New Englishes: Writing Singlish in Singaporean Anglophone Poetry

This post has been contributed by Jerome Lim.

An image explaining the different usage of multiple Singlish discourse particles. Chan Kai Chern.
An image explaining the different usage of multiple Singlish discourse particles. Chan Kai Chern. Web. 10 February 2016. <>.

This blog post aims to give a general introduction of Singlish as a New English, and highlight some interesting examples of poetry in Singlish. A good overview of the use of Singlish written by Tessa Wong can be found here.

1. New Englishes

The term ‘New Englishes’ (or World Englishes) refers to creolic variants of English spoken in former non-settler British colonies. Generally, these can be split into four geographical groups: the Straits Settlements, India and Ceylon, Anglophone Caribbean and East/West Africa. John Platt et al., in their groundbreaking work The New Englishes (1984), propose that a ‘New English’ “has become ‘localised’ or ‘nativised’ by adopting some language features of its own, such as sounds, intonation patterns, sentence structures, words and expressions.” (Platt et al. 3) We will look at one particular instance of ‘New English’ in this article—Singlish.

2. Singlish and Singaporean Languages

Singapore, a former Straits Settlement Crown colony, is a linguistically and ethnically diverse city-state located in South-east Asia. This diversity originates from the immigrant trader roots of its populace; Singapore recognizes four official languages: Standard English, Mandarin Chinese, Malay and Tamil. Standard English, adopted as the lingua franca since British rule, is the medium of instruction in the educational system, and it is compulsory for students to take up an additional mother tongue language from the list of official languages. Besides these two languages, many Singaporeans speak dialects such as Hokkien, Hindi, Bengali and Cantonese. Japanese, French and German are also offered as a third language subject to achieving students.

This multilingualism has led to the development of what linguists term Singapore Colloquial English, or Singlish. Singlish is a mixture of these languages, with much of its vocabulary drawn from non-English phrases. This development mirrors what Kamau Brathwaite observes in the development of Caribbean New Englishes, where “a spectrum–that prism–of languages” become a “plurality” (259–60). However, while English acts as a lexifier, its linguistic properties differ widely from Standard English: for example, topic-prominent syntax, interrogative inversions, discourse particles, copula and noun phrase deletion (Leimgruber 50–53). This may seem confusing to the non-linguist, so an example will be provided.

Have you eaten? (Standard English)

Eat already or not? (Singlish)

Here we can see that the standard subject-verb-object order is reversed—such topic-prominent syntax is more prevalent in East Asian languages. A vocabulary dictionary can be found here.

However, the Singaporean government has actively discouraged the use of Singlish; running the ‘Speak Good English Movement’ for a decade. This has led to diglossia (the concept introduced by Charles A. Ferguson) in the use of English in Singapore, with Standard English being used in formal situations and Singlish being used for everyday banter. In response to critics of the program who argued that Singlish is a unique identity marker for Singaporeans, government representatives expressed their disdain:

While Singlish may be a fascinating academic topic for linguists to write papers about, Singapore has no interest in becoming a curious zoo specimen to be dissected and described by scholars. (Ho and Liew 2010)

Like poets in other ‘New English’ regions, such as Linton Kwesi Johnson (a Jamaican patois poet), who wrote in response to the diglossia and eradication of their native languages by colonial English, the debate on Singlish and its status as a unique identity marker and ‘native’ language of Singapore has proved a fertile ground for Singaporean poets. Next we will present three interesting examples of Singaporean poems that deal with the issue of Singlish.

3. Writing Singlish

Leong Liew Geok’s “Forever Singlish” is a candid defence of Singlish, itself using Singlish, extolling its rhythm, efficiency, familiarity and its inevitable staying power. Annotations are provided beside each line in square brackets.

We don’t care, we like to speak it leh; [leh: discourse particle, emphasis]
When we end with lor, hor, lah, [lor, hor, lah: more discourse particles]
People say our English kana-sai [kana-sai: ‘like shit’]
Why they care? Hard core kaypoh — [kaypoh: busybody]
Bo dai bo cho. [Bo … cho: nothing better to do.]
It got rhythm- like when you say

Who pass urine in the lift? Chau si!


