Singapore Infopedia


Singlish is an informal, colloquial form of English that is used in Singapore. Linguists refer to it as Singapore Colloquial English or Singapore English.1 The use of Singlish has been the subject of much debate since the 1970s, when it first became an observable phenomenon. The government actively discourages the use of Singlish among the population, citing the need for Singaporeans to be able to communicate effectively with the wider English-speaking population in the world.2

Singlish contains non-standard features of the English language and incorporates elements of other languages. It has its own unique grammatical structures and a distinctive pronunciation.3 The intonation, sentence structure and vocabulary of Singlish are influenced by Malay, Indian languages such as Tamil and Hindi, and the main Chinese dialects spoken in Singapore, such as Hokkien, Cantonese and Teochew. For example, agak agak, means “estimate” in Malay, and kaypoh, is Hokkien for “busybody”.4

Standard English grammar rarely applies to Singlish. For instance, grammatical endings, tenses, plurals, the definite article and the linking verbs (such as “is” and “am”) are often ignored.5 Speakers of Singlish would say “You walk so slow” (instead of “slowly”); “She shop (instead of “shopped”) here yesterday”; and “Teck very rich” (instead of “Teck is very rich”).The sentence endings “lah”, “leh” and “lor” are common in Singlish conversations.7

Due to its departure from standard rules of the English language, Singlish has been labelled as “ungrammatical”, “poor”, “bad” or “broken” English.8 Some linguists and academics, however, prefer to view Singlish as a variant of English that has evolved out of Singapore’s unique multiethnic social milieu. According to linguists, although Singlish deviates from the standard rules of English, it has its own system of rules and grammar.9 

For example, the repetition of words or parts of words to convey specific meanings – a process that linguists term as “reduplication” – follows certain principles in Singlish. Reduplication applies to nouns (“Where is your boy boy?” where “boy boy” means boyfriend or son), verbs (“Let her be, cry cry awhile then she’ll be all right” where “cry cry” means cry a little bit) and adjectives (“Don’t always eat sweet sweet things” where “sweet sweet” means very sweet). Couble to indicates that the action is continuous. For example, “I walk walk walk then I fall down” means “I fell down while I was walking”, and “Bus always stop stop stop” means that “the bus keeps on stopping”.10

For most of Singapore’s colonial history, English was a minority language that was mastered by a small elite, and its use was limited to official purposes such as in government offices and the law courts.11 However, soon after Singapore’s independence from the Federation of Malaysia in 1965, the government began actively promoting the use of English as it was seen as key to the nation’s economic survival. Because Singapore possessed no natural resources, proficiency in English was considered necessary for attracting foreign investments and facilitating access to scientific and technological know-how.12

Over the years, the English-speaking population in Singapore has increased. However, Singlish also gained usage alongside standard English, as Singapore is a linguistically diverse country with various ethnic languages.13 Statistics from the Census of Population 2000 revealed that only 23 percent of the resident population aged five and above spoke English as a first language at home; the majority of the Chinese population spoke mainly Mandarin or one of the Chinese dialects, while most of the Malays and Indians spoke mainly their ethnic languages at home.14

Debate over Singlish
While standard English is taught in schools and is designated as the country’s main working language, Singlish continues to be used in everyday interactions within some, if not most, segments of the population. In the 1990s, Singlish featured strongly in plays and popular local television and movie productions such as Phua Chu KangArmy DazeMoney No Enough! and I Not stupid.15 In the Phua Chu Kang television series, the titular character’s trademark phrases – “Use your blain” and “Don’t pray pray”, in which he mispronounces “brain” as “blain” and “play” as “pray” – turned into trendy catchphrases.16 However, this became a cause for concern among schoolteachers and the government.17

The proliferation of Singlish has often been blamed for the falling standard of English in Singapore. The government views Singlish as harmful to the economic development of Singapore and has been calling for the eradication of Singlish in favour of standard English. In his 1999 National Day Rally Speech, then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong highlighted the importance of using standard English for Singaporeans to remain competitive and relevant in the global economy. He said that Singaporeans need not speak English with British, American or Australian accents, ought to speak a form of English that is understood by the international community.18 Goh singled out Phua Chu Kang for its liberal use of Singlish and suggested that the Phua Chu Kang character should improve his English by attending the Basic Education for Skills Training classes that teach adults primary-school English and mathematics. In response, the Television Corporation of Singapore (now MediaCorp Pte Ltd) announced that it would be toning down the use of Singlish in its programmes, and that Phua Chu Kang would be speaking better English.19

Then–Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew also voiced his concern over the increasing use of Singlish during his speech at the Tanjong Pagar constituency’s National Day celebration in 1999. He stressed the importance of speaking and writing standard English so that “we can understand the world and the world can understand us”. He also said that “Singlish is a handicap we must not wish on Singaporeans”.20 

In April 2000, the government launched the nationwide Speak Good English Movement (SGEM), an annual campaign that seeks to encourage all Singaporeans to speak grammatically correct English that is universally understood.21 In addition, the Ministry of Education periodically sends its teachers for English lessons in an effort to improve the standard of grammar used in the classrooms and to counter the spread of Singlish.22

