English as it’s spik in Singapore

Sometimes I feel sorry for Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s efforts to make Singaporeans speak good — at least English that can convey the message or intention of the speaker — as well as those of the dogged Speak Good English movement which have been trying very hard, for more years than I can remember, playing Prof Higgins to Singaporean hearing-impaired Elizas 🙄

Yet I felt even more sorry when I saw an ang mo four times my size harranguing a hapless worker behind the meat counter at Giants at Turf City a few days before Chinese New Year.

I don’t usually visit Turf City but I was lured there by the advertised bath towels for under $2 and three avocados for under $3 with a free avocado cutter thrown in for good measure.

The ang mo in question was no doubt frustrated by not getting the info he wanted about the beef and minced beef  in the display cabinet but really, was there any need for him to bellow: “Do you understand English?” for all within a 3- metre radius to hear!

I cast him several looks from a safe distance and felt sorry for the person to whom he had directed the insult.

Still, after repeating his insult a couple of times, he seemed to be satisfied with whatever the young man muttered in reply and moved away, satisfied with having put someone down.

The next day, I found myself feeling a bit like the ang mo, tho I was at my most conciliatory self, as I believed that’s the best way to get information, not getting on my high horse.

I was looking for a cheap plastic rain cape or poncho and as I was in Square 2 (next to Novena Square), i went into a shop that sold camping gear that I came across, thinking that must be where a rain cape would be sold.

But no!

Two salesmen were at the check out but as it was still early, they had no customers and were passing time chatting with each other.

No, their shop didn’t stock rain wear. One of them helpfully added: “If you go to the second or third floor, you might find it.”

I tried to pin him down.

“What’s the name of the shop?”

He consulted his colleague, checked some papers and replied: “Altar Life.”

Altar Life? You mean the Novena Church?

No, no!

He looked exasperated. “In this shopping centre. Altar Life. Second or third floor.”

I was still non-plus.

“Can you spell it please?” I asked, all saccharine.

“Altar Life,” his colleague said on his behalf.

“Spell it please? A..”

He spelt it but I still LBK.


It was the turn of the two chaps to mentally roll their eyes.

One fished out a tiny piece of scrap paper and wrote down the name and passed it to me.

“Oh,” I exclaimed, “Outdoor Life!”

“That’s what we said, Altar Life,” the duo chorussed indignantly.

Still, I’m not sure if it’s their accent or my ears because more recently at the annual lo-hei of the Association of Banks in Singapore, I sat up when I heard the ABS chairman and DBS Bank CEO, Piyush Gupta, utter “Timber” loud and clear in his welcome speech, after he had said he saw green shoots all over the place and that the glass was half full.

“Timber?” I thought, staring hard at the speaker, wondering if he was going to recommend Sabah, New Zealand or the Amazon.

Tantalisingly, he went on to say “timber” some more without pin-pointing the location or reason why he was talking about wood in the Year of the Water Dragon.

Perplexed, I whispered to the guest next to me:”Why’s he saying ‘timber’?”

“Timber? He didn’t say that.”

“There, he’s just said it again.”

My fellow guest hissed back: “He said team work, team work, not timber!”

Enlightened, I listened more carefully to the rest of the speech. Indeed, Mr Gupta did say “team work” a couple more times, though for the life of me, if it wasn’t pointed out to me, I would still swear he said “timber”.

It could be the same reason why the young man at the meat counter at Giants couldn’t understand what the ang mo was saying, so much so that the customer was incensed and rude enough to ask him if he spoke English.

I spik English too but I don’t always understand how others I run into in Singapore spik it 🙄 😆


14 thoughts on “English as it’s spik in Singapore

  1. Good Morning Auntie Lucia;

    it is quite common to see service people getting abuses. Had the said angmo at Turf City behaved the manner as You had described in Hong Kong, he would have been told to spik in Cantonese or else …. ..! Maybe the Hongkies are more mindful of their dignity.

