Header image courtesy of Rachel Yeo
While most Singaporeans formally use English as their first language, it’s almost impossible to hear them using proper “Queen’s English” when casually speaking to other Singaporeans. If you’re not a local in Singapore, it can get pretty confusing—even though they are technically speaking English! Singlish incorporates slang from many languages and dialects including Malay, Hokkien, and Teochew, so it might be pretty challenging to master if you don’t speak any of them. But fear not! Here is a list of essential Singlish phrases and words to use while in Singapore that might garner you a bit of praise from locals.
Before exploring the colourful vocabulary Singlish has to offer, it is important to know these quintessential phrases used by all Singaporeans. Leaving these phrases out may not affect the overall meaning of what you may be trying to convey much, but using them at the end of any sentence can instantly add a punch and make you sound like a native Singlish speaker. Even just saying “Yes lah!” will make you sound like a native Singaporean.
Example: “This afternoon we can go to Marina Bay Sands to shop first lah, I think it’s too hot to explore the beach today leh. But we can go next time lor.”
This is a common Malay term which directly translates to “eat.” This word is commonly used to invite people for a meal or simply just to ask if they have eaten. Alternatively, “jiak” is an alternative Singlish word with a similar meaning, originating from Hokkien and Teochew dialects. As most Singaporeans love eating and talking about food, you will certainly hear the word “makan” spoken amongst themselves when you exploring the city.
Example: “You makan already? If not, we can go McDonald’s makan later.”
While steady means being regular or supported in English, using this word in Singapore can mean different things. It could mean expressing agreement or praising someone to be capable. It even means being in a romantic relationship with someone. For adventurous travellers, this is the best word to express your enthusiasm when someone invites you to try different things around the city. Perhaps you may be steady enough to try durians with your local friends?
Example: “Wow, you are coming to eat durian with us, steady lah!” — “My girlfriend and I have been steady for a few months.”
“Shiok” is another common Malay word used to convey pleasure and delight. This can be used as an exclamation in positive experiences, such as while enjoying good food or doing something relaxing. The English version of “shiok” can be “cool” and “great,” but somehow these English words may sound less shiok to say as a local.
Example: “This chicken rice tastes more shiok if you add chilli.” — “Going for a massage after a long day of walking outside is a shiok experience.”
A combination of Hokkien (buay) and Malay (tahan), this expression means not being able to tolerate something any longer. Other acceptable phrases include “cannot tahan already,” or “tak boleh tahan” (“tak boleh” means cannot). In the unlikely event of you not enjoying Singapore for various reasons, try using this phrase to express your frustrations.
Example: “Singapore’s weather is so hot, buay tahan lah!”
Catch no ball, a direct translation from “liak bo kiu” in Hokkien, means you cannot understand what the other party is saying. This is usually used during classes, workplaces, and conversations. As a traveller, it can get very confusing when Singaporeans are comfortably speaking Singlish to one another. But don’t fret, using this phrase with your Singaporean friends will elicit some laughs, and you might even get a clearer explanation of what they are talking about.
Example: “What did you say, sorry, I totally catch no ball.”
This is another Malay word, which means overlapping. This expression can be used when you wish to hitch a ride or even when requesting a favour from your friends or family to carry stuff to certain locations. If you’re new to Singapore, try asking for help from your friends by asking them to “tompang” you around places.
Example: “Later can use your car tompang me home after dinner?”
If you’re exploring Singapore without the help of Google maps or a travel guide, you may find yourself wondering in quieter areas without realising. “Ulu” is a Malay word used to describe remote or deserted places with few people around.
Example: “I got lost and ended up walking around this ulu area for an hour.”
In Hokkien, “bo” means “no” and “jio” means “to invite.” By putting both together, bojio means you are not invited to participate in social activities. If you’re not invited somewhere, saying “bojio” is a way to jeer at your friends for not thinking of asking you out in the first place.
Example: “You guys went to eat laksa without me, bojio sia!”
Singaporeans have a unique habit of using non-valuable items to informally reserve seats in dining areas. While tissue packets are the most common item used to place on tables and chairs, things like umbrellas or office tags can be used as well.
Example: “Sorry, my colleagues and I chope these seats already.”