June 24, 2017


by Gwee Li Sui

The Great SinGweesh Quiz #4

Lai liao! Lai liao! Time again to test your Singlish based on our last 9 lessons and see whether you can make it or not. Is your grasp of Singapore’s most tok kong language as steady as a PhD holder who can code-switch but then kena scolding from PMO? Let’s find out now! Onz?

You say “stir ah stir” when…

some si geena posts an anti-religion video.

your NDP funpack doesn’t have NeWater.

you cannot find a fishball in your kway teow soup.

Meera’s mother and Siva’s mother bought a lot of assessment books. Siva faithfully worked on all of his and scored As for his exams. Meera barely used any of hers and also scored As. Name the mugger or muggers.

Meera’s mother and Siva’s mother

Meera and Siva


“Potong jalan” refers to…

buying a popiscle on the street.

creating a shortcut.

walking after circumcision.

Which expression got used before in a political rally?

Bo hee hae ma ho

Liu lian bo bao jiak

Nasi sudah jadi bubur

Which use of “lor” is salah?

My boss is liddat one lor.

You want, you take lor!

This place quite happening lor?

Chum Siong orders mee rebus takeaway at Pakcik’s food stall and asks for discount. Which is likeliest to be heard?

Pakcik says, “Packet your head!”

Pakcik says, “Discount your head!”

Chum Siong says, “Mee rebus my head!”

Xavier is very popular with the girls. To find a date for his OCS Passing-Out Parade, he doesn’t need to…



potong jalan.

Which line anyhow one?

I kelam kabut mostly because I catch no ball.

I blur like sotong only until I gabra.

Ever since I liak bo kiew, I gabra zebra.

Lao Lim’s si geena of a son made a racist comment online. Kassim reported it to the mata. Everyone starts calling Lao Lim a bad parent. Which is most accurate?

Lao Lim kena tekan, and his son kena buak gooyoo.

Both Lao Lim and his son kena buak gooyoo.

Both Kassim and Lao Lim’s son kena buak gooyoo.

Wah piang, your Singlish so teruk! Dun tell us you’re one of those backside-itchy people who always write to the papers and complain about Singlish? Dun think we dunno OK – confront your real fear liao lah! Singlish wants to sayang you, but you need to learn it properly to feewl the love. So go cheong a bit can?
You this kind of standard, next time dun act so tough can? Go and brush up your Singlish lah. It’s not that bad, but it’s not bagus either – and, if you haven’t been like away for ten years, lagi no excuse lor. Please pay more attention to how Singlish is spoken… and learn to code-switch! No PhD also can one! Learn betterer?
Wah say, you power sial! Your Singlish so tok kong macam like you got PhD in English literature! Nobody will ever doubt you’re a born-and-bled Singaporean son or daughter because your soul is Singlish. Whether you know it or not, you’re a national treasure – so dun let those kay angmos who whole day say this and that about Singlish affect you. You’re king! Muak!

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by Gwee Li Sui 

LIFE in Singapore is tough lah. We work so hard, and whatever is left as rest time is often just enough to lepak in front of the TV. Singapore itself doesn’t offer us many ways to relak and unwind. We’ve gone to the zoo a lot of times liao – so much so that the late Ah Meng’s family thinks we’re closely related. Walking in the Botanic Gardens is sibei hot. Going to the malls is sibei crowded. Meanwhile, Hollywood and Bollywood dun churn out filims fast enough…

So what do we as Singaporeans do? We go online and create some entertainment of our own lor. That’s what “stir” in the kuai lan Singlish chant “stir ah stir” means! The thing being stirred up is, of course, trouble. Our society seems to enjoy watching it unfold a lot. Yet, I dun think that I’ve heard this expression used much before the Internet came along. It recalls an older phrase “yo ah yo”, which is said with a gentle, rhythmic action as when you row a boat carrying a lover or bounce a buaian or sarung cradle.

“Stir ah stir” differently deals with a hostile scenario, and so its sayang tone is quite ironic lah. Maybe you’ve seen the phrase appear just as someone shares an anti-Gahmen article on Facebook? Or you may have watched it recur in a comment thread where folks are chochoking – from “cucuk” in Malay, meaning to poke – one another into kolaveri, or murderous rage? Or you may have muttered it to yourself in response to some cockanathan online petition where some are asking the Gahmen to protect their low level of tolerance towards others?

