Singlish, as it’s known worldwide, is a language influenced by a smorgasbord of languages including Malay, Tamil and Chinese dialects such as Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese. It might be hard to catch the words at first, but once you get the hang of them, they’ll roll off your tongue naturally! Here are just some of the many Singlish terms you’ll want to know.
Kiam (ki-yam): Hokkien for “salt”; usually used to refer to a stingy person.
Example: “My boss is so kiam; he said he won’t increase our salaries this year.”
Gostan (go-stun): A Malay twist on the nautical phrase “go astern”, which means to reverse or move backwards; often used as a verb.
Example: “If you gostan your car any further, you’ll hit the lamppost!”
Paiseh (pie-say): Derived from Hokkien, meaning shy, embarrassing or “to have a sense of shame”.
Example: “I think it’s really paiseh for a guy to be seen driving around in a pink car covered with Hello Kitty stickers.”
Chim (cheem): Origins are unclear, but probably Hokkien; it means intellectual or profound, sometimes also used with a condescending tone.
Example: “What is this professor talking about? He’s too chim, I don’t understand him at all!”
Goondu (goon-doo): Derived from a mix of Malay and Tamil for “nut” and “heavy”; used in a local context to suggest that a person is stupid.
Example: “Please don’t trust him with that project, he’s a goondu and will probably screw it up.”
Chiong (chee-ong): Slight variation of the Hokkien word for “hurry up”; it means to charge or to attack something.
Example: “There’s so much work to do, I’m going to have to burn the midnight oil and chiong all the way!”
Kiasu (Kia-soo): Literal translation from Hokkien to mean “afraid of losing out”; usually implies negative qualities and rude behaviour.
Example: “Look at that kiasu woman jumping the queue for the free popcorn.”
Alamak (ah-lah-mak): Possibly derived from Malay; used as an exclamation to express dismay, shock or surprise.
Example: “Alamak! I totally forgot to bring my wallet!”
Agar-agar (ah-gah ah-gah): Malay term meaning “an estimate” or “just about there”.
Example: “There are no fixed portions for this recipe; I just agar-agar.”
Buay tahan (bu-eh tah-han): Derived from Hokkien and Malay and meaning “can’t stand” or “can’t endure”; often used in dire situations or as an exaggeration.
Example: “I buay tahan the boss’s jokes already.”
Atas (ah-tas): Derived from the Malay word for “upstairs”, often used to describe someone with high standards and class.
Example: “Ben will never want to eat at that hawker centre, he’s too atas!”
Makan (mah-kahn): The Malay word for “to eat”.
Example: “I’m so hungry, let’s go makan!”
Siao (si-ow): Hokkien for “crazy” or “insane”, used most frequently as an exclamation whenever a situation has gone wrong.
Example: “Oh my god, I just saw a man jump into the Singapore River! Is he siao or what?”
Bo jio (boh-chio): A frequently used word in Singapore, especially among teens, “Bo jio” is used when someone doesn’t invite you to hang out. It can either be used as a standalone or within a sentence.
A: “I went to watch Infinity War yesterday.”
B: “Bo jio!”
Eeyer (eee-yer): Used to convey disgust or dislike towards something or simply when something you encounter is unpleasant.
Example: “Eeyer! Don’t be so gross!”
Jialat (jia-lat): Derived from Hokkien, “jialat” is used to describe a negative or disastrous situation.
Example: “My interview yesterday was damn jialat.”
Sian (see-an): Another Hokkien word that conveys boredom, tiredness or frustration towards something.
Example: “Doing work on a Saturday is so sian.”
Sia la (see-ah la): An expression that is similar to “oh my gosh”.
Example: “Sia la, I forgot to submit my document!”
Buay sai (boo-ay sai): A Hokkien phrase that means unable or incapable to do something.
A: Are you free later?
B: “Buay sai, I’m having dinner with my friends.”
Kan cheong (kan chee-ong): A Cantonese and Hokkien term meaning nervous, harried or uptight.
Example: “The deadline isn’t until next month; why so kan cheong for what?”
Kaypoh (keh-poh): Used when someone is being nosy; it works as an adjective or a verb.
Example: “Why you so kaypoh?” / “Don’t kaypoh lah.”
Aiyo (ai-yo): A multi-purpose word that can be used to express disappointment, annoyance or sympathy.
Example: “Aiyo, why did you fall down again?”
Find out more about living in Singapore!