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Singlish... When an English-speaking foreigner first arrives in Singapore, one of the first things they notice is that most locals have a fairly good command of the English language. However, as time goes by, and they spend more time living and interacting with the locals (especially outside of the tourist areas), it soon becomes apparent that English alone is not enough to fully engage in conversations on local topics.

Singlish is a colloquial form of English that is spoken in Singapore. It is characterized by the influence of other languages, particularly Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil, as well as the local Singaporean dialect. Singlish often includes words and phrases from these languages, as well as unique pronunciations and grammatical structures.

The purpose of this post is to provide a guide for non-Singlish speakers to better understand the local language and culture.

It should be noted that I consider Singlish to be a unique part of Singapore's identity and culture. Before I delve into the background and common Singlish terms and their meanings, I have updated the original video I posted here (which is no longer available) and replaced it with a video of my kids and me promoting the Speak Mandarin Campaign in Singapore (disclaimer: this was filmed a few years ago :).

I have tried to remove any vulgar or swear words from this text - I apologise if I have missed any, or if it offends anyone - this is not my intent lah!

Singlish is the English-based creole spoken and written colloquially in Singapore. Although English is the lexifier language, Singlish has its unique slang and syntax, which are more pronounced in informal speech.

Singlish vocabulary formally takes after British English (in terms of spelling and abbreviations), although naming conventions are in a mix of American and British ones (with American ones on the rise). For instance, local media have "sports pages" (sport in British English) and "soccer coverage" (the use of the word "soccer" is not common in British media). Singlish also uses many words borrowed from Hokkien, the Chinese dialect native to more than 75% of the Chinese in Singapore, and from Malay. In many cases, English words take on the meaning of their Chinese counterparts, resulting in a shift in meaning. This is most obvious in such cases as "borrow"/"lend", which are functionally equivalent in Singlish and mapped to the same Mandarin word, "借" (jiè), which can mean to lend or to borrow. For example: "Oi, can I borrow your calculator?" / "Can you lend me your calculator?" This is technically incorrect in standard English but is widely used in Singlish.


Here is a list of Singlish terms and expressions commonly used in Singapore. It is not comprehensive and is intended to provide some representative examples of Singlish usage in Singapore. The origins of the Singlish terms are indicated where possible, and literal translations are provided where necessary.

agak-AGAK(ah-ga, ah-ga)

Malay term meaning "to estimate".

ah lian

A pet-name which literally means, "lotus flower". In real life, it refers to an unsophisticated Chinese girl. Stereotypically dresses in neon colours, wears a huge ribbon perched on the top of her head, and carries a tiny basket.


An Malay expression of dismay, surprise or alarm.

"Alamak! Why you go and do this sort of stupid thing?"

ALSO CAN (ohso-can)

Usually found at the end of sentences. Means "this is okay with me," or "this can also be done."

  1. "This one you want to pay by installment, also can."

  2. "You only owe me $5. But if you want to give me $10, also can lah."


Hokkien for 'red-hair'. A pejorative term used to describe Caucasians. I read from somewhere that during the Ming Dynasty, when General Zhen ChengGong fought with the Dutch and drove them out of Taiwan, the Chinese called the Dutch 'Red Hair Devil'. Since the Taiwanese also use a variant of Hokkien, I guess that's how this term 'Ang Mor' was included into the Hokkien vocabulary and passed down the generations.


Acronym for Boy-Girl Relationship


Used to describe someone as rather inept or in a world of his own. May also be used to describe the feeling of being dazed.

  1. Such a simple thing also cannot do. You damn blur!?

  2. Wah lao, I do maths, do until blur, man.


Monosyllabic answer denoting one's ability to fulfil a requested task or problem.

A: Lend me your car leh.?

B: Can lah.


A question on whether something is permissable.

  1. "Today after school follow me go downtown, can or not?"

  2. "Eh, borrow me $5 today, tomorrow I return you, can or not?"


Hokkien term meaning something is profound or deep or intellectual.

"You study philosophy? Wah lao, damn cheem, man!"


A somewhat impolite way of describing a woman as pretty.

"Checkout that chick, man. Damn chio!"

CHIO BU(chee-oh boo)

A pretty woman. A somewhat rude term.

"Far East Plaza got a lot of chio bu."


To go all out, with no possibility of non-compliance. The Singlish equivalent of "die trying".

"I promise die die will pay you back tomorrow."


Direct translation of a Hokkien phrase. A warning against hubris: do not fool with things beyond your ability. "This job is very crucial. Dont play play hor."


An adjective usually applied to people who do things which are unnecessary or pointless, kind of different from other people.

  1. "Eh, Recess already you still want to do homework! You damn extra, you know!"


Cantonese for "cannot manage". Often used in the sense that things are going out of control.

"Ah Lien got promoted to marketing manager? Wah lau, she sure gao mm dim one."


A Malay contraction of the colonial instruction to "go astern", i.e. to reverse one's vehicle or turn it around. Can be used as a verb.

"You can gostan your car some more. Still got space behind."


Denoting availability of something.

Beng: "Got milk or not?"

Seng: "Got!"


Another Singlish tag, used like a punctuation mark.

"He, hor, very kan cheong one."


A phrase that's tagged on to virtually any question (usually grammatically incorrect). It is also used on its own to express skepticism.

  1. "You got mail, is it?" (You've received mail, have you?")

  2. A: "I got accepted into Harvard." B: "Is it?"


Acronym for "kia lai kia kee" - Hokkien for "to walk about" or "stroll".

"Eh, let's go Orchard Road and K.L.K.K."