All these sound familiar yet or not? Yes, “stir ah stir” is a product of that new kind of reality we’ve been taught wrongly to call social media. It’s more like antisocial media, dey! People hide behind fake sexy photos and fake names like lonelybooby4u and say or do all kinds of gila stuff while others react without always knowing how bodoh they look. Basically, everyone online behaves like bo cheng hu one! But my point here is that Singlish knows it all. Singlish sees flaming and trolling and astroturfing – where support for a view is faked – as part of the free, messy, live, and interactive fun encouraged by the Internet. And “stir ah stir” is proof of this.

How exactly do you stir? Well, you can always politisai like scold the Gahmen or a certain party or anyhowly call somebody racist, sexist, or seditious. Another steady poon pee pee way is to join an anti- or pro-whatever online group, which will automatically give you a whole group of faceless folks to kacau and be kacaued by. Or you can play the street vigilante by taking photos or videos of, say, people cutting their toenails or fighting in public and then uploading these onto the web. Best, if your backside is sibei itchy, go po mata – or make a police report – in response to someone who po mata because someone else po mata!

All that nonetheless needs you to be quite garang, and so many who are humbler prefer to help others become famous instead. In this sense, Singaporeans are lovely in an Asian way one. We’re so evolved that we can sense who among us – whether he or she knows it or not – desires to be an overnight celebrity. We zoom in on this goondu and then chochok him or her until he or she becomes sibei pekchek. Then we sit back and wait for something epic to happen. There’s no need to doubt momentum because, smelling blood, others will ownself join in and help it all hit national proportion!

So never be fooled by Singaporeans’ outward kuai-ness: we’re all potential online troublemakers. But pity us lah since, as I’ve explained, it’s liddat only because we as a Smart Nation are sibei sian. If we have money, we will always choose to fly out for a short holiday and then post exotic Instagrams to hao lian. But no money – so bo hee hae ma ho. Besides, some folks really deserve to be local attractions. Getting them into trouble is our national duty so that, once entertained, we can then turn around and tell our children: “See lah! Internet very dangerous.”


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Catch no ball

by Gwee Li Sui 

HOW come Singlish got so many ways of calling someone clueless one ha? Cluelessness got so teruk among us Singaporeans meh? Look, there is “blur”, which only means unclear in England, and, from it, we have “blur king”, which we use to crown anyone who’s blur all the time. Then we have the simile “blur like sotong”, which even the wonderful and powderful Ho Ching knows wor! Sotongs are squids – but I dunno why they’re considered blur when science says they sibei smart. Maybe it’s because they swim like not very steady one?

An older generation will know “mong char char”, which is from the Cantonese and can be simplified as “MCC”. “Mong char char” also means blur – surplise! Then there’s my own favourite, the beautiful term “gabra”, which can function as both adjective and verb. To gabra is to act out of blurness and, in the process, manifest panic. So someone who gabras doesn’t know what to do and panics and, by panicking, becomes lagi blur. When you always gabra, responding poorly out of blurness, you’ll be crowned – what else? – a gabra king.

Next we have “kelam kabut” and “kalang kabut”, slightly more complex since these draw on a metaphor. In Malay, “kelam” means murky and “kalang” means dark or unclear while “kabut” means fog. So the two expressions have agak-agak not just the same sound but also the same meaning as fogginess. It becomes quite hard to tell which one actually came first. But no matter lah: to kelam kabut or to kalang kabut is sama-sama about scrambling amidst confusion or chaos. As adjectives, they point to being a gabra sotong itself.

And finally there’s “catch no ball”, which leaves many still somewhat clueless about its origin. “Catch no ball” may be from the Hokkien “liak bo kiew”, but what is this kiew, this ball, that hasn’t been liaked? It’s certainly not related to the “balls” in “bang balls” and “carry balls”, which refer to – errr, RA warning! – testicles. So to bang balls means to be sibei frus or full of kolaveri when things dun work in your favour. To carry balls is same-same but different: this time, you’re carrying someone else’s testicles (metaphorically) to get in his or her favour. It’s from “angkat bola” in Malay, but you have to work out for yourself why powderful folks need to have their family jewels lifted hor.

