Speak Like a Singaporean with these 5 Steps
The conversation below is something you would hear when you place your order at the drinks stall in a Singapore kopitiam:
Cashier Auntie: “Ah boy, ai lim simi?
You: “Can I have a Milo and Kopi peng?”
Auntie to the beverage maker: “Tak kiu! Kopi peng!”
If it sounds like gibberish, this guide is perfect for you. Singlish can sound ‘very high level’ (challenging) for non-Singaporeans, and it’s really not hard to see why.
In the above conversation, ai lim simi means “what do you want to drink?”, Kopi peng means “iced coffee” (peng is ‘ice’), and Tak Kiu is Hokkien for “kicking ball”, which refers to the malt beverage Milo. Check out the image below and you’ll understand why!
Image Credit: TheSmartLocal
Colloquial Singaporean English is a hodgepodge of languages and dialects made up of English, Mandarin, Malay, Tamil, Hokkien, Teochew, and Cantonese. While the vocabulary is extensive (yes, extensive), fret not. Here’s a simple 5-rule guide to speaking Singlish!
Rule 1: Don’t Lah Your Leh’s.
The first words you should know are lah, leh, and lor. They are usually found at the end of sentences and are quite different in usage despite having similar spellings.
Lah is most often used to emphasise a point, and Lor usually indicates a sense of resignation.
You: Hi Auntie, how much is this Merlion t-shirt?
Auntie: This one ah, $25!
You: Can I have a discount?
Auntie: Don’t have discount lah! [It’s] very cheap already! Want or not?
You: No discounts? Ok lor, can I have 2 pieces?
Lah can also indicate exasperation:
A: Did you manage to buy the roti prata from that shop? It’s very delicious!
B: The queue [was] so long, of course not lah!
As with both examples, lah is used with a note of finality. On the other hand, leh indicates uncertainty.
A: Did you see the long queue at that shop? Do you think they are selling something good?
B: Was there a queue? I didn’t see [one] leh.
As you can see there’s a difference between lah, leh, and lor so don’t use them interchangeably!
An example of the wrong usage: “Can I order chicken rice lah?“ and “Hey, I’m going for lunch lor!“.
Lah, Leh, Lor, and other Singlish words / Image Credit: Winefamily
Rule 2: Use Shiok and Alamak carefully.
Shiok and Alamak both express surprise, but they do not mean the same thing.
Alamak refers to a negative or unfortunate event, such as when someone bumps into you and your froyo (frozen yogurt) is now on the floor.
Auntie: Here you go, that’ll be $3.50.
You: Thank you! Here’s the money- hey, watch it! Alamak, my froyo!”
Auntie: Sorry ah boy, no refunds.
In contrast, Shiok refers to something pleasant, such as when you find out that there’s a 1-for-1 promotion at Universal Studios Singapore while paying for the tickets.
Ticketing officer: That’ll be $78, sir.
You: $78? But I want 2 tickets.
Ticketing officer: Yes, sir, there’s a 1-for-1 promotion today.
You: Really? Shiok ah!
Rule 3: Quick, chope that table!
Chope in Singlish means to reserve, and is most often heard in food courts and hawker centres.
A: There’s an empty table there, faster go chope it!
B: Done. Let’s go get some food! What are you having today?
These aren’t free for you! / Image Credit: Under The Angsana Tree
The local culture recognises this as a legitimate way to reserve tables, and we take the practice very seriously. If you think you’ve just got lucky with a free packet of tissue and a table, you’re likely to have a very unhappy Singaporean staring you down afterward.
In some cases, people have even used their mobile phones to chope their tables. This is not recommended for obvious reasons!
Kopis (coffees) of Singapore / Image Credit: Honeycombers
Kopi – coffee with condensed milk
Kopi-siu dai – coffee with condensed milk and less sugar
Kopi-si – coffee with evaporated milk and sugar
Kopi-si kosong – coffee with evaporated milk and no sugar
Kopi-o – coffee with sugar and no milk.
Rule 4: Having here or dabao?
Dabao is the English pronunciation of 打包 (dǎ bāo), which means to takeaway. This word is easy to use and can be used at any kind of F&B establishments from restaurants to kopitiams.
You: Hi Auntie, can I have the oyster omelette and 5 chicken wings?
Auntie: Eat here or dabao?
You: Dabao please, thank you!
A: Do you want to eat here or do we find someplace else?
B: It doesn’t look like there are any empty seats. I’m going to dabao fishball noodles, what about you?
Different kinds of dabao / Image Credit: Far East Hospitality
Rule 5: Don’t be too serious!
Singlish is all about having fun, and as a traveller you’ll be automatically given more leeway, so don’t worry about using it accurately.
The locals will be more than happy to share with you the correct Singlish phrase if you happen to use it wrongly, and you might even make a new friend through your blunder!