Singapore’s density is not just packed with people, but in language as well. While there are 4 official languages. A good portion of the population also speak the surrounding countries’ native tongues and in many different dialects. Then there’s Singlish, the colloquial language. Which is a whole other topic of discussion.
To give you a leg up, on a few of the local phrases that you will undoubtedly encounter within minutes after stepping off the plane. Here are a few examples of the local jargon and what they mean.
Lah / Leh / Lor / Mah / Siah / Hor
Singaporeans tack on lah, leh, lor, mah, siah or hor at the end of sentences and questions for emphasis. Each one has a specific way and when to use them.
For example, use lah in a command. While there’s no direct translation for each word, it’ll be your first introduction to Singlish.
Can and can not
There’s no can’t. I have no idea what has happened to the letter ‘t’ and where it has gone. It’s can and can not that indicates a yes or no. In other words, if something can be done or not.
Q: ‘May I have a reservation for 1pm, please?”
Q: “Can you pick up some ice, please?”
A: “Can not.”
Auntie, Uncle, Sister or Brother
Not particularly specific to Singapore but it’s a way to address your elders in a respectful manner. If someone is in the same age range using sister or brother is common.
The first time I was called Sister, was on Facebook Marketplace. The second time I was called Sister, was by an Indonesian visitor asking for directions. I have yet to be called Auntie ;).
The world welcome is not only used as a greeting, but also in response to saying ”thank you.” This format, is not solely Singaporean (it’s more so regionally), there’s no “you’re welcome”, it’s just ”welcome”. Just like the ‘t’ in can’t, I don’t know why the word ‘you’re’ is dropped. All I hear, is that I’m being greeted.
Napkins vs tissues
This is more relevant when eating at a hawker centre (a food centre) and there are a few things to note. 1) Do not assume napkins are readily available at food stalls. 2) Locals know to bring tissue packets or to purchase them from an auntie or uncle who are usually walking around selling them for $S 1-2. 3) There’s a difference between napkins and tissues. Napkins can be washed, reused, and found in restaurants.
Alongside the above and below, to chope is part of the hawker experience. By leaving a personal item (a packet of tissues) or a business card, or umbrella at a table. Is the way (to chope) reserve a seat at a table, so you can go and get your food. During the lunch rush, it’s very common to see many tables that are choped.
Also a British term, to queue is to stand in line. It’s first-come, first-served and a very common way to determine which food stall is the most popular by its length in queue.
Forms of payment
Paying can be a bit of back and forth if you’re not aware of the numerous amounts of payment options and terminology. I left this for the last explanation as it’s the longest and usually the top of conversation among of new expat arrivals.
In addition to your bank card (chip in or swipe card) there’s cash (obvs), contactless, additional other cards, and cashless payment options. Here’s the breakdown:
NETS is a card that’s similar to a debit card but it is not Visa, or Mastercard. A NETS card will need to be topped up (money added to the card) at certain machines. It’s usually the default question I receive when going to pay. “Nets?”
EZ-Link is a card used to pay for buses and trains.
Then Nets introduced FlashPay which can pay for transport, as well as be used at participating retailers and food places.
Paywave are charges to a credit card account – Visa, Mastercard, Amx.
Then there’s Tap and Pay: Apple Pay, Google Pay, Samsung Pay.
There’s also payment exchanging through banks or QR Codes. Which are PayNow, Paylah, PayAnyone.
And we can’t forget E-wallet options (which do need to be topped up): Singtel Dash, Grabpay, Alipay, WeChat Pay.
I get around just fine with my EZ-Link card, maybe some cash and bank card.