Despite the government’s stand, supporters of Singlish have defended the place of Singlish in the local linguistic landscape. Their main argument is that Singlish cuts across racial differences and thus functions as a marker of a distinct, multiethnic Singaporean identity. For its proponents, Singlish is an essential part of local culture and heritage.23

Over the years, the government has come to recognise Singlish as a cultural marker for many Singaporeans. The role of the SGEM has also evolved correspondingly, and it now aims to help Singaporeans understand the differences between standard English and Singlish, so that they are able to codeswitch easily in different social and professional settings.24

Teresa Rebecca Yeo

1. Samantha Hanna, ed., An Essential Guide to Singlish (Singapore: Gartbooks, 2003), 8 (Call no. RSING 427.95957 ESS); Low Ee Ling and Adam Brown, An Introduction to Singapore English (Singapore: McGraw Hill, 2003), 16. (Call no. RSING 427.95957 LOW)
2. Chng H. H., “Beyond Linguistic Instrumentalism: The Place of Singlish in Singapore,” in Language as Commodity: Global Structures, Local Marketplaces, ed. Peter K. W. Tan and Rani Rubdy (London: Continuum, 2008), 58–62. (Call no. RSING 306.44 LAN)
3. Low and Brown, Introduction to Singapore English, 16.
4. JT Platt, “The Singapore English Speech Continuum and Its Basilect ‘Singlish’ as a ‘Creoloid’,” Anthropological Linguistics 17, no. 7 (October 1975): 367 (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website); Low and Brown, Introduction to Singapore English, 59.
5. Hanna, An Essential Guide to Singlish, 8; Low and Brown, Introduction to Singapore English, 16.
6. Ooi, Beng Yeow Vincent ed., Evolving Identities: The English Language in Singapore and Malaysia (Singapore: Times Academic Press, 2001), 80, 82, 95. (Call no. RSING 427.95957 EVO)
7. Hanna, An Essential Guide to Singlish, 62–64.
8. Chng, “Beyond Linguistic Instrumentalism,” 62.
9. “Rojak with No Recipe? Straits Times, 15 March 1992, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Ooi, Evolving Identities, 89, 93; Low and Brown, Introduction to Singapore English, 59.
11. David Deterding, Singapore English (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), 85. (Call no. RSING 427.95957 DET)
12. Lionel Wee, “Linguistic Instrumentalism in Singapore,” in Language as Commodity: Global Structures, Local Marketplaces., ed. Peter K. W. Tan and Rani Rubdy (London: Continuum, 2008), 33–34. (Call no. RSING 306.44 LAN)
13. Chua Mui Hoong, “Dangers of the Singlish Language,” Straits Times, 29 October 1999, 52. (From NewspaperSG)
14. Leow Bee Geok, Census of Population 2000: Education, Language and Religion: Statistical Release 2 (Singapore: Department of Statistics, Ministry of Trade and Industry, 2001), 10, 98. (Call no. RSING 304.6021095957 LEO)
15. Ian Stewart, “Singaporeans Speak Out in Debate on Language,” South China Morning Post, 15 May 1993 (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website); “PCK will Soon Speak Best English,” Straits Times, 23 August 1999, 1; “Rojak with No Recipe?; Low and Brown, Introduction to Singapore English, 16.
16. Boon Chan, “Local TV’s Memorable Catchphrases,” Straits Times, 10 May 2009, 47. (From NewspaperSG)
17. “PCK will Soon Speak Best English.”
18. “Out: Phua Chu Kang, In: Proper English,” Straits Times, 23 August 1999, 27 (From NewspaperSG); Goh Chok Tong, “National Day Rally Speech: First-World Economy, World-Class Home,” PSA Building, 22 August 1999, transcript, Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts(From National Archives of Singapore document no. 1999082202)
19. San Long, “I Don’t Pray, Pray Also Very Funny Wat,” Straits Times, 21 August 1991, 36; “PCK will Soon Speak Best English.”
20. Lee Kuan Yew, “Speech at the Tanjong Pagar 34th National Day Celebration,” Tanjong Pagar Community Club, 14 August 1999, transcript, Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts. (From National Archives of Singapore document no. 1999081404)
21. Irene Ng, “Speak Good English Campaign Next Year,” Straits Times, 30 August 1999, 1; Cai Haoxiang,“Going Back to the Basics of Effective English-language Teaching,” Straits Times, 7 November 2009, 36; M. Nirmala, “Buck Up, Poor English Reflects Badly on Us: PM,” Straits Times, 30 April 2000, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
22. M. Nirmala, “Teachers to Go for English Upgrading,” Straits Times, 25 July 1999, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
23. Chng, “Beyond Linguistic Instrumentalism,” 63–64, 66.
24. “Speak Good English Movement: About Us,” Speak Good English Movement, 29 March 2023. (From NLB’s Web Archive Singapore)

Further resources
Kuo Eddie CY and Brenda Chan, Singapore Chronicles: Language (Singapore: Straits Times Press and Institute of Policy Studies, 2016). (Call no. RSING 306.44095957 KUO)

Lionel Wee, The Singlish Controversy: Language, Culture and Identity in a Globalising World (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2018). (Call no. RSING 306.4422105957 WEE).

The information in this article is valid as of October 2023 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.


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