To lah or not lah, that is the question

Posted on Sat 07 Jul 2012 @ 5.47pm UTC

Updated 07 July 2012 (correcting ‘parallel’ in ledegraf)

THE FOLLOWING is the latest addition to the Glossary page.

* * *

SINGLISH — or more pretentiously, Colloquial Singaporean English — is a brand of super-retardednon-language form of the English language spoken by those who reside in that rat-raced cosmo city-state located on 1° parallel north of the Equator at the 103rd parallel meridian east.

Clearly the equatorial sun has got to them. Pragmatically, the rest of us could simply regard Singlish as a form of chronic heatstroke.

Singaporeans of all ethnicity are very proud and psychotically defensive of this much curtimpatientstaccato-sounding English-based creole language. It’s like Ebonics (or even e-bonicsqv) for this bunch of Southeast Asians.

Singlish is in the same boat with creoles such as Jamaican Patois, Belizean Kriol (of former British Honduras), Miskito Coast Creole (Nicaragua), Sranan Tongo (Suriname), Hawaiian Pidgin, the creoles of the Caribbean, and a couple of others elsewhere.

In reality, the average Singaporean is no way ignorant of Standard English. Indeed, many are more than capable of speaking or writing in Standard English when the need arises, such as in formal communication or in business meetings — or being the unhappy subject of a court hearing.



As a variety or dialect of English, frankly it isn’t one.

In a nutshell, it’s a tiny spoken subset of essentially British English (see Glossary) with its own distinctive, non-English grammar. Its vocabulary is warped by loanwords and discourse particles (‘fillers’ such as welly’knowlike) originating from English, Malay, Chinese (Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese), Tamil, Indonesian, Indian and Arabic, among others — plus the obligatory American and Aussie slang imported through TV and movies.

As a colloquial dialect, Singlish is similar to Manglish, the colloquial dialect in neighbouring Malaysia. Like all colloquial dialects, Singlish is intimidating to those who are unfamiliar with this form of dialogue.

Those who aren’t intimidated simply regard it as a form of monologue.


In many respects, Singlish isn’t in the same sordid dungeon-class as Hong Kong English (‘Honglish’), which Singlish is often (but mistakenly) compared along with. Whereas Honglish is just illiterate English, Singlish at least can boast a true national identity and multilingual heritage. It’s a helluva lot more entertaining than Honglish to listen to, too.

Normal English-speaking countries have true dialects; places like Singapore and Hong Kong have sociolects, resulting from differential use of English based on differential schooling regimes built around class and racial profiling.

Both Singlish and Hong Kong’s English/Mandarin/Cantonese/regional dialect phenomenon face what linguists and educationists unnervingly termed diglossia — a split between a ‘high’ formal language and a ‘low’ informal language.

Those experts fail to see they themselves have largely been responsible for causing or reinforcing diglossia by recommending that schoolchildren should be funnelled into fixed subject streams at an early age within a high-pressure, goose-stepping, exam-geared, force-fed schooling regime.

The experts compound the diglossia problem by reinforcing the high-low/correct-incorrect use of English by undertaking hands-on editorial work themselves on English-language textbooks (instead of letting professional book editors handle things properly). The net amortised effort of that irresponsibility is a steady piss-stream of badly edited, unmarketable books to be used by innocent schoolchildren taught by teachers reared on a diet of misguided teaching principles built around fixed subject streams, rote learning and lucrative yearly replacements of textbooks by publishers ‘winning’ their deals in invitation-only ‘public’ tenders organised by the education authorities.

In the end, students don’t know which way is up and resign themselves to living with two parallel ‘language universes’ to deal with life inside and outside of school, and the effect carries over into working life.

Not to be too blunt, the quintessential linguist in some of us are also bat-blind to the fact that by even recognising or analysing the ‘inner technology’ of Singlish (or any other English creole) as a patois (non-standard or substandard form) of English, that very fact helps to reinforce the continued existence of that creole. It’s just another way of celebrating mediocrity.

We don’t see this happening in the francophone and hispanophone worlds — bad French is bad everywhere, bad Spanish is bad anywhere. Know your shit, or know you’re shit.



