If you are coming to Singapore and are worried about a language barrier, fret not! Singapore’s first language is English, with most, if not all, Singaporeans speaking a second language (either Mandarin, Malay or Tamil) as well. That aside, one key “language” that you do need to know when visiting which is unique to Singapore is Singlish! The most common language that Singaporeans speak, Singlish is basically English with a Singaporean twist to it.
Here are 20 of the most useful Singlish phrases that will help you when you are here in Singapore!
1. Can tompang?
“Can I tompang your <insert mode of transport>? or “Can I tompang this <item> with you?” Did you guess what it means? If you guessed that it means trying to get a lift from someone or to get someone to help you carry or hold something, then you’re right!
“Tompang” basically means to get a lift from someone or to hitch a ride with them to your destination or to get them to hold one of your items for you. Generally, we only use this phrase when we are trying to get someone to give us a free ride to somewhere, such as when we are asking family or friends to drop us at a certain place.
How to use it: “Hey, do you think I can tompang your car to the party”?
Ah, the most quintessential Singlish phrases that every true-blue Singaporean uses (and also the phrase that all of South-East Asia basically knows). While these phrases don’t have any meaning to them and they don’t actually translate to anything in English, Singaporean attach them at the end of every single sentence. We really don’t have a use for saying them la/lah, but we just like to use it lor/loh.
How to use it: “Since we have no plans, let’s go to Sentosa Island tomorrow for Universal Studios Singaore lor! I heard that there are tons of things to do there leh. Sounds quite fun la.”
In social situations, the person who did not get invited will normally say that the rest of the group “bojio” him/her for the event. Derived from a common Singaporean dialect, Hokkien, “Bojio” is made up of two words – “Bo” and “Jio”. Bo means no and Jio means invite. So putting both together, Bojio means not invited!
How to use it: “Oh my god! Why did all of you go to Sentosa and bojio me!”
To reserve a seat/table. It is most commonly used to informally reserve seats in eating areas. In Singapore, there is a habit of using tissue paper packets to reserve seats. So next time you see a tissue packet on the table, the packet is not free and it probably means the table is reserved!
How to use it: “Look! There’s a seat over there. We must faster go there and chope it!”
“Kiasu” means being scared to lose. Singaporeans have always be known to be scared of losing out, so you’ll definitely hear this term being used a lot!
“Kiasi” means scared to die. Many Singaporeans use this in everyday life, mainly jokingly, to say that someone is doing something so silly and ridiculous because they are kiasi.
How to use it: “Oh my goodness, it is only 8am now! Tickets for Ed Sheeran don’t come on sale until 12pm. Can you don’t be so kiasu!”and “See la. She is so kiasi that she has 5 locks on her door even though Singapore is so safe!”
6. Pang Seh
This means to ditch someone, normally at the last minute. Singaporeans normally use this as an informal warning to others, telling them that plans have already been made and that they definitely should not even think about not coming. It can also be used by the friend that decided not to turn up for the event by them saying “hey sorry, I’m going to have to pangseh you today!”
How to use it: “So we are definitely going to the party tomorrow right? You better don’t pang seh ah!”
7. Bao Ga Liao
This is used to describe a person who is good at everything. The person is known for being knowledgable and in group situations, is often made the leader. He will be able to take on multiple roles and complete all the tasks related to each role.
How to use it: “If Andy is in our group for this project, we’ll be getting A’s for sure! He is Mr Bao Ga Liao!”
8. Ang Moh
This term originates from Hokkien as well and translates to “red hair”. This term is used to describe Caucasians of a Western descent since they often have red coloured hair. However, many Singaporeans use this term to describe all Westerners in general.
How to use it: “Wow. I never knew that so many Ang Mohs lived and worked in Singapore!”
Originating from Hokkien (are you starting to see a trend here), this phrase has two meanings – bored and/or fed up. We can use this phrase to describe a situation that is boring or when you are tired of something. We can also use this phrase when annoyed, such as when you are stuck with a lot of homework during the holidays.
How to use it: “Wa super sian leh. Mrs A always give so much holiday homework!”
This phrase (also from the Hokkien dialect) can be used in many different situations. It is normally used to describe a situation that is very bad or a situation where nothing is going as expected.
How to use it: “Jialat already la! School starts tomorrow and I haven’t started my holiday homework!”
This term means embarrassed or sorry. This is a very common phrase that you will hear very often! People often use it after making a mistake.
How to use it: “Did you hear how I fell down yesterday while running in the rain! I was so paiseh.”
This term originates from Tamil. This term is used like an expression and doesn’t not really mean anything in particular. Most of the time, people use this term to express exasperation.
How to use it: “Aiyo mummy, you always nag me for the same thing leh.”
13. Walau/ Wah Lao/ Wah Liao/ Wah Piang
Very commonly used, this Hokkien term is often used to express shock about something. Some people translate this term to “oh my goodness” in English, which is quite fitting and the most common translation!
How to use it: “Wah Lao/Wah Liao/Wah Piang! I am trying to watch the show, can you stop asking so many questions!”
Originating from Malay, it means to come into contact with something. In Singlish, this is normally used to imply a negative situation. It is also commonly used when people are complaining about a situation.
How to use it: “Sian. After I changed jobs, I’ve kena overtime everyday for the past week already!”
This slang word comes from Malay and is used to show delight and excitement. While more frequently used to describe food, it is also used to describe feelings.
How to use it: “Have you tried the new Nasi Lemak burger from Macdonalds? It’s super shiok!”
Probably the most important word to know when you need someone to get take-away food, but you’re too lazy to do it yourself (like me most days). Tabao basically means take-away!
How to use it: “Are you going to the coffeeshop downstairs? Can you tabao some food for me?”
Makan is another common Malay term. It translates to eat and that’s really all that you need to know about it!
How to use it: “Eh guys, no need to wait for me. All of you makan first!”
18. Die Die Must Try
This phrase is all English, but with the classic Singaporean twist of taking away “non-important” words to shorten it. This is normally used to say that something is so absolutely amazing that you have to try it. Its usage is not only limited to food, but this is where the phrase is most frequently used!
How to use it: “Guys! That hokkien mee from ABC Avenue is so shiok. You die die must try!”
In Singapore, most people love our coffeeshop kopi and teh instead of “high-class” places such as Starbucks or Coffee Bean. Did you guess that kopi means coffee and teh means tea yet? There are many variations to these two terms which can result in completely different drinks being served to you! For instance, Kopi Peng means cold coffee and kopi siu dai means coffee with less sugar.
How to use it: “Aunty, one Kopi/Teh please!”
20. Zhup Cai Png
This to me, is THE quintessential food in Singapore. Go to any coffee shop and there will always be a huge store in the corner, with shelves and shelves of vegetables and meats to choose from. It’s like buffet heaven. This is called the Zhup Cai Png stall, or Mixed Vegetables, which is what Zhup Cai means. If you’re looking for variety in a single meal, this is the must-visit stall.
How to use it: “I love to eat from the Zhup Cai Png stall at DEF Street! There’s always so much variety.”
And there we have it! 20 very essential Singlish phrases that will make your trip to Singapore 100 times easier! If you are still worried about travelling to our sunny island, check out the trails on our website for ideas and pre-planned itineraries for things to do all over Singapore!