“Want go makan after this?”
“Got do anot?”
“You cannot ownself do meh?”
This is Singlish, a colloquial form of English used in my home country, Singapore. From kindergarten onwards, I remember spending hours in school learning standard British English. Yet, I do not remember how or when I started picking up Singlish.
Unlike standard British English, Singlish was not formally taught in schools. Instead, it was one of those intangible things that was learned through experience. Lessons happened over informal conversations with friends when one said I “jialat already!” after I performed poorly on a test. It happened at the neighborhood coffee shop when hearing others exclaim, “Wah, so shiok!” as they tucked into their ice kacang (a shaved ice dessert) on a hot afternoon. It even happened in online games, where the abbreviation “ps” does not stand for postscript, but instead for “paiseh” (shy or embarrassed in Hokkien) to apologize when one makes a mistake.
Looking at the large number of “how-to-Singlish” guides, videos of foreigners trying their hand at speaking Singlish, or “100 must-know Singlish words” articles online, one might get the impression that Singlish is challenging to master. This might be the case as Singlish is not one language. Instead, it draws its vocabulary from many languages and dialects, liberally peppering its speech with Mandarin, Malay, Hokkien, Tamil, and many others. It pronounces words differently, such as dropping the “th” sound in “the,” instead pronouncing it as “de.” Singlish also ends its sentences with the suffix “la,” “lor,” or “leh.” These might be the most prominent feature of Singlish. For foreigners who have not spent significant periods of time in Singapore, Singlish might indeed be an oddity, a curiosity to be studied for its quirks and intricacies.
But to me, Singlish is something to be experienced rather than studied. It stands in stark contrast to the stacks of worksheets and decks upon decks of PowerPoint slides on grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary of standard British English. Instead, Singlish has crept into my life and embedded itself deeply in my daily activities. It helps me order my “bak chor mee” (minced meat noodles) for lunch at the nearby hawker center. It helps me connect and bond with friends and family. It can even help me identify other Singaporeans while overseas by hearing the distinctive rojak mixture of different languages that is Singlish.
Singlish has a colorful vocabulary and history and is woven into Singapore’s multicultural heritage. Early on in its history, Singapore, a small island first colonized in 1819 as a free trading port under the British, attracted people from all around the region and further afield. By its independence in 1965, Singapore had become home to people from many different ethnicities, with the dominant ones being the Chinese, the Malays, and the Indians. After many years of national policies to promote racial harmony, such as ensuring that the proportion of residents in public housing estates (where around 80% of Singaporeans live) from each ethnic group is similar to the national average, Singlish developed as a creole, a common language for the different races to interact with each other.
Singlish is a pragmatic dialect. It drops words in sentences such as “Can on the lights?” which carries the same meaning as the more verbose and grammatical “Could you turn on the lights?” Singlish is multicultural. It includes elements from Mandarin, Malay, Tamil, and other local dialects, with phrases such as “blur like sotong” (Malay) and “kiasu” (Hokkien). Singlish is unifying. In a multi-ethnic country where many different tongues are spoken, Singlish, in its unique way, unites Singaporeans, serving as a common language that binds our small nation together. With the proliferation of Singlish, one does not have to look far in Singapore to find a Malay that knows some basic Mandarin or Tamil phrases and vice versa.
Despite the integral role that Singlish occupies in Singaporean society, Singlish has faced threats to its existence from within. It has been called “a handicap we must not wish on Singaporeans” by its founding Prime Minister, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew . He said this with good reason. As a small country, Singapore has built its economy on trade and remaining connected to the world is an integral part of that equation. Yet, we cannot remain connected to the world while speaking our own language that foreigners have difficulty comprehending. To address that, the Singapore government has launched a “Speak Good English Movement” aimed at “encourag(ing) Singaporeans to speak grammatically correct English that is universally understood.”  While it promoted its message through light-hearted activities such as workshops and Scrabble competitions, it was clear that the movement was a declaration of war on Singlish.
At the same time, I also had doubts about Singlish. In school, we use grammatically correct English, which follows British English conventions. In General Paper classes, which are similar to English classes in American high schools, “I got” to set aside Singlish, and I had to use standard British English in its place. Code-switching between the two feels akin to having two separate identities and never the twain shall meet: one identity reserved for school lessons and assignments and another everywhere else. At school, I would be mentally drained from trying to prevent myself from switching to Singlish unconsciously, while at home, I would be “sian” (tired or lacking enthusiasm) while trying to complete my “cheem” (used to describe something that is confusing or complicated) General Paper assignments. During these times, it seemed so much easier to just stick with standard British English to ease the mental load of code-switching between the two forms of English.
Yet Singlish has proven its staying power, both in Singapore and in my spoken word.
Singlish will keep finding its way back to me, whether through friends asking to “lepak” or getting ready to “balik kampung” after a long day at school. Singlish is present throughout my daily life, from a “Come home already ah?” as I enter the front door, to the instinctive “kaypoh” thought when someone is nosing into my business, to the names of many beloved local dishes. It is the little moments that reinforce my use of Singlish and make it hard to give up.
It is hard to erase years of use and familiarity with a language, especially a language that has served as a part of the Singaporean identity and part of my identity as a Singaporean. As Singapore’s de facto national language, Singlish gives instant access to almost all Singaporeans worldwide, regardless of race or religion. It also acts as a secret language as Singlish’s structure and vocabulary remain elusive to many a foreigner who “liak bo kiu” (directly translated as catch no ball, or to not understand someone) in a dialogue between Singaporeans.
Singlish has become more than just a language. It is a cultural symbol that reflects Singapore’s multicultural heritage, her colonial past, and her people’s pragmatism. It is the soft voice that whispers, “You’re home,” when landing at Singapore’s Changi Airport. It is, as our tourism board’s tagline goes, “Uniquely Singapore.”
Would Singlish ever be replaced in the heart of this Singaporean boy? My only reply would be no, “confirm plus chop.”
1. “Speech by Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew at the Tanjong Pagar 34th National Day Celebration on Saturday, 14 August 1999, at the Tanjong Pagar Community Club,” Singapore Government Press Release. 14 August 1999, https://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/data/pdfdoc/1999081404.htm.
2. “About Us.” Speak Good English Movement, 5 April 2016, goodenglish.org.sg/about-us. Internet Archive. https://web.archive.org/web/20160405083518/http://goodenglish.org.sg/about-us