June 22, 2017


Singweesh Quiz3

by Gwee Li Sui

The Great SinGweesh Quiz #3

It’s quiz time again – you ready or not? Relak, dun panic, ai zai a bit! Maybe your Singlish isn’t as teruk as you think? Maybe the sky is so high and you marry at 29 to a wife ka-chng wai-wai? Aiyah, who knows what you know or dunno, right? So come, come, dun be shy! Take our no-award-winning quiz! Have fun and see how steady poon pee pee or kena sai your Singlish really is!
Image of HDB lift by Flickr user Kai Hendry CC-BY-2.0.

Ah Kow asks you: “That obasan is your sister?” He means:

“Is that xiao mei mei your sister?”

“Is that obiang auntie your sister?”

“Is that chiobu your sister?”

Which is not a Singlish synonym for “horrigible”?




“Kiam chye char loti” is…

…a Singaporean dish.

…a line in a Singaporean poem.

…a Singaporean campaign slogan.

Which line has a different meaning from the rest?

Can dun liddat?

Can liddat or not?

Dun liddat can?

Who gave us “mee siam mai hum”?


Phua Chu Kang

Lee Hsien Loong

The guy selling koyok shouts…

“Lai ah! Lai ah!”

“Lai liao! Lai liao!”

“Siow ah! Siow ah!”

Which is an England sentence?

I sabo you meh?

You smart meh?

This is meh.

“Wah piang!” is not the same as…


…”Wah say!”

…”Wah lan!”

Latha scolds the MCP teruk-teruk. This means…

Latha scolds the MCP furiously.

Latha scolds the MCP repeatedly.

Latha scolds the MCP in Malay.

Walao, you must be the blurrest sotong of a Singaporean ever! How can liddat?! You sure your Singlish standard is really so kena sai? Not just fail OK – but super-fail! Damn malu until cannot be more malu liao! We think hor you better go into the nearest jamban and cry your eyeballs out first. Then you go and learn some solid Singlish from your friends please. Your case is very horrigible.

Aiyah, jialat: dunno what to say to someone like you leh. Want to call you auta also not really true. Want to praise you also cannot. Ey friend, can dun be so slacker please? Put in some effort and pick up Singlish properly? You liddat is as bad as mee siam mai hum: why you go and learn this kind of cannot-make-it habit? Help yourself please and polish up your Singlish until kilat-kilat, OK?

Friend, you champion!! Your Singlish is da bomb! It’s so perfect that you make us wanna cry and cry. People like you are what make people like us proud to be Singaporeans OK – because you speak da beautiful language! To hear you talk cock brings joy to those around you. Can you hear our song in the air? This is home, truly… Where I know I must be… You are what home is about! You macam king of Fort Canning Hill!

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by Gwee Li Sui

OTHER countries may hao lian about their culture or history or freedom, but we in Singapore feel lawa-lawa about our food. So has what we eat gone on to influence how we speak? Aberden? In fact, while foreigners like to call Singapore a melting pot, we’d rather call it rojak. Rojak chum-chums slices of pineapple, cucumber, and you char kway, with crushed kacang and what-have-you to create something sweet, sour, and spicy – all at once! Singapore is rojak. But rojak implies a mess too: so a group project by students may turn out sibei rojak.

Or consider what we drink. To lim kopi is to drink coffee – specifically the kopitiam brew which kay ang mohs always say taste like longkang water. Poot them man. But all Singaporeans further know “lim kopi” as code for being detained and interrogated by the mata or, worse, ISD. Then there’s the choklat-and-malt drink called Milo, which we use creatively to make Milo-peng, Milo dinosaur, Milo Godzilla… all kinds lah. Milo enables the term “stylo-milo”, which means fashionable. Why is Milo stylo-milo? I dunno – maybe it’s just “Milo” rhymes with “stylo”? Or it’s marvellous what Milo can do for you?

Speaking of stylo-milo, we describe hairdos in terms of what we eat too. Some obasan with curly hair is said to have Maggi mee – which isn’t technically Singaporean, but nemmind. Some uncle with an Elvis perm is said to have a kalipok. “Kalipok” is another way of saying “curry puff”, and it appears again in the phrase “chop-chop kalipok” – which you use to hurry someone who’s performing a task. So the army NCO watching kancheong recruits clean their bunks for stand-by screams again and again: “Chop-chop kalipok!!”

