These phrases are a need to know.
English may be Singapore’s national language, but Singaporeans actually speak several other languages that include mainly Mandarin, Malay, Tamil and several other dialects.
Just like the society is socially and culturally a wonderful melting pot, the many languages have similarly undergone a process that is so akin to baking: we’ve been combined, whisked, folded and placed in the oven to cook. And the result is a melodiously baked (at least we like to think so) flavourful marriage of all the aforementioned languages and dialects, which we proudly call Singlish.
If you are planning to reside in this nation (or are already living here), these are five key phrases that you need to know if you plan on blending without a sweat on the bustling streets of this tropical island city.
‘Makan’ is actually a Malay term meaning ‘to eat’ and has become very much a part of the Singlish vernacular. So when your friends or workmates should ‘chio’ (which, by the way, means ‘invite’) you to lunch, they are very likely to ask “Want to makan?” or say “Let’s go and makan”, or something else along those lines.
The term holds much significance to many Singaporeans because, as you may or may not have heard, eating (or makan) is arguably a favourite pastime of Singaporeans. From Laksa to Hainanese Chicken Rice, and Chili Crab to Mee Siam, there is no shortage of delicious dishes on this tiny island that you can and simply must sample … which means that you are going to have to makan a lot!
Siam (pronounced see-um) is a term that is customarily heard in crowded spaces; it is typically shouted out and accompanied by a distinct exclamation mark at the end—‘Siam!’
It is used by disgruntled aunties and uncles who work at hawker centres and food courts, and whom have little patience for slowpokes that stand in their way of clearing up tables. Delivery men carrying heavy cartons or pushing hefty pallets of goods are also known to toss this phrase out to clear a path in front of them.
You will occasionally be surprised by the seemingly frail old granny who is standing right behind you to get inside the MRT, only to suddenly be startled by a loud ‘siam’ (exclamation mark), followed invariably with an elbow to your side.
Siam is also used as a kind word of caution. Waiters, or people in general, who are carrying hot trays of food may use the phrase as a warning to those ahead not to make any sudden movements, or you may end up with a scalding pot of soup on top of you.
Nuance, as you can see, is very important.
Ta-bao is a Cantonese phrase that means ‘take out’ or ‘take away’. It makes nary a difference if you are ordering takeout at a fine-dining establishment, at a hawker stall selling bak chor mee or at McDonald’s, this phrase is universally understood on in this country.
Just list out exactly what you want to order and then tag a ta-bao at the end of it. It is simple, efficient and effective—very much like how the country functions, when you think about it.
Kopi O Kosong
Ordering coffee in Singapore is an art form unto itself, and actually deserves an entire post dedicated to it. Nevertheless, this is an institution that warrants a proper mention right here in this post as well.
Local kopi is traditionally brewed by running boiling water over fragrant coffee grounds in a sock-like cotton strainer. The coffee is then taken either black or with any combination of sugar, sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk.
The standard order of a kopi is black coffee with sweetened condensed milk. If you wanted a black coffee with nothing else in it, you will need to ask for a kopi-O kosong (O means black and kosong means zero).
Here are other important words: ‘Peng’ means with ice, ‘Gao’ means thick, ‘Po’ means weak, ‘Si’ means evaporated milk and ‘Siew Dai’ means less sugar.
So when you order a kopi siew dai, you are asking for a coffee with condensed milk, but with less sugar. And if you want it to go, don’t forget to say ta-pao!
Have you noticed how all these crucial Singlish phrases always seem to have something to do with food? As we’ve mentioned, Singaporeans do take food very seriously!
This fifth and final term is no exception. Chope (which sounds out like soap) is a verb, meaning to reserve a spot, which is often a seat or an entire table at a fast food restaurant, hawker centre or food court.
While the classic move is to use a packet of tissues to hold the spot, some other frequently used items include name cards and lanyards. We have also seen retractable umbrellas being used in a pinch, and students have been known to chope seats using their backpacks.
What’s a big no-no? You should absolutely never use any item of value to chope a space, no matter that you have heard about how safe Singapore is.
While the chope-ing culture has been a bone of contention among Singaporeans themselves (should we be chope-ing seats or should it be first come, first serve?), love it or hate it, the practice has very much become a part of the social landscape.
And there you have it. Now go forth, have a good makan, make sure to siam when you are told to or risk getting hot soup all over you; chope a table if you must, or otherwise, tell the uncle you want to ta-bao instead. And don’t forget to order your kopi just the way you like it.