21 phrases and words you’ll hear in Singapore that reflect the local way of life

Did you know that there are four official languages in Singapore?

But as a result of being a melting pot of cultures, phrases from different dialects and languages come together to form its unofficial fifth ‘language’ – Singlish.

While it stems from English, Singlish features a collection of words and phrases from the Malay, Chinese and Tamil languages, as well as dialects. 

Singlish may be confusing at the start – especially since Singaporeans speak really fast – it becomes surprisingly easy to understand once you get the hang of it.

If you’re planning a trip to this sunny island and want to learn how to chat like the locals, here’s a list of commonly used Singlish words and phrases.

1) Chope

Meaning: To reserve space/table/seats anywhere (but mostly at dining areas).

How to use it: “Can you help us chope seats at the food court?”

2) Can

Meaning: Yes, this can be done.

How to use it (and an introduction to how efficient Singlish can be, where you can say so much with so little words): 

  • If you’re doubtful that something can be done – “Can meh?”
  • If you’re questioning why this was done a certain way – “How can?”
  • If you want to reassure someone that something can be done – “Can one.” or “Can lah.”

(And if that’s not reassuring enough: “Sure can one!”)

3) Makan

Meaning: The Malay word for ‘eat’.

How to use it: Hungry? Let’s makan! or Hello! Makan already? (There’s also a Hokkien version of this: “jiak ba buay?”)

4) Damn shiok

Meaning: Often used to describe something really good/delicious/fun/exciting.

How to use it: “This iced coffee is damn shiok, especially on such a hot day.”

5) Sabo

Meaning: A shortened version of the word ‘sabotage’ and used when people intentionally want to do harm to someone.

How to use it: “Did you sabo your classmates just to avoid getting scolded by the teacher?”

6) Paiseh

Meaning: Derived from Hokkien, it’s used to describe feelings of embarrassment, or shyness. 

How to use it: “Paiseh, I didn’t know the store would be closed.” 

7) Tapao

Meaning: To takeaway (often referring to food).

How to use it: “I think we ordered too much, let’s tapao the rest?” or “Do you want to tapao noodles for lunch later?”

8) Sian

Meaning: Derived from Hokkien, it’s used to describe feelings of tiredness, boredom or when something’s simply not enjoyable.

How to use it: “I’ve an 8.30am meeting tomorrow, damn sian.”

9) So ulu

Meaning: This refers to someplace inaccessible, or hard to get to.

How to use it: “That place is so ulu! We’ll have to take the car.”

10) Jialat

Meaning: To describe a negative situation or one that’s dire or hopeless (can be used across varying degrees of seriousness) 

How to use it

  • Not so serious situations: “Jialat, I forgot to bring my wallet out.”
  • Relatively serious situations: “Did you hear? She broke her arm when she fell the other day. So jialat.”

11) Kaypoh

Meaning: To be a busybody.

How to use it: “Can you not be so kaypoh? This is my problem, mind your own business.”

12) Spoil market

Meaning: To describe someone who’s raised the bar so high no one around them can reach it.

How to use it: “Can don’t spoil market? Not everyone can get full marks on every test every single time.”

13) Siao

Meaning: The Hokkien word for ‘crazy’.

How to use it: “Did you really run an ultramarathon over the weekend? Siao!”

14) Don’t bo jio

Meaning: Derived from Hokkien, it means to not get invited to an activity. 

How to use it: “You’re all going to get dinner? Don’t bo jio!”

Alternatively, if you’re the one doing the ‘jio-ing’ (or inviting), you may turn around to say “Hey I found this really good deal! Don’t say I bojio!”

15) Bo liao

Meaning: Used to describe feelings of boredom, when you have nothing to do, or when you have nothing better to do.

How to use it: “I spent the entire public holiday sleeping and watching Netflix, so bo liao.”

16) Kiasu

Meaning: Afraid to lose or lose out (not necessarily in a competition, but somehow Singaporeans tend to regard everything as a competition)

How to use it: “Did you really queue for two hours just to get free stuff? You’re super kiasu.”

17) Sure not?

Meaning: Basically, the short form of “Are you sure?” (just with a greater measure of doubt)

How to use it: “You’re saying this is the best chicken rice in Singapore? Sure not?”

18) Shag

Meaning: (No, it’s not what you think it means) To be extremely tired.

How to use it: “Just had a full day of meetings, damn shag.” 

19) Lah

Meaning: It doesn’t mean anything, really, it’s just used at the end of a sentence, word or phrase, for emphasis.

How to use it:

  • At the end of a sentence: “You studied so hard, I’m sure you’ll do really well lah!”
  • At the end of a word/phrase: “Just come at 12pm lah, it won’t start on time!” 

20) Leh

Meaning: Again, this doesn’t mean anything, and is used for emphasis. But a less intense form of ‘lah’. It could also be used in a question; to express uncertainty.

How to use it

  • For emphasis: “This show again? But I’ve already watched it leh.” 
  • As a question: “I thought the store opens at 11am leh, didn’t we check their opening hours on Google?”

21) Lor

Meaning: (…yes you got it, it’s just for emphasis, but with a sense of resignation attached to it)

How to use it: “Since you’re the expert, we listen to you lor.”


And there you have it – a list of the more commonly used Singlish phrases by Singaporeans.

If you decide to travel to Singapore (because, why not? There’s great food and loads of things to see and do!) try your hand at identifying some of these words and practice with the locals! You may even learn one or two more phrases on your own! Can, right? 

Can lah!

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Tina Fey

I've ridden the rails, gone off track and lost my train of thought. I'm writing for Ideapod to try and find it again. Hope you enjoy the journey with me.

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