Funny Singlish expressions for visitors to Singapore

As soon as I moved to Singapore I started using the word “lah” at the end of every sentence. What does it mean? Not sure. It is a word designed to place emphasis but you can do away without and the sentence will mean mostly the same. Singaporean use lah at end of everything. They also use leh and lor to mean similar emphasis with a positive, negative and double negative focus. If you want to amuse yourself a bit more with the variations on the same you may check out this facebook post which went viral. Below, I am sharing some other common Singlish expressions that any expat will be faced with when visiting Singapore. Hopefully, these Singlish expressions are also useful to the visitors who interact more with Singaporeans.


What is Singlish

Singlish is a sort of made-up language that combines Asian words with English words. Since Singaporeans are mostly bilingual, speaking their native language and English fluently, many words have blended in and mixed up throughout the years and today, they speak a sort of colloquial English with Teochew, Mandarin, Malay, Tamil and Hokkien Chinese influences. You will hear both the elderly and the youngsters use these sentences. Singlish is discouraged by the Government and considered low level, but it is widely spoken across the islands. Locals will try to make an exception if there are foreigners around but they often forget.

Although Singlish is mostly understandable by context and intonation, I recently had a meet-up with other travel bloggers in Singapore and at some point I was so confused I no longer knew what they were talking about so here you are, a few fun and useful Singlish expressions that may come in handy, or impress Singaporeans you may interact with.

Chao Keng

To runaway from work/your duties/responsibilities. Example:

“He tried to chao keng one hour before official working hours end after a meeting but his boss caught him!”

Kiasu

Scared to lose/fear of losing out. Otherwise known as FOMO, something that Singaporeans are really afraid of! Example:

“Parents are very kiasu these days, if their friends’ children have tuition, they’ll get tuition for their kids too.”

Bojio

Did not extend an invite/didn’t invite. Example:

“Melissa: I’m going to watch a movie with John this evening
Jessica: wah bojio!”

Pangseh/fly aeroplane

To ditch. Example:

“Friday night’s plans confirmed ya? Don’t pangseh!”

Ah then??

Isn’t it obvious? (used in a rhetorical manner). Example:

“Anthony: Chinatown has good Chinese food?
Ben: Ah then??”

Catch no ball

To not understand something. Example:

“What did the lecturer say? I catch no ball!”

Arrow

To appoint someone to do something/ to be appointed a task, often while you are absent. Example:

“Since John is not in class today, we arrow him to be class monitor!”

Spoil market

To raise the standard of something to an (unnecessarily) high level, often resulting in discontent from others. Example:

“The teacher asked for a brief summary of the paper but John wrote an extremely detailed outline and even printed it out, damn spoil market!”

By left

The opposite of ‘by right’. Example:

“John: By right, we should not be crossing the roads unless it is pedestrian crossings and when it is green.


Mark: But by left, as long as the police don’t see, it’s ok”

Bao Toh

To tattle/sabotage someone. Example:

“I nearly got away with skipping class, but Alex went to bao toh me and that’s how the professor realized I was absent.”

Aiyyo

This is an expression, like saying, “wow!” and it comes from the Tamil. Example:

“Melissa: It is raining again, like cats and dogs.

Danile: Aiyyo!”

  • Nomadic Boys

    Didn’t realise any of these! We knew lah well though and had lots of fun making a complete tit of ourselves trying to use it and being laughed at by our Malaysian friends 🙂

  • Sabrina Barbante

    Haha, It’s so funny and interesting! As a linguist I love this kind of creole contaminations! And the matching of two such a different languages makes it all so much more mazing

  • Great expressions! Only knew about the word “lah” but there are clearly loads of other fun expressions to use!

  • Dana

    This is very cool! Lots of expressions to learn before visiting Singapore. I like “catch no ball” and “boa toh” 🙂

  • Hahah, hilarious! So many fascinating phrases! I love quirky language facts, thanks for this post, Mar, it made my day!

  • So interesting to hear how the language has evolved. When I moved to India I couldn’t understand why so many people would be talking Hindi but then have a very British word in the middle of a sentence, sounds so strange, isn’t there a Hindi equivalent word? Its fun to know the meaning of your examples.

  • We live in Germany and there are plenty of Ge-nglish words! While in Singapore, I didn’t pick up on any combined words, but we were only there for 2 days, and I’m sure that is something you see more in daily life and work. It’s always fun to see a blend of cultures though

  • learninglifeslessonsthefunway

    Haha these are brilliant! I think my favourite is ‘by left’. I might start using that one.. 😀

  • Antonette Spaan

    I love the By Left one, never even thought of using a phrase that way!

  • Travel with Mia

    Haha, this is awesome! I always wonder what people think of our slang when they come to the states. I often forget that other countries use as much slang as we do. I try to learn as much of the local language when I travel but slang is so confusing. Cool post!

  • Marteen Lane

    The mind boggles! I love how language develops, my favourite is catch no ball 🙂

    http://itsatravelfullife.com