KAN CHEONG(kahn chee-ong)

A Cantonese term meaning nervous, worried or uptight.

"Your exam in June, now only March, you kan-cheong for what?" (The exam's in June and now it's only March. What are you getting so nervous for?)


Hokkien term literally meaning, "afraid of death". Used to admonish someone for being coward.

"Raining only, cannot go out, meh? Why you so kiasi one?"


Hokkien adjective literally meaning, "afraid of losing". A highly pejorative description beloved of Singaporeans. Kiasu-ism is possibly the defining national characteristic. Former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong once suggested that the Singaporean is kiasu, kiasee, and if he is a man, kiabo (being afraid of his wife)--- the famous triple K's.

"No need to copy all my notes lah. Dont be so kiasu one."


The ubiquitous Singlish tag. Used like a fullstop in a sentence.

  1. "It was just like that lah."

  2. "Never mind lah."

  3. "Donno lah."


Hokkien for "dribble shit". It means a case of diarrhoea."Ang mor png, chia'h liau sure lau sai" ("After eating western food, you will definitely have diarrhoea.")


Yet another Singlish tag, similar in usage to "Lah", but which adds a slightly quizzical tone to the sentence.

"I didn't know ah beng was like that, leh."


A Hokkien tag which depending on the context can mean either "already" or "finished".

  1. "His mother early-early si liao, loh." (His mother died very early.)

  2. "Like that his business sure liao, lah." (In such circumstances, his business is surely finished.)


Yet another Singlish tag, similar in usage to "Lah", but which adds a slightly cynical or resigned tone to the sentence.

"aiyah, don't care him. He's always like that, lor."

MAH FAN(mah farn)

Mandarin for "bother" or "bothersome"; used either as a verb or adjective. Guess it's one of the few Mandarin phrases in Singlish.

"Why you always come and mah fan me one?"

"Why they want to ask so many questions? So mah fan one?"


Corner stall selling miscellaneous sundry goods, often run by Indian shopkeepers.


A Singlish tag which accompanies questions. Adds a slight tone of incredulity.

"Ah Beng is like that, meh?"


Cantonese for "blur, confused".Similar to Blur


Economical verb meaning to turn or shut something off.

"Please off the light."

Same rule applies to "On".


Very enthusiastic, like participating in a lot of clubs/societies/volunteering work

"she's damn on, man, got four exec positions this term."


Yet another Singlish tag, similar in use to "lah", but which almost always follow a word which is some sort of attribute. This probably stems from words such as "de" in Mandarin and "eh" in Hokkien.

  1. "Why you so stupid one?"

  2. "Aiyah, he's like that one, lah."


Inexplicably, to cheat.

"I warn you, ah, don't play cheat or I tell teacher then you know!"

ROJAK (roh-jah')

A salad of mixed vegetables taken with sauce. Of Malay origin, it has been adapted by all races. In Singlish, it is used as an adjective, to describe something as being either eclectic, or just plain messy.

"This sort of multi-cultural event ah if don't plan properly will come out all rojak."


Singlish contraction of "sabotage". Used to cover instances of practical jokes and tricks to outright betrayal.

"You don't sabo me, I warn you ah!"


To leave the matter alone and watch how it develops. Often repeated for emphasis.

"I oreddy submitted the application form. So now just see how, see how, lor."


To be idle.

"Eh, you got homework, hurry up go and do! Don't just sit here and shake leg!"


A wonderfully concise Hokkien adjective which conveys boredom, weariness, frustration and emptiness.

  1. My job is damn sian, man.

  2. Wah lau eh, I do Further-maths, do until sian oreddy. (我靠,我做 Further-Math 做到sian了啦。)


Hokkien for "crazy".

  1. "You want to go and talk at Speakers Corner? You seow or what?"

  2. "Look at that seow char bor (crazy woman)!"


Economic term, used in the same manner as "So what now?"

"The show is oreddy sold out. So how?"


Singlish phrase used to express indignation at an inadequate attempt at an apology

A: "You lost my textbook?"

B: "Ai yah, sorry lah!"

A: "Sorry no cure!"


Hokkien adjective meaning "calamity" or "catastrophe". (衰)

"He was so suay today, got up late, missed bus, and got scolded by his boss."


A compliment about one's coolness.

Ah Lian agreed to go out with him? Since when he so tzai one??


Literal translation from Chinese (mandarin or dialect), which is used to describe undergoing extreme difficulty, intense suffering or great irritation.

"Yesterday, hor, I teach my son Maths, teach until vomit blood."


Hokkien term, which kinda has a sexual connotation, and yet probably the most common Singlish expression of all, it is used in much the same way as "oh my goodness", "wow", or "damn!", depending on the tone used, and the context. A more polite variant is "Wah Lau".

  1. "Wah lan eh! How can you do this sort of thing to me?"

  2. "My first thought when I saw her was 'wah lan eh'."

  3. "Lan eh, I ask you to do this sort of simple-simple thing, you can also cock up!"


The most common polite variation of "Wah Lan". I can forget all the Singlish phrases but this one.

WHAT ( T is slient here)

Yet another Singlish sentence tag, this is often used by people who are in defensive situations.

A: "How come you borrow my shirt now got hole one?!"

B: "Borrow that time orredy like dat, whaaaat!"

A: "Then why you never say first?"

B: "You never ask, whaaaat!"


A handsome male.

Mr Shitface: I am so yan dao!

Mrs Shitface: Yah, right!


Mild curse used to disabuse someone of his or her erroneous assumption.

  1. A: "You sure fail the test!"

B: "Your head lah!"

  1. "She? Win Miss Universe? Your head lah!"
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