So the ball in “catch no ball” is presumably just the normal one in like basketball or netball or volleyball or sepak tekraw or what-have-you. These games involve players seeking to intercept a single ball throughout. To be unable to catch a ball therefore means that you’re not steady at all or not in sync with the game lah. Gasak-gasak a bit, and to catch no ball can suggest that you’re unable to get a meaning, dunno what’s going on. But this connection no guarantee one and is I anyhow guessbag hor! When you cannot understand someone, you may say, “What talking you? I catch no ball.” When some arty-farty show gets too cheem, you may hear, “Ey, catch no ball!”

I connect this expression to ball games because, unlike geenas today, last-time Singaporeans very sporty one. We used to invent and play several simple games, the most notorious of which was something called hantum bola. Hantum bola is very shiok but very painful to play lah. Basically, you take a tennis ball and whack someone with it. The victim groans “Aiyoh! Aiyoh!” and then takes the ball and whacks someone else. This all goes on until recess is over. Sounds fun or not? What – catch no ball? Gabra, kalang kabut? Blur? Aiyah, you geenas today are just too kuniang to appreciate.


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Potong Jalan

by Gwee Li Sui 

PLEASE be clear about one thing hor: Singaporeans should speak proper England. England has more important and urgent uses than Singlish. It can help us gain international respect, help us make money, help us make money, etc. But there’s one point people always miss: England can at least be romantic. Singlish is so matter-of-fact that it sounds salah when you use it on someone you like. Imagine going, “Siti, you my chiobu. You so cantik I want to choot you every day.” Cannot make it sial!

No wonder, when it comes to romance, we deem ourselves auta and are quite right about it. In fact, we’re sibei malu no steady poon pee pee lah. Look, we dun just go paktor – our term for dating – OK. We complement it with paktorlogy, a science of dating. Science, my kawan-kawan! Dating also must have science? This is what happens when our world-crass education system keeps downplaying the value of the arts lor. So you say teruk or not? Teruk until can cry in the jamban!

Paktorlogy is a secret body of knowledge our young singles gain access to via those with more experience in love. It contains the codes of behaviour while on a date, advice on handling the cheemness your date may say or do, where and when to raba-raba, etc. All these very susah one! Our Asian parents haven’t been helpful in preparing us to meet life’s biggest challenge lor. To be fair, their own paktorlogy is mostly long-time out-of-date liao. (Like you wanna talk under the moon over tao suan meh?) And they’re likelier to say, “Date what date – you study! I catch you sneaking out, I will piak you ah!”

But there’s at least one code of conduct that has endured every age of paktorlogy, and it’s this: dun potong jalan. “Jalan” means walk in Malay, as in “jalan-jalan”, which our PM posts that he has been enjoying with his missus in the evening. But “potong jalan” translates as cut and walk; it’s making a way where there is no way. It refers to cutting into someone’s mating ritual or relationship and stealing his or her lover. If someone is already attached, at most you should play lamppost, or a supporting role, to that relationship lah. What you shouldn’t do is to go make a way for yourself. That’s sibei selfish and very dishonourable – cannot liddat! But this code hasn’t stopped horny people from doing it or allowing it.

Kena potong jalan is among the greatest fears a guy entering National Service can have. (It’s quite different from his parents’ greatest fear, which is whether or not their boy-boy got eat and sleep enough.) When the young man is away serving the nation, his ondeh-ondeh is left open to the advances of opportunistic, underhanded suitors – and chances are high that her heart gets stolen. Many a sad NS story has been about a first love ending in this jialat manner. Many a time in the barracks can be heard this heartfelt scream: “I’m gonna hoot that KNNBCCB who potong jalan my girlfriend!”

The term “potong jalan” has also been extended for use in other scenarios that roughly involve cheating. For example, someone can potong jalan your queue for char kway teow at the hawker centre or for Hello Kitty toys in McDonald’s. Someone can potong jalan your promotion at work and get ahead of you undeservingly too. In that scenario, the most shocking form of potong jalan doesn’t technically involve jalaning or walking. It involves parachuting into the game from God-knows-where without warning. That’s super tok kong, man! When someone can be dropped off liddat without need for the ladder you’ve been climbing, it truly is making a way where there is no way!


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Bo Hee Hae Ma Ho

by Gwee Li Sui 

SOME people ask whether phrases from another language and not just loanwords can be considered as Singlish. Uncle says, why cannot? Phrases, like words, are unit ideas, and unit ideas are what give Singlish its cultural depth. Plus phrases can still evolve or multiply through time one! For example, “tak boleh tahan” – Malay for “cannot stand it” – is used to signal how one has reached the limits of tolerance, like on a hot day. But people have since also taken to using a shorter mixed form, “buay tahan”.

