Letters from the Dragonlands: Singlish Damn Good Walao!

Opinion by Aysha Kureishi
July 14, 2011, 12:31 a.m.

Letters from the Dragonlands: Singlish Damn Good Walao!“Hi, I’d like a coffee, please.”

“Si mi?”


Kopi mah?”


Kopi-O can?”

“What is kopi-O?”

Kopi-O! Ger, wai so gabra lah? Kopi-O kopi no milk!”

“Oh! Yes, that’s fine.”

“So kopi-kosong den.”


In a country where English is one of four official languages, spoken by 80 percent of the population, I find I still need a dictionary in Singapore. The conversation above is one I recently had while trying to buy a coffee from a local kopitiam (coffee shop). After a few more exchanges like this, I finally understood what the sweet, old Chinese lady behind the counter was asking me. “Si mi” was actually a simple “what?” “Kopi” means coffee. “Kopi-O” is coffee with no milk, and “kopi-kosong” is plain coffee. It took me a while to figure out “Ger, wai so gabra lah?” and when I did, I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony. The lady was asking me “girl, why are you so confused?” To be honest, I’m still confused. Because I was speaking English. And so was she. So why couldn’t we understand each other?

In Singapore, there are actually two different types of English: “proper” English, and what’s called “Singlish” (Singapore + English = Singlish). Although the government highly discourages Singlish, it is still widely spoken because, in general, even for a modern, effective and efficient government like Singapore’s, it’s pretty difficult to effectively discourage a primary method of communication. In that kopitiam, I spoke “proper” English. The lady was speaking “Singlish.”

Singlish is not held in high regard in Singapore. It’s often taken as a sign of low social standing and low prestige. But at the same time, it’s something that Singaporeans can’t help but hold dear to their hearts. Locals will excitedly ask me if I can speak Singlish and be disappointed when I admit I cannot. Singlish is often the central comic theme of local TV shows, and Singaporeans themselves will make fun of the language. But at the same time, the two versions of English don’t only act as a language barrier, but also as a social one. Someone who can speak Standard English is higher up on the social and business ladder than someone who speaks Singlish, which is viewed as a patchy language used by those who can’t communicate in the “high-class” language, English. This made me think — why in the world in the year 2011 is one language in a highly advanced country considered better than another? And then the answer hit me like a running jibra. It’s simply because the language of a land reflects its culture.

Singapore was under British rule for 146 years (between 1819 and 1965). According to Frantz Fanon, a psychiatrist and revolutionary 20th-century writer, the relationship between the colonizers of a nation and those being colonized is one of veneration, hate and envy. Fanon argues that the colonizers portray themselves as higher class, so at the same time, the colonized hate and envy the colonizers. The colonized hate that they have been pushed down to second-class citizens in their own land but, at the same time, strive to climb up in society in the quickest way possible. Fanon theorized that the way to climb the societal ladder would be to adopt the habits and practices of the “higher” class. In the case of Singapore, that meant imitating the colonizers, including learning “proper” English. Even today this mentality continues, both consciously and subconsciously.

Other Asian languages also reflect their respective cultures. In Vietnam, where bike thievery is rampant, there is no Vietnamese word for “stolen.” Instead, if you wish to report a stolen bike to the authorities, you are obliged to humbly explain (to save your own face and the face of your fellow citizen who happened to steal your bike) that “my bike is missing.” On the other hand, in Urdu (a language spoken in Pakistan and India), there is no word for a neutral “missing.” If something is actually missing, it’s either your own fault for losing it or someone else has stolen it. Combine this with the Asian idea of saving face, and it just so happens that everyone is stealing everything from everyone else. Or so it would seem.

Singapore, a mish-mash of different cultures, has its own unique language that reflects that cultural diversity – a mish-mash language of so much more than just Hokkien, Malay, Bhasa, Cantonese and Tamil roots. To pick one Asian language and stick with it would be a slur on the Singaporean prestige: an island nation in the middle of the South China Sea completely unlike its neighbors speaking primarily the language of another nation would indicate association with that nation. So, to get around this issue, Singapore chose to have four official languages: Standard English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil. Consequently, Singapore hasn’t identified with one single country or culture. But, through language, it identifies with many.

Language doesn’t only allow us to communicate — it also expresses culture. But then what about the issue when multiple cultures speak the same language? The Spanish word “agarrar” means “to hold” in Spain, but if you “agarrar”-ed someone last night in Mexico, it means something much more intimate. In Spain, you can “coger” (catch/take) a bus, but you for sure don’t want to “coger” a bus in Mexico or Latin America, because that actually means to f— a bus. In the U.S., Americans think “loo” is a girl’s name, and the British are confused why it’s called a “bathroom” if there’s no bath in it! The British know that a line is an object in two-dimensional space, and the Americans know that a “queue” is the 17th letter of the alphabet. We call it “English,” but in reality, there are so many different types of English — American, British, Australian, Canadian and all the different incomprehensible semi-dialects of the U.K.

In today’s day and age, it’s extremely important to be able to communicate in more than one distinct language. Languages don’t only determine geographical borders but also social borders. Being multi-lingual is one of the strongest forces breaking down these borders and walls and one of the most important steps to understanding different cultures. Languages are the most powerful tools we have to build civilizations, the most influential means to bring cultures and empires together. To know a language is to know the history of a people and to better understand the human psyche.

The Stanford second-language requirement isn’t so bad after all.

Aysha is always looking to learn new languages. Teach her another one at ayshak ‘at’ stanford.edu.


Hi I'm Aysha Kureishi. I'm a freelancer. I love writing and sharing my experience around internet. Right now I'm working at https://thejediverse.com

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