As you walk around the streets and sights of Singapore, you may hear strains of Singlish spoken around you. Singlish is an informal, colloquial version of Singaporean English. Although Singlish is discouraged in schools and formal settings, and Singlish is regarded as a lower form of English, there’s no denying the power of Singlish to create strong linguistic bonds among Singaporeans. Picking up a phrase or two in Singlish when you’re in Singapore might not help you blend with the locals, but it might earn you some points for trying!
The ubiquitous Singaporean ‘lah’ is something you’ll hear everywhere, and it’s used at the end of sentences as an interjection. “Cannot lah,” “Can lah,” “Okay lah,” or “Let’s sit here for a while lah,” are some usages of the word. When a taxi driver asks you which way you prefer to get to your destination, answering, “Fastest way okay lah,” could be a good way to practise your Singlish!
Singlish contains influences from Singapore’s main languages: Malay, Chinese and Tamil. It also contains words from Chinese dialects, mainly Hokkien. An example is “boh liao,” a Hokkien phrase that means “with nothing better to do.” A colleague of yours who seems to have excess time on his hands (enough to cause trouble for you) could be described as “so boh liao.”
Two Malay words in Singlish you might often hear are “boleh” and “alamak”. The latter is an expression of despair, used like this: “Alamak! I lost my wallet!” The former translates as “can”, which means something is possible. When ordering mee goreng, you might want to say, “Mee goreng, less spicy boleh?” which means “is it possible to make it less spicy?”
If you go to a Singaporean food court during the lunch hour, you may see packets of tissues on tables. This is the typical Singaporean way to reserve, or ‘chope’ a table. “I already choped a table for us,” you could say to try to impress your Singaporean friends as you place a tissue packet on the table to reserve it.
Finally, don’t forget one of Singapore’s favourite words, makan, which means food, or to eat. Someone might ask you, “Makan already?” which means “Have you eaten yet?” or, “What kind of makan do you like?” which means, “What kind of food do you like?” A good holiday in Singapore involves plenty of local makan — so don’t forget to check out our guide to local food, drinks and desserts!