Quite incidentally, politics gave us a beloved Singlish phrase based on food. Back in 2006, PM Lee Hsien Loong defended how teruk his Gahmen was to the gila blogger mrbrown by warning: “You put out a funny podcast, you talk about bak chor mee, I will say mee siam mai hum.” Those words would have been quite tok kong if we all understood what PM was saying. See, mee siam – a noodle dish with sweet-sour gravy – has no hum or cockles one. “Mai hum” means “hold the cockles”. So “mee siam mai hum” ended up meaning having made a blunder or a lao kui remark.

Finally, there’s a kind of pancake from South India called roti canai in Malaysia but roti prata in Singapore. The dish is made by flipping dough over a hot plate until it’s thin and cooked. “Prata” has come to signify in Singlish flip-flopping in views or on matters of policies. It works as both a noun and a verb. You can say “Your prata very good!” or “You prata very good!” – without even involving prata! “Prata” can further suggest how something is interpreted to mean its opposite. For example, news that Singapore still ranks low on press freedom can be prata-ed to say that we are freer than Swaziland and North Korea.

“Prata” primarily relates to indecision in action or flexibility with information. There has been a false rumour going round saying that it’s tied to our former People’s President S. R. Nathan, whom some si geenas call the Prata Man. So bo tua bo suay, these people! The claim is not just unkind, but it’s also untrue since “prata” has been in use before Nathan came into office. Besides, it distorts the range of what the word can actually be used for. So please hor, everyone: can dun mee siam mai hum and anyhowly go and prata “prata” OK?


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Lai Liao!
Illustration by Sean Chong

by Gwee Li Sui

I GOT explain the exclamation “Siow liao!” before. “Lai liao!” and “Siow liao!” share the same end-particle “liao”, which bears the rough meaning of already. “Liao” says that something has already happened and shows impatience in having to say it – because who is calm when stating the obvious? So “Siow liao!” signals how things have gone bonkers, luan, out of control and, in this sense, become strangely more shiok. But, while “Lai liao!” may look like “Siow liao!”, it’s also more like its opposite lah.

The “lai” in “Lai liao!” means come, but, to want someone to come, you should really say “Lai ah!”

“Lai ah! Lai ah!” – must say two times – is heard a lot at pasar malams and where there are freebies to take or tofus to eat.

But “Lai liao!” is agak-agak “Arrived already!” and used specifically to signal how something expected has come to pass. It marks the end of sianness and speculation. “Lai liao!” probably came from hawker centre culture, where you need to wait like forever for your plate of char kway teow or rojak. When it finally comes, the server will shout “Lai liao! Lai liao!”, sometimes with “Siam ah!”, or “Make way!” I dun think these ever use “Excuse me!”, but nemmind lah. Mai hiam.

“Lai liao!”, like “Lai ah!”, is almost always announced twice, like this: “Lai liao! Lai liao!” Dun ask me why hor. Maybe it sounds more musical or it ensures that the waiting hearer gets the message and can start lao nua-ing? The doubling certainly heightens a sense of shiokness in showing that, while one has to tan ku ku, eventually the outcome is worth it. To be sure, its prize can be something desired or something undesirable. The real shiokness lies in the predictability, in being assured that time or energy hasn’t been wasted. The feewling is of vindication, of having learnt a pattern.

Indeed, “Lai liao!” has long-long become part of Singapore’s political language precisely because we’ve found patterns in the way our political processes work. For example, when the transport minister announces that public transport has – wah! – improved, there’s maybe some cynical snort who goes “Zhun bo?” But generally people are tame because we’re all waiting for the other shoe to drop. This is how our Gahmen always chut pattern, that is, strategises, one. When news breaks a few days later that bus fares will increase, everyone hampalang screams “Lai liao! Lai liao!”, basically to point out “Told you so!”

I’ve said that “Siow liao!” and “Lai liao!” are opposites, and here’s why hor. While both exclamations are shiok, the feewling behind “Siow liao!” comes from a failure to predict or manage; it relates to chaos. But “Lai liao!” is about what’s entirely predictable; its outcome may take a suspenseful amount of time to happen, but, ai zai, it will sure happen one. “Lai liao!” relates to pattern. So, when the Gahmen starts clamping down on news sites and blogs, we all shout “Lai liao! Lai liao!” – why? Because it’s expected. But, in this instance, we also shout “Siow liao!” since we also dunno what will happen or who will kena next…

Anyway, both “Siow liao!” and “Lai liao!” are for the drama-mama in you. One shows expectation exceeded while the other shows prolonged expectation gratified. So, the next time you check the news, why read in a sian-jit-pua way when you can go seek patterns, which is more fun? When an MP resigns out of the blue for no reason, sure got juicy mangoes one. Make predictions – is it an affair… or is it an affair? – so that, when the truth is out at last, you can join fellow Singaporeans in the roar of “Lai liao! Lai liao!” Such beautiful moments bring us closer as a people even as they let us feel a bit clever also lah.


