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Information about Singapore: Singapore languages and dialects PDF Print E-mail
Singapore languages and dialects

Because of its multiracial makeup, Singapore recognises four official languages: English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil. English is the language of administration. Malay is the language in which the National Anthem in sung. In schools, children usually take English as the first language and one of the other 3 as a second language. For all intents and purposes, most conversations and business in Singapore are conducted in either English or Mandarin.


Singaporeans also speak a peculiar brand of English called "Singlish". This local concoction mixes English with common phrases in the Chinese dialects (mostly Hokkien) and some Malay. The use of Singlish continues to be a popular topic of public debate. Purists and Anglophiles bemoan the loss of Queen's English as they know it. Proponents of local culture say Singlish is one of the elements that gives Singaporeans their distinctive identity.

You be the judge. Try these phrases now and then, and see how they roll off your tongue:

  • Aiyah: Term used to signify exasperation.
    eg Aiyah, I'm fed up with waiting.
  • Angmo: Hokkien for "red-haired". Used to refer to Caucasians.
    eg The angmo ordered beer at the coffeeshop.
  • Bo cheng hu: Hokkien for "no government". Used to describe a state of lawlessness where anything goes.
    eg That place, really bo cheng hu, how to do business there?
  • Cheem: Difficult to understand or fathom.
    eg This French movie is too cheem for me.
  • Cheena: Term used to refer to off-beat taste.
    eg That suit he's wearing is so cheena.
  • Chiak chua: Hokkien for "eat snake". Loafing on the job.
    eg That fella, whole day only know how to chiak chua.
  • Chope: To reserve something.
    eg Quick, go and chope those seats before they are taken.
  • Choy: Cantonese phrase to ward off bad luck.
    eg Choy! Touch wood; don't curse me.
  • Hah: Used as short form for "I beg your pardon".
    eg Hah? What did you say? Can repeat or not?
  • Hiau: Hokkien for "vain".
    eg That old man, no hair left, but still hiau like anything.
  • Jia lat: Hokkien for "very troublesome".
    eg Moving house--so jia lat.
  • Kiasu: Hokkien for "afraid to lose".
    eg Kiasu Singaporeans will camp overnight for free concert tickets.
  • Koyak: Malay for "spoilt", "broken down".
    eg That machine koyak already, don't use.
  • Koyok: Malay for "quack medicine". Used to describe lousy goods.
    eg Don't listen to that salesman--he only sell koyok.
  • Lah, lor, meh: For punctuating sentences.
    eg Don't be like that lah. -- I'm like that lor. Cannot meh?
  • Makan: Malay for "meal".
    eg Let's go makan. -- Have you had your makan?
  • Mm chai si: Hokkien for "not scared of death".
    eg You drive so fast, mm chai si hah?
  • Sala: Malay for "wrong".
    eg You sala, you should take the other road.
  • Shiok: Something that gives a kick.
    eg Inside steam room very shiok.
  • Tau tia: Hokkien for "headache". Used to describe great difficulty.
    eg Aiyah, this project damn tau tia.

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