This article appeared in "On dit", The Adelaide University Students' Association Weekly,
August 22, 1994, Vol. 62, No. 17, page 14.

"Aiyah, Where got time!"

Some of you may have heard of the Singapore Sling; some may not have. But if you hang out with Singaporeans or Malaysians often enough, you more likely than not would have heard the Singapore Slang, more commonly known as Singlish.

Put succinctly, Singlish is a Singapore brand of spoken English. It is basically English with Chinese grammar and spoken with a distinctive Singaporean and/or Malaysian accent. Sometimes words from Hokkien, a Chinese dialect, creep into the sentence structure and strong overtones of the Malay language often accompany Singlish. Here, I present a cross section of some of the more common Singlish phrases and words and their explanations.

Let us start with exclamatory remarks. A common one is Alamak! which is the Singlish equivalent of "Oh my gosh!" We use Alamak! to express despair and sometimes anxiety. For instance, "Alamak! I forgot to bring my assignment!"

Wa-liao is used when one is surprised, as in "Wa-liao! The food here is so expensive!" It can also be used as an equivalent for "Good Grief!" or "Oh dear!" and the like. Aiyah or Aiyoh express impatience and sometimes disgust. One might say, "Aiyoh! the river is so filthy!" or "Aiyah! hurry up!"

A Singlish sentence often ends with words like "lah", "leh", "meh" or "lor". These utterances are included at the end of a sentence to add emotions or feelings to the sentence. For instance, "Come with us leh" (with a long and draggy "leh") is persuading. "Come with us lah" (with a short emphatic "lah") is encouraging. "Come with us lor" is almost like pleading. "You don't want to come meh?" is simply "Don't you want to come along?"

A common use of such end-of-sentence phrase is in the phrase "OK lah" which is the Singlish equivalent for "Okie dokie". Be careful not to confuse this with its cousin, "OK lor" (meaning "alright then") which is usually spoken with a sense of resignation. The difference is fairly subtle and can be fully understood only after years of exposure to Singlish.

There are also phrases and words which are distinctly Singlish. For example, when we say a person is blur, we mean he/she is confused. So, one would say after a lecture, "Wa-liao, so blur man!" and that would mean "Good Grief, the lecture was so confusing!" Another common phrase, "Why you so like dat?", which has been made popular by a local rap group, The Kopikat Gang, actually means "Why are you behaving like an uncivilised buffalo?"

Singlish also has a large collection of "Where-gots", like "Where got time", "Where got money", "Where got fun" and so on. In general, the "Where got" can be replaced by "Where on earth do you expect me to find". So for instance, when asked to donate some money to charity, a Singaporean may say "Aiyah, where got time?" Note that here, time and money seem to be synonymous.

Some Hokkien words commonly used in Singlish like kiasu, pai seh and ngeow need some explanation. Kiasu literally means afraid of losing or losing out. Pai seh means embarrassing or embarrassed, and ngeow (which is a Hokkien word for "cat") is usually used to describe a stingy or fussy person. So, a kiasu person would go for all the freebies and eat his/her fill (and more) at a buffet or all-you-can-eat meal, and there is no need to be pai seh about it. And if you happen to have a very ngeow landlord, then you have to be more kiasu ...

Now that we have a fairly good picture of what Singlish is like, lets see if we can understand the following conversation between Ah Beng, Ah Seng and Ah Lian (the Singapore equivalent of Tom, Dick and, well, Mary) ...

Ah Beng : Hi, Ah Seng, Ah Lian, long time no see.
Ah Lian : Hey, you guys wanna go to the Singapore D & D?
Ah Seng : No lah, where got time?!
Ah Lian : Aiyah, ne mind lah, long long one time oni what. Go lor.
Ah Beng : Free one ah?
Ah Seng : Aiyah, where got free one?
Ah Lian : Ya-lor, if free where got good one?
Ah Seng : $50 you know!
Ah Beng : Wa-liao! So expensive one meh?
Ah Lian : $50 oni what, where got expensive?
Ah Beng : See first lor.

Well, some people may say that Singlish is nothing but bad English; but lest we forget, Singlish is a spoken "language" and we generally do not write in Singlish. It is used throughout Singapore and has been a very effective tool of verbal communication. It also has a certain Singaporean flavour.

And oh, by the way, the Singapore Sling, which has nothing to do with Singlish, is a cocktail.


K C Ang, August 1994.