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Illustration by Sean Chong

by Gwee Li Sui

LIKE the vocab of England, the vocab of Singlish tells the history of its speakers. But, while we talk cock a lot about angmo, cheena, Melayu, and Indian words in Singlish, we hardly talk about one small and rather malu influence. Yes, what about jit-pun or Nippon words ha? By Nippon, I dun mean Nippon Paint hor (hello, focus please?) – I mean Japan, Imperial Japan. After all, we did kena jialat-jialat from the Empire of the Rising Sun back in the day. Surely our speech-form got kena affected by the trauma? Surely got some traces, tio bo?

Well, actually, got! And I dun just mean in something like “banana money”, which is used on things that look valuable but worth kosong. So you can say to a guy who owns a few bad properties, “Waaah, you got a lot of banana money hor!” But “banana” here isn’t linked, as some suppose, to the term “banana republic”, which refers to a politically unstable country that exports monkey food. It points to the cantik banana tree on last-time ten-dollar notes issued by the jit-pun Gahmen – which became worthless after the war!

“Banana money” still isn’t quite about absorption, and so we must go investigate elsewhere. You’d think that Singlish might have words like “ohayou” and “konnichiwa” – but no leh. Bo leh. I guess politeness wasn’t something we took away from jit-pun culture? Instead, we have “anone” – pronounced “ah-no-nay” – which, in Singlish, denotes a Japanese mei-mei. Today’s geenas won’t know this word one since they’re likelier to say “AV star” or Miss J-Pop” or whatever. “Anone” is agak-agak in Nippon “well” or “you know”, generally what you say as you act blur lah. You’re quite smart if you can imagine how it came from jit-pun mei-meis approaching locals and going “Anone, anone…”

The opposite of an anone is an obasan, a label still in use today. In jit-pun, an obasan describes an aunt or an old lady, but, in Singlish, we have a word for that liao. We call her an auntie. So “obasan” comes to mean rather some charbor whose dress sense is auta or obiang, that is, out of fashion. Now-a-day, we may deem even Japanese aunties stylo-milo, but last time we thought they sibei obiang, cannot make it one. “Obiang”, by the way, has unclear origin: some say it came from Hokkien or Teochew and others from Malay. I like to propose that it’s actually a corrupted form from “obasan” – you think possible?

But the most tok kong, Japanese-inspired word must be “bakero” – so tok kong that even Japanese people dunno it! “Bakero” is a corruption of the Nippon “bakayarou”, a RA word for idiot or moron, and it’s pronounced “buck-kay-ro”, not “baked roe” hor. No doubt, last-time jit-pun soldiers used this word a lot on Singaporeans for its meaning to be understood right and its form absorbed. It was certainly something we geenas, even in the 1980s, used on each other to express extreme disdain or hostility. It is nasty when spat at a cheenapok, given the history of what jit-pun soldiers did to the Chinese community here.

The revival of “bakero” in the 1980s – decades after World War II ended – can be blamed on one phenomenomenon (walao, big word!). That was the TV historical dramas made by the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation or SBC, now called MediaCorp, which often told a patriotic, popular form of Singaporean history. Wah, there were so many back then that I lost count liao! But those SBC dramas had to deal with the sibei teruk Japanese period that played a big part in the trauma leading to the birth of modern Singapore. They hampalang depicted jit-pun soldiers destroying families, killing and maiming men, and raping women – all while shouting Singlish “Bakero!”

Those SBC series fed the memories of a young nation proud of its independence and its swift achievements. They became so successful that the cheena actors playing Japanese soldiers and local traitors would kena kan when they went jalan-jalan on the streets. Yes, “bakero” is a dun-play-play insult that ranks among the most kuai lan words you can say to a lao Singaporean or a knowing one. As to how to use it, my preferred answer is, dun lah. Dun use bad words; it’s not good lor. But, if you must (for some reason), you where got need people to teach you how to swear one? Basket!


