Written by: Marissa Saini
Singlish is a perplexing, hybrid language that borrows largely from Malay, English, and Chinese. Today, it is an integral element of Singaporean identity. When you relocate and make a home in Singapore, you’ll inevitably encounter Singlish in everyday interactions.
It is used in casual workplace chatter among colleagues (although it’s usage is frowned upon in a formal setting), networking, shopping, ordering food and drink (like coffee!), when asking for directions – you name it. This is why it’s always good to be prepared for such situations.
Let’s break down the top phrases you’ll hear and with practice, adopt in your day-to-day vernacular.
Top 7 Singlish Phrases
The term “la” is commonly used to punctuate the end of your sentences. For instance, when speaking with locals, you may hear “Of course la” or “That’s why la” pop up frequently in conversation. Pro tip: You can slowly start integrating this suffix in your day-to-day conversations by answering yes or no questions with “la”. Sooner or later, it’ll just roll off the tongue!
Other popular syntaxes include “lor”, “meh” and “leh”. The meaning entirely depends on the context of the sentence, such as resigned acceptance (“No more buses already so I took taxi lor”), minor disagreement (“I don’t think so leh”), and tongue-in-cheek disbelief (“The class is at 8 am. You can meh?”).
2. Kiasu (kee-ah-su)
A Hokkien word meaning fear of losing out, “kiasu” is famously used to describe the competitive nature of Singaporeans. It may also have negative connotations of someone who wants to get ahead of others (read: selfish tendencies). Yes, tread lightly with this term. Oftentimes, it’s used to poke fun at people who would go out of their way to snag a bargain. For example, “My kiasu friend queued for 2 hours to get the one-for-one promotion at Starbucks!”
3. Sian (see-an)
This Hokkien expression is used to describe something boring or monotonous. You’ll hear this come up when someone needs to do something that they’d rather not. For example, one might say “Sian. I need to pull an all-nighter to make the deadline.”
4. Jio (jee-oh)
This word is used to invite someone to do something or simply hang out. It can be used as a substitute for the word “invite”. For instance, you can invite someone out by asking them, “Come I jio you to this party on Thursday.”
Pro tip: Bojio, its antonym, literally means not invited. For example: “I can’t believe you guys went out for lunch without me. Bojio.”
5. Tabao (dah-pao)
Use tabao when taking out food or referred to in Singapore as takeaway. Alternatively, you can also use “packet” after the plastic or styrofoam packaging. For example, when placing an order, you can say “One char kway teow, please. Tabao.” Now with this term in your back pocket, you won’t be surprised when a hawker asks you, “Having here or tabao?”
6. Makan (mah-kan)
A Malay word meaning to eat, it can also be used to invite people out for lunch/dinner. A common example would be when a colleague might ask you, “Hey, want to makan or not?”. For starters, simply swap out the word eat in conversation. When asking “Where do you want to eat today?” you can instead ask “Where do you want to makan today?”
To make a reservation or call first dibs on something, such as seats at a crowded hawker centre. You’ll typically hear, “I already chope this table for us with my tissue packet.” Yes, everyday objects like name cards or umbrellas can be used to mark a table as taken, especially during the ever-crowded afternoon peak hour.
Remember, practice makes perfect. Bookmark this list and start brushing up your Singlish with your friends and family!
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