In keeping with the general habit of most Asians speaking in English, Singlish is syllable-timed, meaning that all syllables are pronounced with equal duration as if the English words were Asian words. In most traditional varieties of English, syllables are pronounced stress-timed. Therefore the Singlish speaker (or any Asian person who isn’t a native English speaker for that matter) appears retarded because of his staccato’d (or even staccatissimo’d) speech.

Staccato sounds like this: [click here]

Contrary to popular belief, native and non-native Singlish speakers are not retarded. It is just an articulated form of the artificially indigenised ‘indigenous culture’ of Singapore expressed through incoherent and retarded speech.

John: Is that guy retarded? What the hell is he talking about?

Bill: Well, he probably is retarded but he’s speaking Singlish, I think.

Basically, it is English used by a tiny Asian nation nobody cares in such a way that it sounds so Asian that you don’t understand it — even though the people there are much, much smarter than you or me.

Since, however, these people are apparently smarter than the rest of us but have somehow ended up with this retarded abortion of a language, might it not be a case of the classic smart person’s mistake (to think everybody else isn’t as smart as oneself)?


Dun talk cock lah you.
(‘Talk cock’ means to spew nonsense from one’s mouth or to utter ridiculous contentions.)

Give way. (‘Short’ form of ‘excuse me.’)

You damn bad lah think what. (You’re very bad to think like that.)

So big ah?

What lah — [insert here a bunch of made-up words that make you go ‘WTF’] — mee siam.


The quality of Singlish exists as a continuum:—

This person’s Singlish is very good. (Standard English)

Dis guy Singlish damn good eh. (Mixture of Standard English and Singlish)

Dis guy Singrish si beh zai sia. (‘Singlish’ as commonly recognised)

The early booster is another recognisable characteristic of Singlish — the start of an utterance or sentence is said in a higher pitch:—

THINK they are quite nice and interesting magazines.



In short, the grammar of Singlish boils down to nine points:—

  1. Topic-prominent/driven (just like Chinese and Japanese): an utterance begins with the topic (or known reference point of the conversation), followed by a comment or new information: Tomorrow dun need to bring camera (you don’t need to bring the camera tomorrow)
  2. Chinese-style questions (i.e. A-not-A: or not): this book you want or not? (do you want this book?)
  3. Optional noun pluralityfive car pass through today
  4. Optional definite/indefinite articlesI can play piano
  5. Verb to be drops out in passivesshe punished
  6. Verb to be drops out in adjectives/adjectival phrasesI damn naughty
  7. Verb to be drops outs more after nouns and pronouns itwe and they (but not Ihe and she)
  8. Optional past tense markinghe talk so long, never stop, I ask him also never
  9. Avoiding the use of past tense for someone who is still alive: he speak English to her yesterday (he spoke/was speaking)


Mesmerise yourself with this long list of Singlish words: [click here]

  • Lah is the most famous and universally occurring example. Lah is often added in the final/terminal position of sentences for no apparent reason:—

Ken you help me wit fix car lah?

Yah lah! / No lah!

You wan go die lah?!

Why kennot get A-prus in skool no lah?

  • Leh is an informal way of saying please in the context of making a complaint or of general bitching:—

Gimme soy sauce leh.

Las night, I driving on P.I.E. and dis lorry driver near crash me leh!

Wai you say 6÷2 (1+2) = 1 mah? You so stupid leh.

How come I ask you call me, wai you not call me leh?

  • Lor (from Cantonese) is used to emphasise a point:—

You not study, then you go die lor!

  • Meh (not to be confused with the americanism ‘meh’) is used like a question mark:—

Really meh?! You got fired from job?

  • Sia or siao is used for expressing disapprovalSiao is the cruder form and carries connotations of ‘crazy’:—

Dat lady look at me so crazy sia.

Waah! You get new Toyota sia!

Siao lah! You go and die you kenna sai!

  • Izzit denotes is it (or sometimes does it) but slurred in speech. It is not to be confused with the East London Cockney innit (for isn’t itIs it implies the speaker is simply confirming something he has already inferred:—

Dis disc, play well izzit?

They never study, izzit? (Implying ‘no wonder they failed’)

  • Got is used in a question as a demand:—

I ask you to get me the stuff — got or not lah?