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by Gwee Li Sui

THE words “teruk” and “jialat” have very different origins, but they are brotha-brotha in Singlish. At some point in the history of their use, their meanings started to coincide, and then they became interchangeable. So we now say “The traffic jam is teruk”, but we also say “The traffic jam is jialat”. We may say “The recruits kena tekan teruk-teruk” or we may say “The recruits kena tekan jialat-jialat” – both also can. Their meanings are sama-sama.

“Teruk” means tough or serious in Malay and is used in Singlish in a number of ways. It can refer to how siong or difficult a task is or how horrigible or buay tahan an outcome is. It can also point to very harsh conditions. Which meaning is in play is decided largely by the context it’s used in. So a remark like “The surprise test sibei teruk!” can be quite ambiguous without more info one. It can mean that the test is tough or that the test results kena sai. It can also mean that the general climate involving the test is what kena sai.

“Jialat” comes differently from Hokkien and is more poetic by comparison. But it has nothing to do with eating lard or the Malaysian cartoonist Lat hor. The “lat” here refers to strength. So “jialat” means strength-eating – or rather energy-sapping, like how listening to some taxi-driver rant on and on about PAP is sibei energy-sapping. But “jialat” doesn’t seek to say that a task is tiring, draining, or sian jit puah; the right Singlish word for that is “siong”. “Jialat”, like “teruk”, points to the gravity or impact of something.

So, when a said thing is teruk or jialat, it’s awful, gloomy, no-joke. It’s serious crap, like how a bad case of lao sai is serious crap literally – that, by the way, is teruk or jialat too! You can, in fact, go on to suggest a more active or dynamic form of terukness, and you do this by simply repeating the Singlish word twice. Interesting, right? When you wanna call for a kid to be punished until there’s serious consequence (but dun lah), you say “Whack the si geena until teruk-teruk!” or “Whack the si geena until jialat-jialat!”

Here’s where it gets complicated. Repeating also does another thing: it lets you turn “teruk” or “jialat” from an adjective into an adverb – like magic! So “teruk-teruk” in “Whack the si geena until teruk-teruk!” isn’t quite the same as in “Whack the si geena teruk-teruk!” The latter means punishing the kid severely now. See how “teruk-teruk” functions as an adverb this time? It further highlights a shiok aspect of many a Singlish adjective, which is its versatility. In England, “solemn” may become an adverb as “solemnly”, but “terrible” becomes “terribly” and not “terriblely” – why ha? But, in Singlish, you just repeat the adjective, extend “teruk” to “teruk-teruk” or “jialat” to “jialat-jialat”, and – wala! – it’s an adverb.

We must ask finally: got differences between “teruk” and “jialat” or not? This is a good, tok kong question. The short of it is got, but the differences are quite subtle lah. Your Singlish must be damn steady to understand why I say that it’s more about fweeling than about actual sense. “Teruk” is more solid than “jialat” and signals real difficulty whereas “jialat” includes imagined, potential, and future difficulty and is thus more adaptable. In normal use, nobody really cares about their differences, but, if you wanna how lian-how lian, try using “teruk” just to show that you can be specific lor.


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Can Dun (SinGweesh)

by Gwee Li Sui

THOSE atas kay angmos are always trying to correct the England of us Singlish speakers – for fiak?! It’s like an exercise in racism for them. They think they know and can comment on what they’re hearing, but they really dun and can’t. Every time they comment, it’s like kena sai man. Singlish isn’t broken England, and it has its own rules like how England has its own rules. This is true even when a sentence construction uses only England words.

A steady poon pee pee example is a construction with “Can dun”. Maybe you’ve heard it used before or you ownself use it in ways like these: “Can you dun” – or just “can dun” – “put your feet on the seat?” “Can dun stand so close to the yellow line?” “Can dun Majulah this and Majulah that?” “Can dun commit adultery?” All these questions aren’t asking “Can you not” or “Can’t you” – and to anyhowly assume is your first step down the road to bigots’ hell. It may look England, but it isn’t. It’s not poor England!

The proof of this lies in how Singaporeans dun say “Must you dun” or “Must dun”, “Should dun”, “Will dun”, and so on. We say “Mustn’t you” or “Shouldn’t you” or “Will you not” or “Won’t you” – we can one! We only say “Can dun” – which, if you’re at least an air-level jiak kentang fella, should ring some bell that something else is going on liao. Tio bo? “Can dun” is a meta-sentence construction, meaning that there are actually two sentences, two points, being made. The first is a “Dun” sentence while the second is a “Can you” sentence.

