In the spirit of spreading the wonders of Singaporean colloquialisms and other local flavours to the world, here is a glossary of local terms and phrases used in the site that may help you better understand what the hell I’m talking about. Although this may not be an original idea, hopefully it will still be useful for those who would endorse it.
Note: I will update this as I go along in the blog, and I may cross link the references for easier tracking, so it won’t be too hard for you to know when this page is updated.
4D: (noun) a national pastime created by the Singapore Pools, a government-run lottery system made popular by its ease of application of choosing 4 numbers and various highly evolved systems of permutating the selected numbers available for purchase in packages. 4D draws are held thrice a week, in which kopitiams all over Singapore will tune to a Mandarin radio station for their stall operators, customers and the general public to listen to the results in anticipation of hearing their winning numbers announced in islandwide surround sound.
ah beng: (noun) a derogatory term derived from overly used Mandarin names in the 70’s and 80’s that contain the word ming (明, meaning bright or clear). Used to describe wayward Singaporean teenage boys (though sometimes they live up to their moniker beyond the age of 30), typically with dyed hair spiked with generous amounts of cheap hair gel, garishly coloured shirts with indeterminate design origins, tight jeans or pants with one leg rolled up to below the knee, tattoos, and in some cases, highly modded cars with lots of stickers on them. They have a tendency to travel in packs of 3 or more, and usually have no qualms with spewing profanities and fighting like schoolchildren who have been to the gym when they are unhappy. Also known as ah seng, sum seng, sum seng kia, chao piao kia, bo tak cheh or see ghin na. Not to be confused with their Malay counterparts, the mats; that’s a whole other species altogether.
ah huay: (noun) a derogatory term derived from overly used Mandarin names in the 70’s and 80’s that contain the word hua (花, meaning flower). Used to describe wayward Singaporean teenage girls, typically with dyed hair, skimpy tops, short skirts, the odd tattoo, and more recently, Japanese knee-high socks. Like their male brethren, the ah beng, they have a tendency to travel in packs of 3 or more, and usually have no qualms with spewing profanities and calling their ah beng friends to fight for them like schoolchildren who have gone to the gym when they are unhappy. Also known as ah lian, chao ah lian or their Malay variation, the minah.
angpow: (noun) directly translated as “red packet”, a small ceremonial envelope, sometimes containing money usually given during ceremonial occasions. The angpow symbolises luck and prosperity just like the 100,000 other things in Chinese culture that symbolise luck and prosperity, and may be given as a gift during Lunar New Year visits to unmarried individuals and children, or to a wedding couple to wish them all the best for their nuptials and beyond. It is also commonly used in rituals to store talismans and charms that need to be otherwise protected from the elements (sunlight, prying eyes or smelly wallets), and as a charm to ward off evil or bad luck during “unlucky” situations, such as funerals, acting as a dead person in a movie or having your picture plastered on a gravestone or grave tablet in a movie.
carrot cake: (noun) steamed radish/glutinous rice powder mix stir-fried with egg, oil and sometimes garnished with Chinese coriander and chopped spring onion. Not to be confused with the confectionery baked cake found in Western culture. Contains no carrots.
cichak: (noun) a Malay term for common household lizard. Singaporean cichaks have become a mainstay in most Singaporean homes regardless of income level. Most times the reason for their widespread acceptance is put down to the fact that their food source includes parasitic insects such as ants, cockroaches and mosquitoes, hence helping homeowners to deter such household pests, but the truth is most people are afraid to even go near a reptile, much less touch one, hence allowing them to be left alone, undisturbed, to sit and watch TV with the respective homeowners.
chicken rice: (noun) a popular Singaporean dish largely derived from the Hainanese. Chickens are prepared either by boiling whole chickens in a large pot of chicken broth, or roasting to a red-brown colour with varied skin crispness, depending on where you get your chicken rice from. Rice is cooked in chicken broth and garlic with pandan leaves added to the mix to enhance its smell and taste. Variations have been spotted in countries such as Malaysia, Thailand and the US, but most pale in comparison. So stop piracy; insist on the original.
