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The changing perceptions of Singlish in Singapore, from being targeted by politicians to celebrated at Taylor Swift's The Eras Tour

Author Gwee Li Sui and linguistics associate professor Tan Ying Ying share their thoughts on how Singlish has evolved and has been 'commodified' to market the country.

People walking the streets of Singapore's Central Business District (left) and some commonly used words in Singlish
People walking the streets of Singapore's Central Business District (left) and some commonly used words in Singlish (Photos: Getty Images)

SINGAPORE — When Taylor Swift's dancer, Kameron Saunders, used Singlish words across six nights of The Eras Tour concerts in Singapore, it felt like another milestone for the country's colloquial version of the English language. Words such as 'no lah' and 'abuden' were met with positive responses from concert attendees and netizens.

Singlish's prominence these days seems a far cry from the times when the Singapore government had called for the eradication of Singlish in favour of standard English with its 'Speak Good English' campaign of the 90s and early 00s.

Then prime minister Goh Chok Tong singled out popular Singaporean sitcom, Phua Chu Kang, for its liberal use of Singlish in his 1999 National Day Rally speech. In response, the Television Corporation of Singapore (now Mediacorp) announced it would tone down the use of Singlish in its programmes, and that the titular character would speak better English.

A year after the Speak Good English Movement (SGEM) was launched in April 2000, then deputy prime minister Lee Hsien Loong made a speech on the importance of "getting Singaporeans to speak good standard English rather than Singlish".

Things seemed to change in the 2010s, with the rise of social media and creators who did not have their content dictated by expectation of perfect English.

Singlish even made its mark internationally after it was used in 2018's Hollywood blockbuster film Crazy Rich Asians. Some cast members even wanted to speak more Singlish. 

But have perceptions on this uniquely Singaporean version of English really changed?

Yahoo Southeast Asia spoke with Singaporean writer Gwee Li Sui, who writes and translates books in Singlish, and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Linguistics and Multilingual Studies associate professor Tan Ying Ying, to find out more about the evolution of Singlish and its relevance today.

Some say leh, some say lah

On average, Gwee has noticed more people using Singlish unconsciously in daily speech.

"I think these days when people speak English, they don't know when they slip into Singlish. They think they are speaking English, but they are not," he said.

A 2024 survey conducted by American online language learning platform, Preply, found that 95% of people in Singapore use Singlish slang "in some capacity". Half of the 1,500 Singaporeans surveyed said they prefer using Singlish to Gen Z slang.

Reflecting on his younger days, Gwee remembered a time when Singaporeans were more aware of the differences between speaking English and Singlish.

Some common misunderstandings about Singlish is that it is a mix of English and Mandarin, or English and Hokkien, he said.

According to Gwee, a certain group of people still believe that Singlish is "just a couple of words" you sprinkle into English and Mandarin. However, Singlish as a linguistic entity is more than just words. It includes grammatical structure, syntax, intonation and accent, he said.

Additionally, Gwee observed that individuals who dislike Singlish often propagate the idea that it is associated with lower social class and education levels.

"It's not necessarily true that well-to-do people speak good English, or have a higher standard of English, and therefore perceive that Singlish is bad," he said.

People walking on the streets of Singapore's Central Business District (Photo: Getty Images)
People walking on the streets of Singapore's Central Business District (Photo: Getty Images)

Meanwhile, Tan feels that general sentiments towards Singlish is "a lot more positive" now.

While old time scholars previously correlated use of Singlish with groups of lower socioeconomic status, Tan finds it to be "very flawed" and "outdated". To her, the use of Singlish is contextual.

"I think it boils down to what people think they can use Singlish for. So whether you're rich or poor, educated or not educated, it boils down to choice," said Tan.

According to Tan, Singaporeans speak differently in varied social contexts. Singlish is used in more casual, friendly, and familiar social settings.

"We need to build a relationship to a point that I feel I can be comfortable speaking Singlish with you. The more familiar I am, the more likely I'm going to switch to Singlish," she said.

Preply's survey found that Singlish slang is most commonly used in casual settings like speaking with friends or family. 65 per cent of respondents think slang is most appropriately used at home, and 61 per cent use it to connect with their children.

'Commodification' of colloquial language

Speaking on the use of Singlish by the government and businesses, Tan pointed out that Singlish is now "commodified" and "used as a product to sell Singapore".

A recent example was the viral 'Get your shot, Steady Pom Pi Pi' COVID-19 vaccination music video in 2021. The song was a public service announcement that featured popular local television character, Phua Chu Kang. Yes, the same Phua Chu Kang (played by veteran actor and comedian Gurmit Singh) PM Goh had criticised in his NDR speech in 1999.

