS (National University of Singapore), NTU (Nanyang Technological University), SMU (Singapore Management University), and SUTD (Singapore University of Technology and Design).
Foreigners often try to pronounce the acronyms as a word; for example, I’ve heard foreign students pronounce “NUS” as “noose.” All you’ll get in return is a confused look. So the next time you hail a cab in Singapore, don’t tell the driver to use the “pie,” say “P-I-E” instead. For even more authenticity, add a bit of Singlish to your instructions by saying, “P-I-E hor!” (“I’d like you to use the Pan Island Expressway.”) Your driver will be impressed.