What cock am I talking about here? Let me gostan a bit and explain. In England, when you say “Can you not look at me?”, you’re asking another to do just that, not to look at you. It’s a request, a polite one, and your addressee can choose to oblige or not to – depending on whether he or she is a creep or not. But, when you say “Dun look at me!”, that’s no longer a request: it’s a command! You’re ordering the bugger not to do something, and your tone is fierce. You’re hardly subtle about seeing the other as a creep.

“Can dun” means to say “Dun”, “Stop it” – but, being such nice people, we Singaporeans double back to rephrase a command as a request. Yet, despite the politeness, the irritation remains intact. In fact, the politeness is a last signal to the addressee that a line of tolerance has been crossed. Yes, we the Majulah people are passive-aggressive one; it’s a mode of social interaction that permeates our Gahmen, workplaces, schools, and homes. Singaporeans can’t just speak our minds. We go the distance to make others learn for themselves how we’re really feeling.

“Can dun” is such a mark of a folk stuck between the custom of face-saving and the assertion of self. We want to be brutally honest, but then hor we also dun wish to deal with any backfiring impact. As a result, we talk liddat one lor. So let’s state it plainly here in case you’re still blur. Whenever you hear “Can dun”, just treat it as “Dun”: you’re not invited to consider. There’s no choice involved, you gila babi. To disregard my advice and persist means that you’re either a creep or one bodoh kay angmo.


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by Gwee Li Sui

“Horrigible”, as a word, is not horrigible hor. In fact, it’s very sut – meaning cool. How so? Well, many Singlish terms are formed by applying on a word a rule from another language or by chum-chumming words from two or more languages. So “jiak kentang” – which points to an atas Western-educated yaya-papaya – is made from the word “jiak”, or eat in Hokkien, and the word “kentang”, or potato in Malay. “Agakration” comes from turning “agak”, or estimate in Malay, into an England noun.

But “horrigible” is sibei interesting in a cute way – because it’s changing one England word with another England word! Kong simi? See, the two components of “horrigible” are “horrible” and “incorrigible” – a big England word for most geenas today. “Incorrigible” means being unable to be improved. Last-time teachers used it on us a lot one. So “horrigible” implies being worse than hopeless – being horribly hopeless. I think that it must have gone into circulation in the 1980s?

The way different words combine to form a new word is common in the development of any language. In England, the merged word is called a portmanteau, which is – alamak! – a French word from “porter”, meaning carry, and “manteau”, meaning mantle. So it’s like… carrying a cloak. Riight, angmo logic hor. Anyway, you’re surely familiar with the portmanteau “brunch”, which joins “breakfast” and “lunch”. The shiokest writer Lewis Carroll introduces us to “chortle”, which fuses a chuckle and a snort.

In Singlish, we have “paktorlogy”, which chum-chums “paktor”, or dating, and the ending “-logy”, which signals some science. So “paktorlogy” is the science of courtship – simple, right? A-level education becomes “air-level”, a takedown term used on the well-educated, where “air” suggests being airy-fairy or vacuous. So the air-level bugger always thinks that, because he or she got paper qualifications, he or she is very smart. But Singlish speakers know better.

Then there’s “heliucated”, which combines “helicopter” and “educated”. A helicopter in Singlish is someone from a cheena background who can’t speak England well. His or her traditional enemy is, of course, the jiak kentang kay angmo. “Helicopter” is said to morph from the mispronunciation of the word “educated” by Chinese speakers. If so, with “heliucated”, we’re getting an interesting fusion of two words that mean the same thing! “Heliucated” is used to call someone Chinese-educated or to hint that you ownself speak auta England.

With “horrigible”, there is immense shiokness just by saying it because really it improves on the England “horrible”. The extra syllable “gi” renders it not only longer but also more cheem-sounding. It adds to a sense of terukness, making “horrible” feel lagi horrible. The word is sibei aural and bears a Gothic weight of disgust. Imagine how you’d feel if your teacher or boss regards your work as horrigible! Or when you hear that the next place you plan to take a vacation is, in fact, quite horrigible! Sibei sian, correct? Flip table even!


