Everywhere you go, you’ll invariably find a form of English being spoken by the locals. Heavily localised and spiced up, these versions of the global lingua franca have a certain appeal in how they reflect the cultural backgrounds of their speakers.
Southeast Asia is especially proof of this. Singlish (Singaporean English) and Manglish (Malaysian English), for example, are only one of the many English dialects you’ll hear around the region. Comprising a grab-bag of Malay, Chinese and Indian loanwords, Manglish and Singlish transcend the two countries’ various cultures and languages. And if you ask an Malaysian or Singaporean about them, you’ll probably encounter a general feeling of affection and pride for their careless, yet expressive charm.
Here’s a quick primer into Manglish and Singlish, with words and phrases that’ll get you sorted into Malaysian and Singaporean culture in no time.
1. Half-past six (e.g. “he did a really half-past six job of the whole thing”)
No, we don’t have any particular affection for that time of day. Rather, it’s a phrase used to express that something is done shoddily, or isn’t quite there. Erstwhile Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad famously described the Malaysian government as “half-past six with no guts” when it scrapped the Malaysian-Singaporean bridge project. A half-past six person, on the other hand, is incompetent, or falls short of standards.
2. Shiok/syok (e.g. “remember how shiok it was to go out before the pandemic?”)
Probably a derivative of the Malay word “asyik”, which denotes a feeling of infatuation or preoccupation, shiok is commonly used as an exclamation of satisfaction: “shiok!” That is to say, “damn, that was good!” – all rolled up into one satisfying word. It can also be used as an adjective: “wah, that dish was really shiok!”. Satisfying, both in meaning and use.
3. Pokai (e.g. “I don’t think I can afford sushi today, I pokai already”)
A Cantonese loanword, also recognised in recent years as a Malay word in the Kamus Dewan, pokai means broke, or skint. The original Cantonese word means to take a hard fall. Inexplicably, though, the word has taken on a different meaning in Manglish and Singlish.
Westerners tend to be particularly confused by this one, being also unfamiliar with the usage of honorifics in Asia. Where in Indonesia an older man might be called “Pak” (“father”) and an older woman “Ibu” (“mother”), Malaysians and Singaporeans take the more sideways route of informally calling any older man or woman “uncle” and “auntie”.
5. Outstation (e.g. “I’m sorry, I’m outstation and can only return your emails after I return.”)
A word that sees use not just here in Malaysia and Singapore, but also India, “outstation” generally refers to any location out of town that requires a long trip. The word possibly has colonial roots, being used in British times to mean when an officer was away from his station of duty.
6. Kantoi (e.g. “he kena kantoi cheating on his girl”)
A Malay loanword, to be “kantoi” means to be caught red-handed, especially in a shameful situation such as infidelity. The word was famously immortalised in a similarly-titled song by Malaysian singer-songwriter Zee Avi – which tells her story of how she caught her boyfriend cheating on her.
7. Wayang (e.g. “he put up some rubbish wayang after his girlfriend kantoi him”)
Another Malay loanword, to “wayang” means in Malay to put up a theatrical performance or show. In Manglish and Singlish, the word carries more negative connotations, and means to do the same thing metaphorically, functioning both as a noun (a show) and verb (to put on a show).
8. Chope (e.g. “can you chope a couple of spots for us at the cinema?”)
A word more familiar to Malaysians spelled without the “e” (chop), “chope” means to reserve a seat or place, usually by leaving a bag on a seat (if you’re brave enough), or in Singapore, a packet of tissues on a restaurant table. The word comes from the Asian-English “chop” – the rubber stamps of ownership traditionally used in business here in place of written signatures.