    Anyway, decades ago, when me was a retail salesman in an electronic/electrical and furniture superstore, i welcomed and attended to a Chinese couple of about my age, around mid forties then, in Mandarin, the man shouted at me to speak in English and proceeded to make things difficult by asking lots of question about a simple cable. Me had to bear with him though i could have him sent to hospital outside the shop if i had wanted to.

    As You had read Gintai about his encounter with a scoority guard at a polytechnic and how he felt then, dare i say it is not easy to be working in the frontline. Fortunately for me, i am born quite good with languages and dialects and with my work, BUT as You can see from my experience, been good at them did not save me from been ill treated by fellow beings. Such that me likes to conclude here that there are people who are simply born to be aggressive, abusive and sadistic nor matter how they are educated, i surmise that their upbringings have a lot to do with their behaviour and character.


  2. Talking about ang mo, my friend related this incident at his office. His ang mo boss came to him and said he didn’t understand what his secretary was telling him when he asked her whether she had circulated the memo to all the staff. He said to my friend, “What does she mean by board got put?” …. I burst out laughing.

  3. Pingback: Daily SG: 10 Feb 2012 « The Singapore Daily

  4. Most Singaporeans can write reasonably good English but can’t really pronounce the diction correctly. Sad to say me included! We need to emphasize good spoken English instead!

  5. Just wonder if there has been any Chinese from anywhere telling anyone in Europe and or US to speak in Chinese(just Mandarin)?
    As the largest Race on Earth, what on Earth makes the Chinese so accommodating? Some even bend backward to speak to their maids in the maids’ native tongue.
    Okay, there are many Chinese who are damn proud of their Queen English but not able to understand his/her own native language. It is true many are not able to communicate with their grandparents.
    What on Earth is happening???


  6. The standard of spoken english has also somewhat declined with the influx of new wannabe american accented english being increasing used by the increasingly foreign staffed retail shops

  7. But why is there a need to emphasize on the importance of speaking good english?We should be proud of the dialects our forefather speaks.Nothing shameful for not being able to speak others’ languages .
    We should also be proud of our own language that bond us together,Singlish.
    As a Singaporean,we should continue to speak good Singlish and should not feel shameful on our language.
    You all think angmo can speak good Singlish meh?If they cannot,then why must we feel shameful on not being able to speak their language well.I very blur leh.

  8. Hello, Uncles (hope none r Aunties?) Patriot, Gintai, Ashton, Gd2shoez, Abao and Agongkia:
    I enjoy all your comments and have to confess that in my misguided youth when I was v hung up on speaking and writing perfect English, I too had pretended not to understand Chinese. Thankfully, I was cured of that due to the pple I worked with; going to HK and meeting top business Hongkongers who spoke both English and Cantonese so well and poetically.

    My small post wasn’t intended to make fun of those whose accents I didn’t understand. It was just to show that well, it takes all accents to make the world go round.

    And yes, some ang mos (the non-Anglo-Saxon or non-American) too have accents that need sub-titling. And even when it’s pure Anglo-Saxon, some regional accents in the UK are excruciating, at least to my ears.

    Btw, Uncle Ashton: I don’t quite understand your story. Care to run it by me again?

    Btw2: there was one more encounter I forgot to include in my post. I received a call on my mobile the other day from someone who identified himself as being from CP–. I got a bit excited, this being the season when CPIB is apparently very active.

    So I said, “say that again, say that again!” Caller did, one more time, and then one more.

    I got slightly hysterical: “Why are you calling me? Why is CPIB calling me? Who are you?”

    “CP– CP Richard Ellis.”

    Once I caught the last two words, I knew my mistake. Caller had said: “CBRE”, not “CPIB”!! 😳

  9. Aiyoh Auntie Lucy, “Board got put” is Singlish, a direct translation from Chinese. The ang-mo boss just didn’t understand it and went to ask my friend.

  10. Hahaha…..

    it is really interesting, the board aside; the CP-I got me very excited.
    Before me read further, me thought You could be a good fren of the
    CP(Commissioner Of Police). As You have stated, CPIB very busy lately
    as a very senior MHA Officer is implicated for corruption. Thought tat
    your help was needed by the CP and or even CPIB.

    You must have got a very good offer from CBRE!


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