28 May 2013


Singlish is not a difficult language to comprehend or to speak. For expatriates like myself who have been living in Singapore for many years, we readily and easily adopt it into our everyday conversations and often with great enthusiasm and exuberance and ardor.

I like it a lot.

Many of the English-with-whom-I-work do as well. We use it liberally. The most frequently and commonly used Singlish terms are 'can' and 'cannot'. They are obviously English words but they are considered Singlish and both words can be applied as either questions or answers.

"Meet me for a drink? Can?"


Or "Cannot". If you don't want to meet me.

For a drink.

The Singaporean will also often ask you where you stay. This can be confusing to non-Singlish speakers but it is not so difficult - they are just asking you where you live.

In Singlish meals are not eaten nut they are 'taken'. This is in the past tense and for the future tense the word 'taking' is used. I have no idea why this term is used but most of us have embraced this terminology with gusto and enthusiasm and adoration. It is a matter of politeness amongst most Singaporeans to enquire about whether one has eaten a meal. I also now regularly and routinely ask both my Singaporean and non-Singaporean colleagues about such matters and particularly around late morning and early afternoon.

I am referring to lunch.

"Have you taken your lunch?"

"Are you taking your lunch?"

"Where will you be taking your lunch?"

I often abbreviate this to the English-with-whom-I-work by simply saying, "Lunch?" They will often reply "taken". They will respond this way only of course if they have eaten their lunch.

These enquiries are much uttered across the Island between 11.00am and about 2.00pm. I ask them all the time and in turn I am asked them pretty much every day.

I love it.

I really do.

A more confounding and confusing word that is very common in use in Singapore is the word "lah". It has no meaning whatsoever and is simply randomly thrown onto the end of sentences or in the midst of them.

For no apparent reason.

I don't use it very often but the locals however do. It's use is ubiquitous and omnipresent. These are both most excellent English words that mean that it is used all the time.

"Meet me for a drink lah?"

"It is a very hot day lah"

"I will set you on fire lah"

It seems a bit silly to me.

There are other Singlish words and phrases which I won't bother explaining you can look them up yourself.

The Singapore Government do not like the population to speak Singlish. They believe that it is a bit low class and crass and they actively discourage it. The government in fact established a campaign to dissuade Singaporeans from speaking Singlish.

The Singaporean government loves a good campaign and they have many.

I quite like a good campaign myself.

The anti-Singlish campaign that was established by the Singaporean government is called the "Speak Good English Movement". It was launched by the then Prime Minister His Eminence Mr. Goh Chok Tong on the 29th April in the year 2000. It was a drive to emphasize to the Singaporean populace the importance of speaking 'Standard English" and to actively encourage its use.

The tag line of the "Speak Good English Movement" in the initial launch was, "Speak well. Be understood". The primary target group for this campaign was school teachers and students and they are still a major focus for the ongoing campaigns. There is an annual frenzy of endeavours that usually have a catch cry.

In 2006 it was, "Speak Up. Speak Out. Speak Well". In 2008 it was, "Rock your world! Express yourself!". In 2009 it was a very simple and quite brilliant "I Can!" In 2011 the slogan was "Impress. Inspire. Intoxicate!"  and last year it was, "Get it Right".

None of these programs seem to have worked very well because Singlish is still spoken everywhere. It is spoken as much by we Western expatriates as the locals.

We are rather fond of it.

Using Singlish can be a little perplexing at times and this was reinforced to me today in a work meeting that I had with some local contractors. Their names were Ken, Con and Karen and they were all very nice people however some of the discussions we had were plain hysterical. I tried not to laugh but I couldn't help myself at times and I do confess that I was riding the 'can' train a little in combination with their names. We were discussing some terms of agreement. At various points of our dialogue there was a bit of:

"Can Ken?"


"Karen and Con can?


"Cannot Con?"

"No - can"



"Ken can and Karen cannot but Con can?"


I was taking the piss a little but they either didn't realize or they didn't mind. This happened late in the morning and when we all reached agreement on an action plan we took our lunch.

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