Sama-sama with “Bo hee hae ma ho”. Increasingly, Singlish speakers are using the England translation “No fish, prawn also good” – and maybe that’s the form that will survive eventually. But, right now, the original Hokkien form is very much in play. This old local idiom seems to have come alive again of late, but dun ask me why hor. Maybe less and less we’re hankering after the once-famous five Cs of Singapore – cash, car, credit card, condominium, and country club (technically, that’s seven Cs, but nehmind)? Or maybe we’re becoming – gasp! – less kiasu?

Besides, “Bo hee hae ma ho” has such a wonderful ring to it! It’s rhythmic with a string of indirect rhymes, most of its vowels varying a bit in sequence. The last sound returns to the first sound and creates a feeling of roundness and completion. Aurally, this expression is just so shiok lah! Its “oh-ee-ay-ah-oh” makes it sound like our own version of the England “A-E-I-O-U”. Some more, the relaxation you feel from saying it is tied to its very meaning. This is all about accepting life as it is, being steady and contented with what you get!

There’s also a nostalgic context being invoked – which is maybe why people suka it so much. The context is long-long-ago in Singapore, when fishing was still significant as an occupation or as leisure, and prawns were commonplace. It recalls those days of sleepy fishing villages and a coastline lined with kelongs housing skinny, tanned seaside folks. Life was less complicated and less demanding. When you couldn’t catch fish, well, liddat lor. Prawns for dinner were also good.

At least that’s the background meaning. The general meaning is an invitation to always look on the bright side of life. It’s like the angmo “Beggars can’t be choosers” – but ours is less judgemental and more stylo-milo lah. The angmos also say, “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade” – and this encourages optimism and a can-do attitude in the teruk face of suayness. But I dowan to judge… liddat also makes sense meh? Where got life give lemons one? Besides, if I plant lemon trees, won’t I get lemons anyway? Uncle no understand!

By contrast, “Bo hee hae ma ho” is so happening. You can imagine the setting, the acceptance, and the can-do-ness – in short, the underlying kampung spirit! Here is a very familiar Singaporean survival instinct once set against the forces of nature, and now against larger powers such as the world economy, Gahmen policies, and modern life. We Singaporeans are Singaporeans not because we always get what we want or fight for, but because we know how to live with what we have. We can somehow always see the bright side of everything!

So “Bo hee hae ma ho” challenges the more talked-about kiasu mentality that Singaporeans possess too. Both are the two sides of us… although our Gahmen probably likes our kiasu side more as it pushes us forward. But we really need to affirm the other side that can settle for prawns too – or else how to pursue our own dreams and be happy? So the next time your kid scores Bs and Cs for exams, dun tekan him or her lah. Give a big hug and say, “No fish, prawn also good”. You’ll sure be loved big-time one. When your friend loses a promotion to a Foreign Talent, dun teach him or her to be xenophobic and say, “Chow this or that” lah. Consider “Bo hee hae ma ho”.


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by Gwee Li Sui

WHEN I say gambling entices many Singaporeans, sure got some people not happy with me one. But why this kolaveri – or deadly anger in Tamil – since it’s true? Our two big casinos dun show how others gamble and we dun, OK. They show that we love gambling so much that our Gahmen needs to keep us out of them… or we may end up selling our HDB flats and our kids! Open your eyes and look around lah. In every street corner, there’s a long queue not for bubble tea but for our island’s fav hobbies: 4D and TOTO!

The ultimate Singlish word with respect to gambling is surely “tombola”. Even from the sound of it, “tombola” suggests things tumbling about – and that’s corright lor! It’s about lots going round and round in a rotating what-is-called tombola drum before a few of them are picked to determine winners. Tombola might have begun as an Italian board game, but the kind our Ah Kongs and Ah Mas know is closer to lottery, and it came from, where else, Great Britain lor. (See lah, the Land of OED taught us bad!)

Tombola was very popular in Singapore through the 1960s to as late as the 1970s. During that time, every sense of local fun seemed to have involved tombola one. You might go to an office party and thanni or drink a lot, and the highlight of the evening would be tombola. Prizes would range from a toaster to some Yaohan vouchers, and the game worked like a lucky draw – except lucky draws aren’t as shiok lah. This had a mesmerising, see-through drum spinning as some big shot cranks its handle and a low chucking sound to excite the risk-taker in you. Last time, TOTO and even POSB Annual Draws were tombola one… some more got aired on TV to ensure transparency!

