SinGweesh on Wednesday: Si Geena

Jul 08, 2015 11.00AM |

by Gwee Li Sui

You know, Ah Kong was right to call Singapore a Confucian society. What other society welcomes the naming and shaming of a si geena as public service? “Si geena” is originally Hokkien and can be translated as “death-deserving child” or, rather, “damn child”. Yes, it’s something you scream like a monkey at children with, and there’s a whole bunch of such terms in Hokkien. “Si nang kia” means orphaned kid while “phua snio kia” means infirm kid. “Yao siew kia” means accursed kid.

But “si geena” is somehow the one destined to pass into common Singlish usage. “Geena” has nothing to do with the “American president” Geena Davis – and I’m assuming here that you haven’t been pronouncing her name as “geena Davis”. The first sound is made at the throat, like “ghee” or “geek”. This word normally falls from the lips of Ah Peks and Ah Mms and thus carries an air of dignified tenderness about it.

But, coupled with “si”, “geena” encounters a tension. A si geena is not just any kid but a delinquent or one in the making. He or she is naughty, rude, brash, and, above all, socially irresponsible. A si geena spares no thought for what good Confucian folks value: order, authority, tradition, manners, and respect for elders. When you call someone a si geena, you’re maintaining a gap in maturity between yourself and that joker. You’re positioning yourself as a functional member of society while the other guy becomes a public nuisance.

“Si geena” is such a phrase that pulls rank. You can’t use it to curse someone older than you, and you can’t use it on someone you dun regard as immature. By these rules, it is possible for an older kid to call a slightly younger kid a si geena to assert his or her own age. An adult can also label another adult with the term to chochok him or her for having been kuai lan.

More shiok is the fact that “si geena” doesn’t even require blood relation or familiarity. You can anyhowly use it on another person because chastising the village punk is your Confucian civic duty, dammit! Catch a teenager littering or vandalising, and that monkey is a si geena. Spot an army boy on a reserved MRT seat, and that idle king is a si geena. For sure, the internet is full of si geenas because I know the internet and I know you, you si geena!

In paternalistic Singapore, “si geena” has even developed political nuances and can be used to show support for the views and values of senior state leaders. So, if you khee siow and start judging other Singlish speakers as si geenas, you’re recalling a Gahmen position made famous by Lao Goh’s displeasure with Singlish-speaking TV character Phua Chu Kang. If you call supporters of alternative Singaporean history si geenas, you’re agreeing with who we affectionately dub Pinky – based on his favourite shirt colour – because he has warned us against championing that.

Si geenas are si geenas because they’re thinking and acting in ways opposed to how we’re all expected to think and act. By extension, the category can’t be very big and is indeed set against the majority in society. There is, however, one circumstance under which it applies to all Singaporeans, when even the whole population of Singapore doesn’t count as a majority. This is when the vision of our late beloved Ah Kong is invoked, and, in this context, everyone – from your grandfather or mine to Pinky himself – is automatically a si geena. It doesn’t matter what we say or do.


– Gwee Li Sui is a poet, a graphic novelist, and a lite-ra-rary critic who also likes to talk cock sing song.

Featured image is from Flickr. 

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