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Photograph: British Council Singapore/Flickr

Common Singlish words you need to know to speak like a local

Get to know you 'lah', 'leh, 'lor' and some basic slang words to up your Singlish game

By Cam Khalid

Singlish is the local lingo. The beauty of it is the fact that its melting pot of words originating from various languages such as English, Mandarin, Hokkien, Cantonese, Malay and Tamil, and it's used universally in the country no matter one’s mother tongue – a true reflection of multiculturalism. The dictionary of slang words run a gamut, but here are some common words that will have you sounding like a true blue Singaporean.

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shy, girl
Photograph: Unsplash/Abigail Keenan

Paiseh (pie-say)

Meaning: A Hokkien way of saying something is embarrassing. Alternatively, it’s to express a sense of shame or that you are simply shy.

Example: “I'm paiseh to ask Chris Hemsworth for a selfie.”

cat, surprised
Photograph: Unsplash/Paul Hanaoka

Alamak (ah-lah-mak)

Meaning: An expression to display dismay, shock or alarm as one would with “Oh, no!”.

Example: “Alamak! I forgot to feed the cat!”

Photograph: Unsplash/Jonathan Francisca

Atas (ah-tahs)

Meaning: Malay for “up”, but is usually used as an adjective to describe something as luxe, upper class or “high SES”.

Example: “He is too atas to be caught dead eating at a hawker centre.”

horse masks
Photograph: Unsplash/Dominik Vanyi

Siao (see-ow)

Meaning: Hokkien for “crazy”. This versatile word can be used to describe a person or simply an exclamation for a situation that seems out of this world – and not in a wondrous way.

Example: “Who busks with horse masks in this heat? Siao!”

window, man
Photograph: Unsplash/Hamish Duncan

Bo jio (boh-chyoh)

Meaning: An expression used to indicate that you’re not invited to something. Relatively close to the term FOMO (fear of missing out). It can also be used as a verb.

Example: “You guys are having dinner together? Bo jio.”

Photograph: Unsplash/Tonny Tran

Sian (see-anne)

Meaning: A Hokkien expression for boring, tiring or bothersome.

Example: “Teacher wants us to memorise the periodic table today. Sian.”

Photograph: Unsplash/Macau Photo Agency

Kiasu (kee-ah-soo)

Meaning: A popular Hokkien term to mean “afraid of losing out”, describing someone as selfish and trying to get ahead of others in a negative manner.

Example: “Those kiasu aunties pushed through the crowd for the free goodies.”

Photograph: Unsplash/Josh Appel

Tabao (dah-bao)

Meaning: Usually used at hawker centres to when placing an order to say “takeaway”.

Example: “Uncle, one chicken rice, tabao.”

Photograph: Unsplash/Sander Dalhuisen

Shiok (she-oak)

Meaning: To describe something delicious or simply good.

Example: “This burger is so juicy, so shiok!”

Photograph: Shutterstock/Z. Jacobs


Meaning: To reserve something.

Example: “Let’s chope the table by leaving a pack of tissues there.”

thumbs up
Photograph: Unsplash/Sincerely Media


Meaning: Sure, this means “able to”, “permitted to” or to request something, but this can also be used variously with a Singlish modifier.

Example: “Can you do this for me?” “Can lah, no worries.” “Can meh?” “Sure can.”

Photograph: Unsplash/Jessica Da Rosa

Lah, Lor, Leh, Meh

Meaning: These are all discourse particles that are mentioned at the end of sentences. Each one serves different purposes, and it all depends on tone, syntax, and context.

Example: “Just do it like that lah” (Here, “lah” has a sense of exasperation, but can also be used as a finality.)

“I’ve got no choice, So I just did it lor.” (Here, “lor” is used to express acceptance or resignation.)

“I didn’t know you have to do it like that leh.” (Here, “leh” is used to show uncertainty, a little more doubtful compared to “lah”.)

“Really, meh? You have to do it like that?” (Here, “meh” is used with a rhetorical question to serve disbelief without actually being shocked or surprised.)

Photograph: Shutterstock/Infinite_Eye

Congratulations! You're now a pro at Singlish. Go forth and use your new knowledge by charming aunties at the kopitiam.

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