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The History of Singlish

Singlish has been a big part of Singapore’s culture ever since we gained independence nearly 56 years ago. The initial idea in 1965 was to make English the common language for all the different races in Singapore. It worked out slightly differently though, as the various ethnic groups began infusing English with other words and grammar. English became the official language, but Singlish became the language of the street.

This is how we got our own form of English – SINGLISH.

Singlish Has Became Part of Our Lives

Singlish has played a big role in every Singaporean’s lives. Not only Singaporeans are used to speaking and writing ‘Singlish’, but our foreign friends have also been influenced to using Singlish in their lives. Singlish helps people to connect better in an informal way. When are communicate with our friends and family, we tend to use Singlish unknowingly.

Here are some of the common Singlish phases that you might have heard.

  • ‘Shiok’

Derived from Malay, the original term meant ‘great’. This is one of the most common words you will hear in Singlish after ‘can’ and ‘lah’. It is used to express excitement or amazement, with something, often food, and can be used on its own or with other words to increase its intensity, like ‘So shiok!’.

  • ‘Paiseh’

Another Hokkien term, this one mean ’embarrassed’. In Singlish, a speaker is more likely to use it after making a mistake because they feel embarrassed, so a better translation now would be that it means ‘sorry’, such as ‘Paiseh, I’m late because I thought we were meeting tomorrow’.

  • ‘Sabo’

This Singlish term originates from the English word ‘sabotage’, however, the etymology of sabotage is based on the French, ‘sabot’, which meant poor quality work from a lazy or unskilled labourer. In Singlish, it targets someone to cause deliberate harm or try to get them in trouble. For example, en employee may say to his fellow colleague, ‘Hey, do not sabo me, please. I don’t want boss to ask me a question’.

  • ‘Kiasu’

An extremely popular phrase in Singapore’s highly competitive environment, this Hokkien term means that someone is afraid of losing out. Just as using the term ‘competitive’ to describe someone can have positive or negative meanings, ‘kiasu’ is often used to describe someone who is selfish and trying to get ahead of others. For example, someone may say ‘Tutoring is extremely popular in Singapore because of kiasu parents who want their children to get the top grades in school’.

Singlish VS English in The Workplace

As much as we enjoy having Singlish as part of our communication, Singlish has a bad reputation for being unprofessional and inappropriate for use in formal situations.

Failure to communicate effectively in the workplace may lead to the loss of business opportunities; lower productivity and misunderstanding between colleagues, having serious repercussions. To avoid these, there are four useful points you can follow for better communication at work.

  1. Switch From Singlish To English

While it may not be recognised in the world as a formal language, the majority of Singaporeans have grown up with Singlish. Comprising of a unique blend of English, Chinese, Malay, Tamil and local dialects, there are two major camps of thought on its use. Some feel that it is a beautiful language that showcases the multi-cultural character of our society while others feel that it is too colloquial, so full of grammatical errors that it makes them squirm. Many of us may be liaising with co-workers, partners or customers from all over the world who are using English as the common and accepted language of communication. The excessive usage of Singlish may lead to frustration, miscommunication and unnecessary misunderstanding.

  1. Say It Clearly

The art of speaking English well lies in the user’s command of  the language, pronunciation, tone, pace and even pausing. With so many different sounds and a rather complicated spelling system, English is a challenging language to pronounce. Without a conscious effort to pronounce words clearly, you may deliver a grammatically correct speech only to find that your listener does not understand a word.

Getting your pronunciation, tone and pace right helps to improve mutual understanding with colleagues and customers. When you see your listeners responding positively to your words, you will gain greater confidence and be better positioned to represent your organisation in our increasingly international corporate environment.

  1. Practise Good Grammar For Business

In today’s environment of informal emails, texting and twitter, where slang and shortcuts are common, it is easy to consider grammar as an annoying technicality, a minuscule detail of speech and writing not worth much effort. But such looseness with the English language can create bad impressions with clients, ruin marketing material and cause communication errors.

So what you say matters as much as how you say it, especially in a professional environment. If you have a tenuous grasp on vocabulary and grammar, now is the time to consider taking a professional business course to get them right.

  1. Polish Up Your Business Writing Essentials

In the business world, people adopt various styles and tones in their written communication. But good writers tend to write plainly, avoiding a legal and bureaucratic style of writing as well as peppering content with excessive courtesy. At its best, good business writing is simple and straight forward so that the intended meaning can come through effectively to the readers. Of course, different scenarios will require different levels of treatment, tone and formality. It is an advantage to understand what works best in your area of practice and adapt to the commonly accepted style of business writing.

Upgrade your communication skills to the next level!

While this may not be an accurate assessment, people do judge us based on how we use English at the workplace. Learn how to switch from colloquial Singaporean English and gain a deeper appreciation for the English language in your workplace today. Watch on to hear what our business guru, Ms. Emma Jones have to say about Singlish in the workplace! Singlish when used strategically, it can help you build trust and rapport with your colleagues, clients, and external partners.


The smart way to use Singlish

The rise of Singlish

Speak Like A Local in Singapore: 10 Essential Singlish Phrases

6 Useful Points For Better Communication At Work