Very few geenas today know about all this, let alone use the word “tombola” in speech. But it’s cultural knowledge OK! I bet that these kiddies also won’t know what the notorious chap ji kee was. Chap ji kee was an old, illegal form of lottery played in our region from as early as the late nineteenth century to the 1970s. But the first official form of lottery seemed to be Japanese, with tickets for the Konan Saiken sold during the Japanese Occupation. (See lah, the Land of the Rising Sun also taught us bad!) Singapore Pools was established as our legal lottery operator only in 1968… and, since then, our gambling fate has been sealed.

“Tombola” entered Singlish as a word meaning to leave a situation entirely to luck. At some point in our history, Singaporeans began to see how it could apply to many aspects of life too, how life itself was often a gamble. So, if you’re asked why your husband is so useless, you can reply, “What to do? I anyhow tombola and married him lor!” A student who doesn’t study for the exam can tombola when it comes to MCQs or multiple-choice questions. Last time, for that, we non-muggers used the four sides of an eraser – but now I dunno – and it made exams so much shioker!

Because “tombola” can be a noun, a verb, or an adjective, its form actually exudes the randomness it means. For a noun, you can say, for example, “I dunno if it’s a boy or a girl. It’s all tombola.” To use as a verb, when the next election comes, you can declare, “Vote carefully hor. Dun tombola!” An adjectival form can appear in the following way: “My promotion in your company is wholly tombola” – that is, arbitrary. And, in the spirit of tombola, here’s one more example at no extra charge, for good luck: “Someone wrote an article on Singlish history and kena whacked. It feels so tombola.”


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by Gwee Li Sui

BEING a born-and-bled Singaporean means that you must have gone through our world-crass education system. Means that you must know all about the quest for model answers, the Ten-Year Series, question-spotting, exam-smarts, chow kuan, chow keng, afterschool tuition, and school ranking. You may also know about this hantu-like creature called the mugger.

The mugger is a certain breed of learner – who will become a certain breed of adult. Top schools here are full of muggers one. The mugger is someone who knows all the answers even before a lesson begins, and he or she does all the homework religiously… and more. He or she gets As all the time – and A-minus cannot! He or she bo personality one except when it comes to showing kiasu pleasure at having beaten everyone else. Importantly, the mugger has a kiam pah face.

To be sure, the mugger isn’t the same as a nerd or a geek hor. A nerd or a geek may be antisocial, cannot friend-friend type, but he or she is at least intelligent. The nerd’s or geek’s passion for knowledge is fixated on one subject, his or her excessive commitment to which makes him or her look gila. But the mugger isn’t really intelligent as he or she just processes a lot of information fast. He or she isn’t interested in learning; all he or she wants is to win-win-win!

The mugger is only called “mugger” to be objective. To be subjective, we more often call him or her “chow mugger” or “mugger toad” or – best – “chow mugger toad”. “Mugger” doesn’t mean the same as in England hor, where it points to a robber. It is more the Singlish noun form of the England “mug up”, which refers to learning as much of something as humanly possible in a short time. But then you wonder why angmos can say “John mugs up on his Pure Maths over the holidays” but never arrive at saying “John is a mugger”. That’s why Singlish is superior!

Now, “mugger” may seem to be a label, but it’s first an abstract curse, used to warn someone of what he or she is looking like. So, in numerous contexts, people take turns to call another a mugger: today you’re one, and tomorrow it’s me. The curse functions via peer pressure – to save one’s friends from becoming the monster the Singapore education system is powderful to turn one into. So to say “You chow mugger!” or “Dun be a chow mugger!” or “Stop mugging lah!” is a good thing. Life truly happens when you’re not chow mugging. You need to go smell the roses, play some football, or enjoy cosplaying!

But, if someone keeps mugging despite every warning, then eventually there’s no hope liao. He or she will become the very embodiment of mugging: a mugger toad. The mugger toad is a king or queen mugger. The “toad” reference may relate to a toady, someone who sar-kars an important figure, but here it is way more teruk. A mugger toad studies to carry the balls of people who can empower him or her, such as his or her teachers or parents or the System. When a mugger toad grows up, well, he or she becomes a very familiar kind of Singaporean.