don’ch: (verb) a mispronunciation of the contracted verb “don’t”, normally heard from Singaporeans more inclined towards Mandarin or a Chinese dialect who try to speak English. Said mispronunciation belongs to a category of mispronunciations that may or may not be derived from mediocre grammar education, which may be exemplified further with terms such as “thanks you you”, “wan too tree four fai sick” (123456), and “I beatch you then you know” (translated as “be careful, I may turn violent on you”).
kay-poh: (verb or noun) a Hokkien phrase that can be used to describe nosey-parkers or people who can’t mind their own business. Kay Poh is also the name of a small road in the River Valley area named for its very curious residents that tend to pop their heads out of windows to see what the hell is going on with each other.
kopitiam: (noun) a Hokkien name and direct translation for coffeeshop. Found in most neighbourhoods and wherever cheap food can be found, it usually consists of one large drinks stall and numerous smaller specialty food stalls. Most easily identified by the presence of one or more groups of middle-aged to elderly men drinking beer and muttering about the Singapore government.
lah: (colloquial) normally used to punctuate the end of a phrase or sentence to add emphasis of a variety of emotion, such as to emphasise frustration (i.e., when used in a short, low tone as in “Fuck lah. Why like that?”, “Go and die lah.” or “You idiot lah.“), to accentuate any level of pleading (i.e., when used in a drawn out manner in a low tone, as in “Don’t want laaah“, “Don’t like that laaah” or “Please laaah“), or to punctuate a point, whether matter-of-factly or in anger (i.e., when used sharply with a high-to-downward tone, as in “Like that lah!”, “OK lah!”, You lah! Always making mistakes!” or “Go lah! See if I care!”). Usage of the term is highly variable, though foreigners not familiar with the usage of this term should avoid using it as it counteracts with their intention of inclusion into Singapore society in general by making the locals cringe in discomfort when used wrongly.
lao hee low: (noun) a moderately-used term, combining the Hokkien word for “old” (lao) and a mispronunciation of the word “hero”, to describe elderly men who:
- act 10-20 years younger than their actual age in an effort to attract attention to themselves, often from members of the opposite sex.
- display courage and bravery in preforming bold acts not normally expected of men their age.
- speak loudly and openly against social or political issues while flailing a mug of beer mixed with ice in a kopitiam setting surrounded by quieter friends.
mee see, kiu mia, wa ai see liao: (dialect phrase) a Hokkien phrase translated as “Nurse, save me, I am going to die”. Commonly heard uttered by elderly patients in general hospital C-class wards in the middle of the night, though sometimes said elderly patients have enough energy to continue saying it throughout most of the day.
Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH): (noun) the second-largest general hospital in Singapore (after Singapore General Hospital, Tan Tock Seng Hospital is endearingly remembered by many Singaporeans as that hospital you got warded in with an old person that keeps crying in the middle of the night for a nurse for help, saying he or she is dying (more commonly heard as “mee see, kiu mia, wa ai see liao“). It is also the hospital most celebrated as for its role in the SARS epidemic of 2003, where it was appointed as the de facto treatment centre for the disease and its patients.
wah: (exclamation) an expression used to express surprise, shock or awe. Sometimes “phwah” is used for added emphasis.
wah lau: (colloquial) a local expression seeking to punctuate or emphasise emotion in a conversation. May be derived from the Teochew expression, “wah ah lau“, meaning “my father”, similar in meaning to when one says “oh my god”. Variations include “wah liew“, “wah piang eh” (normally heard in moments of mild to average frustration), “wah kao” (the Hong Kong/Taiwanese variation), “wah doo” (not common, but may be heard when used by someone with a shorter than usual tongue), wah lan” (the more vulgar approach), “wah dan” (in certain younger social circles” and “wah seh” (usually applied to express amazement more than anything else).