[Chau si: it stinks]

Aiyah; Chau Ah Lian; Chau Ah Beng; Chau Buaya;
Chau Ah Kua; Chau Mamak; Chau kayu; Chau Goondu- [Chau … : derogatory terms]
Who else?
It got reason- like when the secretary say
You hold on arh, he’s on another line;
So you wait for him to finish- wah piang, talk [wah piang: frustrated]
So long, boey tahan, some more I kena [boey tahan: intolerable]
Scolding from boss for wasting time. [kena: get]
So pai say, we have to repeat two, three times; [pai say: embarrassed]
We say sorrysorrysorry to make sure we are:
Then say excuse! When we overtake or cut in-
Only once. Short cuts must be short and sweet,
If sometimes we cannot cheat, so chia lat [chia lat: difficult or onerous]
[lubang: opportunity]
No lubang; so teruk. Kiasu cannot lose, [kiasu: no chance, afraid to lose]
Kiasi cannot die; machiam words [kiasi: timid; machiam: similar]
We also try. Proper English? So lecheh, [lehcheh: troublesome]
So correct, so actsy for what? Wah lau,
Already got your meaning before you finish!
Vegetable, Animal, Mineral, Abstract:
It makes all this rojak, chickenfeed. [rojak: mixed dish]
Hands all over the place; poke here, touch there,
Growing only like a samseng kia. [samseng kia: gangster]
People cannot control, also cannot compare.
No class Singlish here to stay,
No big shot can have his way
With how people talk, what people say.
Rules are rules: our bo chap mouth refuse [bo chap: nonchalant]
To listen, follow or to choose.

Joshua Ip’s “conversaytion” from Sonnets from the Singlish is a fine example of the appropriation of the classical sonnet form into Singlish, with a focus on its vernacular conversational usage, discourse particles and and especially phonetic patterns.

“not say i want to say, but then this one

who say one?” “i say one lor, abuthen.”

“this one you say one? liddat also can??”

today you say ho say, later bueh gum

then you say i saw who confirm?” “you say

what what lor. anyway i say one thing

is one thing one. not like you everything

also say people like mm sam mm say.”


“you say some more?” “you say first one ma.” “wan

to come outside say? say louder?” “dun wan.

okay la, i say wrongly, ho say bo?

take it i never say la.” “then say so!

your mouth damn suey. you dun wan me to say

then dun say me—not say i want to say.”

More recently, Singaporean poets have instead started exploring native Southeast Asian forms such as the pantun, liwuli, and empat pekataan. The empat pekataan is a poem made up of four word fragments (usually couplet rhyming) associated by connotations or sound patterns. This form has roots in influences from Malay, Javanese and Chinese poetics. An example is provided from one of my own published poems, “vs. laws”. This poem is a playful critique of the ‘nanny state’ strict-law reputation of Singapore.

burning shotgun riot blossom

wildly boyhood liquor possum

hydrant coupon ballot parking

traffic summon signal barking

durian tattoo assault junction

scour clubbing rhythm function

bootlick duty whisky cranky

awol brassard polish hanky

passport circus parang camo

anxious mosaic pistol ammo

churchyard bacon altar vandal

holy dustbin rotan sandal

audit changi baton slogans

fifty hong-lim sarong shoguns

lightning council moral curry

polling crazy district hurry

Although there are many more unique examples of Singlish poems, the large majority of the Singaporean literary canon is still composed in Standard English; the discourse between Singlish and Standard English is still on-going in Singapore. This tension between ‘native’ and ‘colonial’ languages in the literary discourses in ‘New Englishes’ regions still remains pertinent in a postcolonial world where English remains a global lingua franca.

Works Cited

A Dictionary of Singlish and Singapore English. 2004. Web. 10 February 2016.

Brathwaite, Kamau. “History of the Voice.” Roots: Essays in Caribbean Literature. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1993. 259-304. Print.

Ferguson, Charles A. “Diglossia.” word 15.2 (1959): 325-40. Print.

Ip, Joshua. “conversaytion.” Sonnets from the Singlish. Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2012. 21. Print.

Leimgruber, J. “Singapore English. Language and Linguistics Compass 5.1 (2010): 47–62. Print.

Leong, Liew Geok. “Forever Singlish.” Writing Singapore: An Historical Anthology of Singapore Literature. Eds. Angelia Poon, Philip Holden and Shirley Lim. Singapore: National U of Singapore P, 2009. 288–89. Print.

Liew, Choon Boon and Ho Peng. “Good English the way to go.” The Straits Times. 12 December 2008. Web. 10 February 2016.

Lim, Jerome. “vs. laws.” SingPoWriMo 2015: The Anthology. Eds. Daryl Yam, Jennifer Champion and Joshua Ip. Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2015. 53. Print.

Platt, John, Heidi Weber, and Ho Mian Lian. The New Englishes. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984. Print.

Wong, Tessa. “The rise of Singlish.” BBC News Mag. 6 August 2015. Web. 10 February 2016.



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