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Buak Gooyoo
Illustration by Sean Chong

by Gwee Li Sui

A GOOD Singaporean knows all about punishment. When we were young, we kena caned by our parents and, for some, by our principals too – at least during my time lah. During my time, we also kena pulled ears and knuckle-rapped and niam by our teachers. In the army, just for the guys, we kena drop-twenty plus several times of no-count-start-again, run-and-touch-or-kiss-tree-and-come-back, all sorts of gilaness lah. As civilians, we sometimes kena fined for littering, jaywalking, parking without coupon to have breakfast at kopitiam, and so on.

In Singlish, all kinds of punishment for whatever reason can be described with one word: “tekan”. “Tekan” means to be hurt badly and often unfairly, and one can be tekanded physically, verbally, or mentally. By the way, the past participle of “tekan” is “tekanded” because, in Singlish, you must stress the lateness in this form. So it’s “You die”, “You died”, “You dieded”, for example. A physical tekan is when, say, a bully tekans a community cat. (Dun ha, si geenas.) A verbal tekan is like when a boss scolds an employee for being lazy. A teacher can tekan her students mentally by setting a very siong exam paper.

But there is tekan and there is tekan, and “buak gooyoo” takes tekaning to a whole teruk level. While anyone can tekan, not everyone can buak gooyoo, which literally means to spread butter. Technically, only a powderful source can buak gooyoo, and this tends to mean the state or any of its law-enforcing agencies. “Buak gooyoo” is way worse than “lim kopi” or to drink coffee, which just amounts to being called in for a – ahem – conversation. But to kena buak gooyoo implies jialat corporal punishment.

Therefore, if you kena buak gooyoo, it means that you must be guilty of some wrongful act. It also suggests that you’re still kuai lan, go and test your luck with the system despite your guilt, and so tio your just desserts… and I dun mean chendol or pulut hitam hor. Orbigood! There’s definitely in “buak gooyoo” a sense of hubris or over-confidence leading to a downfall. The one on whom gooyoo is buak chochoks too much, is too garang with his or her misbehaviour or rebelliousness, tempts fate. So no wonder he or she kena.

The origin for “buak gooyoo” is unclear, but I’ve heard several accounts. In the guai-guai account, it comes from the England “You’re toast”, which means that you liao liao, habis, finished. So Singlish speakers simply extend this metaphor to spread butter on the toast too. Another account points to the medical treatment you get after kena caned in school or in prison. This kind of caning no joke one, and, after the whacking, your ka chng will bleed, and you cannot sit down for a long time. Antiseptic cream is then applied – and I dun mean Mopiko or Tiger Balm or tea tree oil hor. I mean something stronger like, maybe, Burnol.

Then there’s the RA account. This one says that “buak gooyoo” actually comes from being prepared for getting it from behind. Yes, it’s a reference to male rape in prison. I dunno if this version has arisen from the popularity of crime shows on TV or from actual stories set in Changi, but Lao Bengs like to snigger and claim that it’s the truth. I personally prefer the other two accounts since they sound likelier in the culture of our conservative silent majority. But, what to do, I very innocent one.


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Your Head
Illustration by Sean Chong

by Gwee Li Sui

WHY angmo nang say “my foot” and Singaporean nang say “your head”? Do you know? I think a lot about such pian jiak issues. When angmo nang want to dismiss something as stupiak, insulting, or kena sai, they name this thing and then add “my foot!” So, when an angmo kid wants an encyclopaedia and asks his father, the father will shout: “Encyclopaedia, my foot! You can walk to school like all your friends!” (Haha, sorry, old angmo joke.)

But, if this father were a Singaporean, he’d have said, “Encyclopaedia, your head!” Why neh? It’s a good question to ask, and there may be a cheem, philosophical basis. The less chong-hei response is to say that “your head” literally comes from a Chinese exclamation. But this doesn’t explain why it should make cow sense, let alone become popular, in multicultural Singapore leh. Besides, “my foot” has the greater historical advantage. It was once used by British colonisers on our poor Ah Kongs and Ah Mas in the way Japanese colonisers used “bakero” on them!

So “your head” may look like an anti-colonial inversion, but I think that its real appeal is somewhere else lah. After all, the two versions are complete opposites: one names the lowest part of a human body while the other names the highest part. The England form also uses a first-person pronoun while the Singlish form uses a second-person pronoun. It seems that, for the angmo, the foot is his or her centre of judgement, the place under which something is brought to be deemed auta or worthless. But the Singaporean blames the other’s intellect point-blank, showing the other to be goondu for wanting or asserting something.

