Report from Tomorrow - Vol 29

1USD = S$1.64 (S$1 = 0.61USD)


Singlish is a peculiar form of English spoken here in S'pore. This often uses a word or phrase from Chinese (usually Hokkien) or Malay or a mixture. Sometimes it is some fractured wording based on the equivalent in Hokkien. Even though almost everyone here speaks English (the younger, the better, in general), we all fall into using Singlish in varying amounts.

Sometimes the phrasing used here actually reflects the syntax of sentences in "Chinese" of whatever dialect. Actually you will communicate much better if you learn to use the expected Singlish. If you respond with what normally would be a polite and verbose sentence like, "No, I'm really not up to it right now, can we....", it might not actually be properly understood, depending on how good the person's command of English is.

What follows are a few a few examples. If you're interested in more, a search for 'singlish' on Google will be helpful.

ANG MO - meaning "red head" in Hokkien has been a term used for whites ever since they first arrived in SE Asia.

LAH - is a term added to the end of most any sentence to add emphasis, as in "Okay, lah". Often this is added to excess to the point it has no emphasis anymore. I recall hearing one person reading a phone number to someone, "one, lah. three, lah. six, lah". This is not said with any voice inflection, as we might say "eh?" at the end of a sentence. Usually "lah" is added as another syllable to the word, so it becomes, "onelah, threelah, sixlah, okaylah?". Trying to cope with the oriental accent and filtering ending "lahs" off the end of words can be really confusing for new comers.

CONTACT NUMBER - is a phone number where you can be reached. They don't ask for your phone number, but rather for your contact number.

BLUR - is a slang term for "dumb", as in "After last night, I'm feeling BLUR this morning."

DO WA - is actually a slurred form of "don't want" and is pronounced "doe waaaaa". This is a case of a phrase, whose mispronunciation has become part of the vocabulary here. I've heard native English speakers use this to mimic the cadence of the Asian speakers, so they understand more clearly, as in: "Have this watch, want?". "Doe waaaaa, money too much" (i.e. I have this watch, do you want to buy it? No, it's too expensive).

ANG POW - meaning "red envelope" in Hokkien refers to the red envelope in which a small gift is traditionally given. At Chinese New Year, for instance, when you are visiting your relatives, it is expected you provide an ANG POW for the children. ANG POWs are also given at other times, like weddings (where it should at least cover the cost of the wedding meal), the birth of a baby etc. This is spelled "HONGBAO" in Mandarin. You'll see references to either in the newspaper.

TAKING OUT, EATING IN - are used when you order your food at a fast food place. You'll be asked, "EATING IN?", rather than "Here?" or "Take away?". Responding with "Take Away" may only confuse the person.

CHILLI - is another fast food word. S'poreans love to put a peculiar chilli sauce on everything. It's a semi-sweet and hot sauce that we don't like, but the locals use on everything. In the context of a fast food establishment, the question "CHILLI?" means, "Do you want chilli or ketchup". Responding "No", usually means you don't get anything (but sometimes you get chilli any ways). Responding "Yes" means you'll get some chilli sauce packets and maybe some ketchup packets. Asking for "ketchup" gets you both. Asking for "Tomah'to sauce" might get you just ketchup packets.

CAN - simply mean "Yes, I can/will/have done this". In question form it means "Will you do this?". Answering, "CAN" (or better "CAN LAH" will be understood immediately. Answering something like, "I'm really busy, but I'll get to it as soon as I can", may well be misunderstood. Most S'poreans seem to have little appreciation for the nuances of "may", "can" or "should". When I ask "Should we take the systems down?", I get the response "CAN". It's not considered proper to refuse, so in all cases I'm likely to get "CAN" which might mean, "Sure, this is a good time" or "We can do that, but it'll stop their 45 hour test" or "It's possible, but I'm not going to do it".

KIV - is a British abbreviation for "Keep It Visible". The Brits I know claim to have never heard this before, explaining that only the colonies still use it. It simply means to remember something or put it on your "to do list". So you might hear, "NO CAN LAH, KIV it".

WAH - is a form of exclamation and again is part of the cadence of Singlish. More than once I've heard the following said, "WAAAAH, no CAN LAH".

IC/PP - is the identification number that every S'porean knows by heart. It's also your passport number. This appears on just about every official form you fill out here, whether you are applying for a license for a TV, radio, phone or applying for vacation from the bank. You are tracked with this number everywhere. ANG MOs and other non-residents must fill in their passport number. Right - I'm supposed to remember my nine digit US passport number! When we first arrived here I complained, "How am I supposed to know this?" and the response was clear surprise that not every American had memorized his passport number. I can almost remember it now, so sometimes I just make a guess and figure "close enough".

CATCH NO BALL - used when something complicated and you do not understand. As in, "What was Steve saying? I CATCH NO BALL."

NUMBERS in Singlish are typically given as just a series of single digits. For instance, if you ask how much a camera is, you'll get a response like "FOUR FIVE OH", rather than four hundred fifty dollars. Your fast food mean might cost FOUR EIGHT FIVE (S$4.85). Phone numbers here are seven or eight digits long and are written and spoken as one long string, 4763422, rather than being presented as a triple, followed by a quad (476-3244). Cell phone or pagers are eight digit numbers like 97066085. Presenting numbers like this just makes my 'number dyslexia' worse. Give me a 7- (or worse 8-) digit number like this over the phone and you better be prepared to repeat it five or six times and then I'll still have it wrong.