Why you got chewing gum?! Chewing gum ban in Singapore!

50% off? Where got!!?!

  • Can is used in asking whether one is able to do something:—

Yah, I fix by tomorrow, can, can!

  • -ed is the past tense ending that allows any word to be made into a verb in Singlish:—

The cat dieded when hit by car. (Died, was dead, was killed)

Wah! Las night he try kis da girl, I saw him get smackeded. (Pronounced ‘smakd-id’)

He orredy writed da check! Go bank cash now!

  • Never is often used in the sense of didn’t (rather than the normal English meaning):—

How come today you never hand in homework? (Didn’t)



Singaporeans themselves claim Singlish is commonly regarded with low prestige in Singapore, but everybody there uses it in daily life. It isn’t used in formal communication. Most Singaporeans born after the 1950s can handle Standard English, and nearly all born post-1970s are proficient enough in Standard English.

Indeed, most reasonably educated Singaporeans speak better English (Standard or otherwise) than the educated classes in Hong Kong, Taiwan, China and many other Asian countries (with the probable exception of the Philippines).


The Singapore government frowns upon Singlish and heavily discourages its use in any situation, as do many upper-class or highly educated Singaporeans.

The official position of the government is that Singlish “hinders the proper understanding of Standard English,” which it views as a handicapping factor to its economic development.

The authorities also maintain that all Singaporeans should be able to speak Standard English, so Singlish is heavily discouraged in schools and in the media. The problem is that teachers are themselves inevitably comfortable with Singlish. Using Singlish is also unavoidable when interacting with peers and family members (especially elders).

To emphasise the point about discouraging a Singlish-speaking habit, the authorities launched the annual Speak Good English Movement in 2000.


Meanwhile, the powers-that-be flies off its handle and came up with another standard — Singapore Standard English (SSE), a.k.a. the pretentiously named Educated Singapore English.

Grammatically the SSE resembles Standard British English almost to a ‘t’ — the Singaporean variations being only in accent and a few Singapore-specific words.

That’s why the SSE is brain-damagingly pointless.

When you’re a Singaporean speaking English (Standard or otherwise) in Singapore, your English is bound to have a Singaporean accent and contain some local words.

I don’t know if the government there realises this or not, but when you’re trying hard to promote Standard English to the population, it’s a wee counterproductive to bring out a simultaneous standard (the SSE). That just neutralises your effort for Standard English.

And if the SSE resembles Standard British English that much, then you might as well just go for British English altogether and forget Speak Good English Movement — try “Speak Real English Movement” instead.

Ultimately, if you can see through it, this business with the SSE is less to do with promoting a high standard of English than it is really about promoting a Singaporean identity (and an ‘educated’ one at that).

The prime minister there said as much (Jeremy Au Young, ‘Singlish? Don’t make it part of S’pore identity: PM,’ The Straits Times, 22 Sept 2007).

Yet none of the Singaporeans I’ve ever known or met (including my remaining relatives there) appears to be in any burning or even unpassionate need of national identity shoehorning.

The steps taken by the government would have come to something, if only it knew what it was on about in the first place.

Prime minister of Singapore, addressing the nation: I”ve had enough of this popcockery!* Singlish must go … now!

Singaporeans: Awww, buggermaquilt.**

See what I mean.

* He meant to say poppycock.
** Aw, buggermaquilt is a phrase used if something bad in life happens.



Recognition is one thing; being stupid enough to eat up any old tosh fed to you on a platter is quite another:—

A UK thinktank “focused on power and politics” called Demos (charity no. 1042046; unrelated to the US thinktank of the same name) recommends the UK embrace ‘modern’ Englishes because, far from being corruptions of English, new versions of the language (like Chinglish and Singlish) have values…

“that the British need to learn to accommodate and relate to”

(Liz Ford, ‘UK must embrace ‘modern’ English, report warns,’ The Guardian (London), 15 March 2007 | Link)

That’s just plain codswollop.

Chinglish uses outlook to mean outward appearance. Are you ever going to use that?

Are you going to adopt the Singlish dis prime minister si bei zai sia eh?


© Learn English or Starve, 2012.

Images: Singapore Is A Fine City via myfizwan | Voice Volume via virtualtourist.

Posted in: Colour Section