Singapore is the only country with an ethnic Chinese majority not to use Chinese as its main language of education and business. English enjoys that role – but here it’s often upstaged by the entertaining, though often baffling, Singlish, a mash-up of English together with the grammatical patterns and vocabulary of Chinese and Malay. Pronunciation is staccato, with final consonants often dropped, so “cheque book” would be rendered “che-boo”. In two-syllable words the second syllable is lengthened and stressed by a rise in pitch: ask a Singaporean what they’ve been doing, and you could be told “slee-PING”.
Conventional English syntax is twisted and wrung, and tenses and pronouns discarded. If you ask a Singaporean if they’ve ever seen a Harry Potter film, you might be answered “I ever see”, while enquiring whether they want to go out to buy something might yield “Go, come back already”. Responses are almost invariably reduced to their bare bones, with words often repeated for stress; request something in a shop and you’ll hear “have, have”, or “got, got”.
Exclamations drawn from Malay and Hokkien Chinese complete this pidgin, the most ubiquitous being the Malay suffix “lah”, used to add emphasis to replies, as in: “Do you think we’ll get in for free?” “Cannot lah!” If Singlish has you totally confused, try raising your eyes to the heavens and crying “ay yor” (with a drop of tone on “yor”) – an expression of annoyance or exasperation.
Although these linguistic quirks often amuse foreigners and locals alike, there is much official hand-wringing that poor English could compromise Singapore’s ability to do business globally, so much so that a government-backed Speak Good English movement has been set up to try to shore up standards.