By Gwee Li Sui
Two days before Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong called for the General Election on 23 June, his brother Hsien Yang put up a cryptic photo on Facebook. It showed a quilt with scenes taken from the ancient Indian epic Ramayana. This post, titled “Wayang”, was promptly shared by their sister Wei Ling, fuelling wild speculation about its meaning.
With hindsight, many now believe that the reference was to the great drama of the upcoming elections. I honestly cannot tell whether that is the case. Wayang is a form of puppet theatre originally from Indonesia, with the Ramayana as a favourite source material. But what “wayang” means in Singlish I have explained elsewhere – and this places Singlish right at the start to a season of canvassing.
The Yahoo TV team and I made a video late last year in anticipation of such a time to remind everyone to comment responsibly. But we also wish to celebrate this period when Singlish will surely go on spectacular display. In fact, several Singlish words and phrases owe their popularity to political actors, and I’d like to revisit a few from our video with you.
Consider “kichiew”, which ordinarily means hands up in Hokkien. The word wouldn’t have entered the Singlish lexicon if not for its surprising use by the People Action Party’s 4G leader Chan Chun Sing in his first major speech in 2011. (I wonder whether Chan’s recent leaked remarks should be considered his second major speech, but that is still very much up for debate.)
Chan had asked by a show of hands who in his audience thought Singapore would survive another five years. With a military man’s confidence, he shouted “Kichiew!” and then proceeded to increase the number of years, weaving in more Singlish. No one who now innocently says “kichiew” is ignorant of it being also an appellation for Chan.
“Chut pattern” means to engage in antics. “Pattern” in Singlish points to predictably sly acts – and I have also spoken about this before. There is broad day-to-day application for “chut pattern”, but its most famous use is in a Mandarin rally speech given by the PAP’s Sim Ann during the General Election of 2015.
Taking potshots at Chee Soon Juan, who led the rival Singapore Democratic Party team, Sim had asserted how Chee loved to “chut pattern”. She said that, if Chee should consider himself second in the art, no one would dare to claim first place. Of course, Sim’s brilliance here is in how her own sardonic attack “chut pattern”, and no one who heard her then was in any doubt about it.
Si Gui Kia
Once, it was enough to call a rascal or troublemaker “si geena”, or accursed kid, while “loving critic” may well become popular. But still in circulation is “si gui kia” as introduced by PAP’s Lee Bee Wah aka Sister Flower last year. I translate “si gui kia” as ungrateful little devil, though the sense should be closer to a toyol of regional folklore.
During the parliamentary debate over Budget 2019, Lee told a gem of a story in Mandarin. A boy called Ah Seng was so loved by his Ah Kong that the latter scrimped and saved to give him money at every stage of his life. But ungrateful Ah Seng demanded more regular money, infuriating Ah Kong who called him a “si gui kia” bringing ruin to the family.
Tak Boleh Tahan
The Malay phrase “tak boleh tahan” means to be unable to tolerate anymore. The SDP politicised it in 2008 by featuring it in a protest campaign over the escalating cost of living. Chee Soon Juan and others wore red T-shirts with these words in white to demonstrate outside Parliament House. Following their arrest for unlawful assembly, “tak boleh tahan” has never sounded the same again.
A “blur sotong” is a clueless person. Its most notable recent use was by Ho Ching, wife of PM Lee, who, in 2016, registered her displeasure over the entry of “Chinese helicopter”, another Singlish term, into the Oxford English Dictionary. A Chinese helicopter is one with formal Chinese education. Comparing it to “blur sotong”, she argued that the former was obsolete today while the latter remained very much current.
A “suaku” means a mountain turtle and refers to a country bumpkin in Singlish. PM Lee memorably used it in a shocking (albeit effective) way on his then Manpower Minister, Lim Swee Say. In his National Day Rally speech of 2017, Lee recounted an occasion when Lim queued to buy chestnuts at a roadside stall in Shanghai.
