Although it may be unintelligible to most visitors, Singlish is a vernacular in its own right, and such local language is the ultimate manifestation of the elusive national identity that the country has been trying to foster. Furthermore, most locals are able to switch from Singlish to a secondary Standard English speaking accent which they use with foreigners with no problem. As such, the government has quietly realised the sheer futility of fighting Singlish and refocused its Speak Good English campaign towards raising an awareness that Singlish is not to be used for official work, as well as refining the standard of English among Singaporeans.
Even so, at some point of your trip in Singapore, you may find yourself staring dumbly at someone, trying to figure out what they are chattering on about. While there isn't Singlish grammar as such, there are definite characteristics that make this slang so unique – phrases are clipped, unnecessary prepositions and pronouns are dropped, word order is sometimes flipped and vowels distorted, and there is a characteristic long stress on the last syllable of phrases.
Instead of verb tenses, past, present and future are indicated instead by time indicators, such as “I go tomorrow” or “I go yesterday”. In a peculiar way of ending sentences, the particles “lah” is often tagged as a form of emphasis, as in, “don't go there lah”. This can be replaced with other expressive articles such as “leh” (slightly quizzical), “mah” (matter-of-factly), “meh” (follows a question, slight incredulity), “lor” (slightly cynical or resigned), “hor” (like a punctuation mark), depending on the tone or intent.
To better equip yourself with some Singlish, here are some common expressions and words commonly heard and used around this island city.
a bit the – (sarcastically) very; “your car a bit the slow one”
agaration – to estimate; 'I arrived at the price through agaration'
aiyah! – used in place of “oh, dear!”
alamak! – an expression of dismay, surprise or alarm
ang mor – Westerner (Caucasian), with derogatory undertone; literally “red-haired monkey”
auntie – informal but polite term used to address any female at least a generation older than you
blur – slow, uninformed, inept; a common usage is “blur like sotong”
can? – used at the end (instead of at the beginning) of a question “don't disturb me, can?”
cheena – a derogatory term for being old-fashioned Chinese-styled in dress or thinking
heng – good luck, good fortune; “he was heng to not kena hit by that bus”
ho say – exclamation denoting satisfaction, or enthusiastic endorsement
how can - a contraction of 'how can this be?' or 'how can this be possible?'
kaypoh – busybody or nosey parker; 'don'ch be so kaypoh, can or not?'
kena – denoting that something has happened; closest English approximation is 'to get'
kiasu – selfishly competitive or pushy; literally “afraid to lose”
kope – to steal, usually something trifling; “wah, where you kope all this stuff from?”
kopitiam – coffee shop
lai dat – “like that”; used for emphasis
makan – a meal or to eat
or not? – general suffix for questions, as in “can or not?”
pai seh – 'shy' or 'to have a sense of shame'; can be used to express humility or embarrassment
shiok – feeling great or tasting delicious; “I ate the char kway teow until damn shiok”
steady – an expression of praise or an exhortation to calm down
toot – used to describe inept or uncool behaviour
uncle – informal but polite term used to address any male at least a generation older than you
wah! – general exclamation of surprise or distress
wah lao! – 'oh my goodness', 'wow', or 'damn!'
ya-ya – boastful, as in “he always ya-ya about his expensive car“
Singlish was popularised by the long-running sitcom, Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd, on Singapore's Channel 5. The sitcom centers around a Singlish-speaking, yellow-boot wearing contractor played by famous local actor Gurmit Singh. His catchphrases are 'don't pray pray (don't play play i.e. don't fool around)' and 'use your blain (brain)'. Today, Phua Chu Kang (the character) is a well-known icon in good hygiene and courtesy campaigns.