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by Gwee Li Sui

The Great SinGweesh Surprise Test

Surprise!! There is no test we all hate more than a surprise test – which bloody comes from out of nowhere one. But dun worry: this one very shiok… and also very the teruk hor. We warn you liao ha. The difficulty level is so high that our sample takers did until kao pei kao bu, vomit blood. Some more this time cannot revise beforehand – wahaha! – but you should at least learn how much more there is to know lah. So ready or not? Let’s go!
Image of Singlish by Flickr user Michael Elleray CC BY 2.0

Which isn’t a Singlish idiom?

Siow siow char kuay teow

Song song gao Jurong

Zhun zhun jiak bee hoon

Pattern more than badminton

Which isn’t a proper Singlish sentence?

Can you dun behave liddat?

Can please dun liddat?

You dun liddat can?

Dun can liddat please?

Which Singlish word doesn’t have Tamil import?





Complete this Singlish phrase: Orbigood…

Poot poot poot!

Sibei toot!

Jiak chuloot!

Mata mata good!

What does “I kena ketuk” mean?

“I got beaten up.”

“I got fleeced.”

“I have lice.”

“I’ve won the lottery.”

What does “agakration” mean?

The art of argument

The science of estimation

The skill of making jelly

Combat ration


What does “Liu lian bo bao jiak” mean?

“The durian tastes terrible.”

“Bringing durians may not help.”

“I can’t guarantee you any advantage.”

“I don’t have anything to offer.”

What is the origin of “aberden”?

Ah, but then?

Apa macam?



If your mother-in-law is crazy, you say that she is…

siow ting tong.

something wrong.



Ah Seng prata very good. In other words,…

Ah Seng makes delicious prata.

Ah Seng knows about many cultures.

c. Ah Seng’s entrepreneurial skills are excellent.

Ah Seng’s flip-flopping skills are outstanding.


So sad, your Singlish kena sai. We know this test is tough, but – wah piang! – how you can even get so low? This kind of score no genuine Singaporean can be proud of one. We seriously think that you should hang out less with whoever you’ve been hanging out with and get to know more normal people lah. Please, OK? Total Defence depends on you, and there’s a part for hampalang! Dun malu your island nation! Majulah!


Have to be fair to you lah: this test is actually quite tough. But then your Singlish also quite jialat, very half-past-six leh. Please can you put in more effort and dun blur like sotong until like this? If you love Singapore, you will want to do something about how you’re hearing your own people salah. Tio bo? And, if you want people to talk Singlish to you, you must talk Singlish too lah! Singlish is two-ways one like National Conversation, understand? Better understand! Majulah!


Wah, you are so un-un-un-un-unbelievable!! We give you two thumbs up – three thumbs we can also give! This test is damn tough, and yet you mo tak teng, can still get such powderful results! We got eyes no see Tarzan because you are the true Singlish Drunken Master, pride of our nation! Singapore will go far, all thanks to folks like you around, whose hearts and souls are in the right place! Majulah!


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Wah Piang

by Gwee Li Sui

HELLO everyboz, Uncle is back! Sorry my toilet break took a bit too long – was away for four months! But nemmind, now I is back, and we can have fun talking Singlish cock again! Today’s Singlish term is “Wah piang!” or sometimes said with an “eh” to lengthen the experience: “Wah piang eh!” Or you can also shorten it to just “Piang!” Regardless, “Wah piang!” has to be said with an exclamation mark. This is true even if you’re whispering or muttering it to yourself – because the phrase is an expression of intense negative surprise.

The “wah” of “Wah piang!” is the same “wah” as the one in “Walao!”, “Wah say!”, and, errr, “Wah lan!” This means I or me in Hokkien. Contrary to familiar generalisations made in the West and by jiak kentang kay angmos, Asian culture isn’t clearly pro-authority and anti-individual. The I of Singlish proves this. “Wah” isn’t just used in normal sentence constructions to signal who is speaking or doing or being referred to or acted on. In moments when deep emotional impression is made and one is reduced to near-speechlessness, it’s what tumbles out of the mouth as a self-checking statement.

“Wah” contracts to the only certainty and measure of reality the Singaporean can have: himself or herself. This truth seems to be understood by Singlish speakers unconsciously. Compare it to how the West has learnt the same: it needed the French philosopher René Descartes to make the famous discovery Cogito ergo sum, “I think therefore I am”. But then, when shocked to the core, Westerners turn to cry “Oh my God!” or “Oh my goodness!”, in different languages. But what do Singaporeans cry? “Walao!” “Wah lan!” “Wah piang!”