Lim saw people waving their mobile phones without paying cash and thought that there was some special offer redeemable via phones. Learning that they were, in fact, using WeChat Pay, Lim felt “suaku”. PM Lee used this incident to push home his point that Singapore was lagging behind other major cities in its take-up of technology-enabled solutions.
Upturn the Downturn
During his tenure as labour chief, Lim Swee Say coined many a catchy (some say corny) slogan. “Upturn the downturn”, meaning to improve a crisis, was one of them. Lim invented it during the global financial crisis of 2008 to rally unions and employers and memorably sold it through a karaoke song.
Lim basically arrowed a bunch of folks – including the newest Manpower Minister Josephine Teo – to sing with him at an NTUC event. To the tune of a popular Hokkien song, they belted: “In this downturn, workers may feel sad / When its upturn, we will all be glad.” The song ended with “We are pro-workers, oi oi / We are pro-business, oi oi / Upturn the downturn!” The singing cannot make it, but the idiom made Singlish history.
“Jalan-jalan” means to take a stroll. It is hands down PM Lee’s favourite Singlish word, and I have lost count of the number of times he’s said it. He casually talks about his evening “jalan-jalan” with Ho Ching on social media. In Paris and Davos, he mentioned taking time to go “jalan-jalan”. When then-Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull came a-visiting in 2017, he taught him the word.
Even Singapore’s relationship with its big neighbours Malaysia and Indonesia was described in terms of eating durians and going “jalan-jalan” together. Just this year, in an attempt to explain the circuit breaker to anxious Singaporeans, he said that it was “not a month-long holiday when we can go out for jalan-jalan or to meet up with friends”.
Ownself Check Ownself
The powerful, self-explanatory phrase “ownself check ownself” was popularised by Workers’ Party chief Pritam Singh in a rally speech in the last General Election. Its sense is to tell someone to wake up his or her idea and not to get complacent. The original context involved a remark by Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong that Parliament didn’t need more opposition members since the PAP was its own checks and balances. Singh cried, “Is this the future we want for Singapore or our children in the next fifty years? Ownself check ownself?”
Mee Siam Mai Hum
Finally, the big one with a really long backstory! We must start with once-WP candidate James Gomez who, in 2006, took issue with the Elections Department for allegedly losing his minority-race candidate's application form. CCTV footage eventually showed him to have, in fact, put the form back in his bag and left without submitting it.
But the farce lasted long enough for blogger Lee Kin Mun aka mrbrown to spoof it in a podcast episode. mrbrown portrayed it as a silly argument between a bak chor mee seller and his customer, drawing widespread delight. It caught the ear of PM Lee who, in that year’s National Day Rally speech, warned against mocking the serious business of politics.
Lee apparently said, “You put out a funny podcast. You talk about bak chor mee. I will say mee siam mai hum.” But many who tuned in to national TV that evening were confounded, if not amused, since mee siam, as we know, doesn’t have cockles, or “hum”! The faux pas would quickly become a Singlish idiom for finding oneself in an embarrassing situation.
To be sure, the initial defence was to say that Lee had meant “hiam” or chilli, and that sounded plausible. But, if you go to the official records in text or video now, you will find no such lines – trust me, I checked! This moment never existed. So were we all dreaming? Yet I remember well being puzzled and tickled and parroting it for weeks. The phrase has even become a book title.
Perhaps our best response should come from the same speech. On the Internet, Lee had advised that we “learn and practise new habits” such as being sceptical, “Don’t believe every thing you see, not every thing which is published is true.” That works well as my caveat for this article too.
Gwee Li Sui is a poet, a graphic artist, and a literary critic. His published works include the graphic novel “Myth of the Stone”; six poetry books, the latest being “Death Wish”; and non-fiction titles such as “Spiaking Singlish: A Companion to How Singaporeans Communicate”.
Gwee has also edited several acclaimed literary anthologies and written and lectured on a range of subjects. But he is perhaps most known for his infectious love of Singlish, contributing to Yahoo TV’s own Singlish video series.