It used numerous Singlish words and expressions like 'sabo' and 'your mother never teach you ah?', and was even picked up by British newspaper The Guardian and American news channel CNN.

Tan also recalls Jewel Changi Airport selling merchandise with Singlish words. Local retailer Naiise, which closed its last store in Jewel in 2021, still sells products with Singlish words online. Examples include cushion covers and tote bags with Singlish words like 'can lah' and 'so shiok'.

"It becomes such that you can take Singlish as something Singaporean, say it is quaint and cute, and sell it as a uniquely Singaporean thing," she said.

Tan thinks the government has a "love-hate relationship" with Singlish, but is not actively trying to get rid of it. The focus has shifted to getting people to learn English better, as opposed to avoiding the use of Singlish, she said.

She cited examples such as the videos posted on Speak Good English Movement's Youtube channel, saying that the movement seems to be "more relaxed" now.

Singlish got change meh?

According to Gwee and Tan, Singlish has evolved over the years.

"In every generation, people will invent words and create ways of speech. Some words will disappear and come back again. It changes according to the dynamics of the population," said Gwee.

One example is 'stylo milo', which according to him, disappeared in the 2000s and is now back in fashion, incidentally used to describe someone, or something, who is stylish and fashionable.

He also pointed out that the Singlish used in books by Singapore author Rex Shelley in the 1990s and Sylvia Toh in the 1980s is different from Singlish today.

Toh's books, such as 'Eh Goondu!' published in 1982, had more Malay words that are not part of Singlish today.

"Until Singapore became a first world country, Singlish had really been about the languages we speak traditionally," he said.

According to Tan, Singlish from 50 to 55 years ago had more Malay or Hokkien references, as both were more dominant and influential languages.

Singlish terms used by her parents and grandparents such as 'Sam Seng', a Hokkien and Teochew word meaning a 'gangster worse than an ah beng', had fallen out of use since the 1980s and 90s.

Meanwhile, the Hokkien term 'chio' used to only refer to a woman. These days, it can be used on both genders, or to describe items like a bag, said Tan.

Some new Singlish slang she has heard from her students include 'yp (young punk)' and 'xmm (xiao mei mei)', substitutes of 'ah beng' and 'ah lian'. Another new entry is 'rabs kebabs', which stems from the Malay word rabak, meaning 'out of control'.

She quoted an incident where a student had described Tan to look a bit 'chui'. Unsure if it was a compliment or not, she later learnt that the term had evolved to mean looking worn out and tired, and not lousy or ugly.

Tourist passengers in Singapore's public MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) train service (Photo: Getty Images)
Tourist passengers in Singapore's public MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) train service (Photo: Getty Images)

Next time how? Tagalog and Thai becoming a part of Singlish?

When people ask Tan if Singlish and dialects might disappear, Tan responds with a definitive "yes".

As the nation evolves into a more English-speaking society with an increasing number of foreigners, she predicts Singlish will be very different 50 years down the road.

"The evolution of Singlish depends on the ecology of languages you have around you," she said.

Meanwhile, Gwee predicts people will fight over words that should not be used in Singlish, especially those that might be insulting to different cultures.

"As Singlish develops, it will involve thinking about what you're saying, and what you want in the language. That cannot be decided by one or two people, the whole awareness will develop within the language itself."

Nowadays, he hears Tagalog and Thai spoken on trains, and believes they might become a part of Singlish as well.

'Paiseh' to use Singlish or not?

"I think you can be proud of Singlish, as you can be proud of your own baby. If anything, Singlish needs protection," said Gwee.

To him, Singlish is "quite special". Most creole languages blend native and colonial languages to create "something in the middle". In the case of Singlish, it has many languages.

Meanwhile, Tan thinks Singlish is beautiful because it is "very creative".

"If people take a very jovial attitude and think about it as a language of fun, play, intimacy, building rapport, and solidarity, then what's there to be ashamed of? It's just a language of friendship."

Singlish has also helped locals feel a sense of national identity, said Tan.

"You can identify another Singaporean by the correct use of Singlish. It has become a symbol of trying to connect people, especially Singaporeans."

For Singlish newbies, Tan recommends starting with 'can', because of how easy it is to use. She also suggests against using 'leh, lah, lor' as grasping the right context for those terms is hard.

"Doing the grammar of Singlish is one of the hardest things. My suggestion will be to talk to Singaporeans more, and see if they are willing to teach you."

Table on most popular Singlish words in Singapore in 2024 by Preply
Table on most popular Singlish words in Singapore in 2024 by Preply (Photo: Preply)

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