“Wah lan!” is the earliest of the three cries and, in fact, the horrific core which the other two seek to conceal or suppress. You see, “Wah lan!” translates as “Oh my penis!” – which sounds scary especially when you hear Ah Lians and Ah Huays shout it. But, since Singaporeans are an intrinsically polite people, we misspoke it often enough that it became “Walao!”, this “lao” meaning old. “Oh my old!” is meaningless but safe – although many have gone on retroactively to interpret it as swearing by one’s ancestors. That’s OK with me.

Then “Wah piang!” – the sweetest and most G-rated of the three – came along. While a focus on the self is still there, nobody can actually say what “piang” means. If you do have some idea, let me know? It has this sound of something shattering – like when you drop a porcelain plate, and it goes “Piang!” The notion of shattering does add to the sense of reality being smashed, which is what the self has just experienced. It works in a way… but I dunno lah.

I haven’t explained “Wah say!” yet since that’s quite a different kind of exclamation, being positive. Some say that “Wah say!” came from the England “I say!”, but “say” is Hokkien for style or cool too. When you have say, you are very sut-sut. So “Wah say!” may mean “My, what style!” or “I’m impressed!” Yet, in all honesty, Singaporeans aren’t an easily impressed bunch, and so we like to walao and wah-piang much more. If you need practice with these, just get a copy of The Straits Times and read the forum page. In no time, you’ll be referring to yourself like a true-blue Singaporean too.


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Salted Veg on Toast Bread 4 - 1200 x 850 Pixel

by Gwee Li Sui

Singlish has long-long history one! Dun listen to some people talk cock sing song, anyhow say this, say that. Say got no Singlish before Singapore was independent. Say last time only got Chinese dialects maybe mixed with some Malay but no England – because people weren’t educated. Or, worse, say Singlish only became tok kong when Singaporeans felt rootless and then buay tahan Speak Good England Movement. Wah piang eh! No lah!

Lucky the Grand Ah Ma of Singlish, Ms Sylvia Toh Paik Choo, had preserved for us in the 1980s some knowledge of how old Singlish used to be like. When I was a geena, her books titled Eh Goondu! and Lagi Goondu! were national bestsellers one OK. Sylvia was correct to have turned to her own childhood in the 1950s for evidence of some oral tradition. We should all do this too lah – especially if you’re a born-and-bled Singaporean. Go into your childhood. Try to recall all those gila rhymes your grandparents and parents would sing to you!

Of course, if your upbringing angmo pai one, then kua kua, kena sai lor. But, if it wasn’t, you may remember, you may remember, for example, that the term “fatty bom bom” came from one such rhyme. “Fatty bom bom” refers to an Ah Pui; “bom bom”, as the sound a heavy, wobbling body makes, dramatises fatness. Yea, not very nice, but we call others that – or hopefully used to do that – because we learnt it from Pioneer Generation one. They would chant to us when we were babies:

Fatty fatty bom bom,
Malam malam churi jagong!

Which can be loosely translated as:

Fatty fatty bom bom,
Every night go out and steal corn!

Yea, that allegation not nice either, but imagine what rubbish got into our little heads! This ditty has involved English and Malay with at least some vague cartoon logic, but then there’s a scarier one I now remember which involves English, Malay, and Hokkien and got geero (zero) sense! It goes:

Kiam chye char loti
Loti bo ho jiak
Ah Ma pang sai ho ler jiak!

A rough translation is something like this:

Salted vegetables fried with bread
Bread doesn’t taste good
So Grandma shits for you to eat.

You’re welcome to kiam chye char loti literally to heart the meaning here. When my Lao Bu sang this to me long ago, it wasn’t to educate me in England alphabet but to amuse me during mealtime. Yea. You realise how perverse that was? Would you have liked to be eating while being told that Ah Ma’s sai was always waiting for you if you not happy? Sylvia’s version of this rhyme is a bit different, with its third and last line as “Chow sek chow mati”. Hers has Cantonese thrown in, and the new line means “The moment you eat, you die.”

“Kiam chye char loti” has since become macam detached from its rhyme, and some who use it today dunno its source. Yet, interestingly, it has come to mean exactly the kind of nonsense that makes the rhyme. When someone cooks up his or her own theory or talks a lot of cock or anyhowly addresses issues or does things, we say this fella kiam chye char loti. The person – whether a CEO, a politician, a bureaucrat, or some expert – looks good only, is really half-past-six, bo substance one, as good as a chef who fries salted vegetables with bread.


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