SinGweesh on Wednesday: Pumchek

Sep 02, 2015 11.00AM |

by Gwee Li Sui

AT SOME point in your life in Singlish, you will come to a jialat discovery. You will realise that many Singlish expressions actually involve chochoking other people and making them look like goondus. Singlish seems to like to kachau others and to chip away at their self-esteem. This discovery is mo tak teng because you’re getting to the heart of why Singlish is so shiok. It is shiok because every speaker is playing a part in a gotong royong of mutual humbling!

“Pumchek” is a perfect place to understand this cheem point. The cantik term is a corrupted form: it’s really the Malay word “pancit”, meaning puncture, kena gabra in a multilingual society until liddat. But “pumchek” works like a past participle and so should mean more correctly “be punctured”. It’s used in the same sense of a flat tyre and implies that something quite steady has gone out of shape quickly or suddenly.

Of course, the term needn’t be used on tyred vehicles – such as bicycles, motorbikes, cars, buses, and lorries – only. It’s fine to say that a MRT train or a Singapore River ferry or a budget airplane pumchek. You can, in fact, take the word to mean the deflation of just about anything. A senior civil servant’s grand plan at re-structuring can pumchek, and so can his or her ego. An election campaign can pumchek, and, when this happens, a political leader’s pride can also pumchek. When you’re knackered after a long day’s work, you, too, are pumchek.

“Pumchek” should be differentiated from another word “pecah”, with which it is sometimes confused. “Pecah”, meaning broken, is harsher and involves a harder entity being damaged until habis. Here is one way I can think of to help you tell “pumchek” and “pecah” apart. If it refers to something you can poke holes in, be it a theory, a policy, or a self-image, the word you want is “pumchek”. If it’s what you can’t, that is, if the object can shatter like a dream, a rice bowl, or an argument, then it’s “pecah”.

There is at least one exception to my anyhowly ownself-made rule, and it’s in the familiar phrase “pecah lobang”. (Do I dare to say that “pecah lobang” pecah lobang my rule?) This expression describes having made a hole or a lobang – note the past participle form – which seems very much like “pumchek”. But “pecah lobang” has the added sense of an intent to deceive, which the pecah sabos. It is to be busted, to have a weakness, a secret, or a lie exposed. Also, while something pumchek, someone or something else pecah lobang that thing: “pumchek” is passive whereas “pecah lobang” is active.

So, the more carried away a property agent gets in his or her sales pitch, the likelier he or she will pecah lobang. Conversely, you may say that this agent’s intention to sell off a koyak condo unit pumchek. Ah Seng tells his girlfriend Mui Mui that he has been OT-ing, but a whiff of cheap perfume pecah lobang. Or you may say that Ah Seng’s attempt to fool Mui Mui pumchek. This is what has caused their relationship to pecah. Soon after, his motorbike pumchek. For reasons Mui Mui’s friends cannot pecah lobang.

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


Featured image Flat tire by Flickr user Marufish, CC BY-SA 2.0

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