This difference is quite steady one ha. Angmo culture may regard as bodoh something that cannot be seen because the angmo’s own feet are a blind spot. He or she normally doesn’t see them – we also cannot because all our tummies are in the way – but others may choose to notice them. So to subject something to the feet is to consign it to where the speaker ownself can’t care about. But another’s head, your head, is the first thing the Singaporean sees even though his or her own cannot be seen without a mirror. To attach something to your head is to make you aware about what you cannot see, cannot know. It makes you feel weak and exposed. So Ah Kong is right hor: Asian values and angmo values are not the same one!

Now-a-day, “your head” can just be used as it is, often with an “ah” – as in “Your head ah!” This form was popularised in the 1990s by that lovable gila character Phua Chu Kang, from the wildly successful Singlish TV sitcom Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd. “Your head” is deemed sufficient precisely because all that matters is a direct attack on the other’s sense of self. So, when someone is too kay kiang or how lian, you can knock him or her down a bit by challenging his or her words with “Your head ah!” – enough already. The other will suddenly be made self-conscious and gabra, kalang kabut, and you can feel a little shiok. Bagus, right? You understand now? Sure? Your head ah!


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Lor, SinGweesh

by Gwee Li Sui

“LOR” is the most bo power Singlish end-particle. It’s used to signal resignation, as when you bo pian still must go along with something. But this has nothing to do with what is described per se. No matter how shiok or kilat that may be, just end with “lor” and there’s suddenly a wave of melancholy. You will feel damn sian, damn lembek – and “lor” is liddat one! It betrays your personal feeling towards what you ownself just said.

In other words, “lor” is a dampener, and Singaporeans know all about being dampened in mood, right? We understand how, in whatever we do, however hard we go at it, most things will still happen the way they kena decided long ago. No matter how much constructive feedback we may give, it’s like almost always got no effect one. Things will still run like on Groundhog Day, like in a hamster wheel. And “lor” is a product of that sian culture.

In fact – let me complain a bit more can? – the Gahmen may say that Singaporeans dun fight hard and dun hunger enough, but all that is talk cock lah. The bare truth is, Singaporeans kena burnt a lot liao. Say we not productive enough and, when we work harder, say we dun spend enough time with our families. Say we not committed to belonging here, and, when we show we are, say we have entitlement mentality. Say we should feel free to tell our own Singapore stories, and, when we do, whack us for being critical or revisionist. So now we guai-guai, you tell us anything, we just say: “OK lor”.

“Lor” is hardly a complex end-particle – it’s too resigned to be complex anyway! All possible uses of it revolve around the feeling of resignation and ways of encouraging this. I can list three main forms here:

  1. The normal “lor” tends also to come with a casual moral or advice. So, when you say “Now I know lor”, you’re regretting having believed something and also warning against believing easily.
  1. The aggressive “lor” is shouted and often used on a hopeful or stubborn guy who isn’t yet resigned. So, for example, you say “Then you do lor!” to invite someone to experience first-hand the sianness you already feel.
  1. The sarcastic “lor” is said to create distance from one who seems to have good reasons not to feel resigned. So saying “You very smart lor” isn’t really saying “You’re very smart” but “I guess you think you’re very smart”!

A current trending use is the line “Win liao lor”. This invokes the sarcastic form and can be translated as “I guess there’s no losing for you”. “Win liao lor” appears in a situation where someone goes to sibei great lengths to get a favourable outcome. Like when some gila babi walks into a hawker centre and chopes every available seat for his friends with his personal items. You scream with your hands in the air: “Win liao lor!”

But there are also several familiar uses such as what I’ve mentioned earlier, “OK lor”. “OK lor” is said when you want to signal that you’re done engaging and can’t be bothered to listen anymore. Very useful in Singapore! Then there’s “Liddat lor”, which you can use when, after hours spent at baking classes, your cake still tastes like shit (not that I know how that tastes) – so “Liddat lor”. “Die lor” is verbalised when, say, a day before your family trip to Japan, your travel agency suddenly shuts down. And, of course, when the Prime Minister’s sister accuses him online of dishonouring their father’s memory, what do you think goes through everyone’s mind? Probably “Siow liao lor”.


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