I was taught to not write the way that I speak. It’s embarrassing. Don't lah. Use proper English. It’s low-class. Not every Singaporean goes through this, but my everyday struggle with words includes reconciling the way that I write in Standard English, with the seemingly clumsier and more vulgar, spoken Singlish.
Not using Singlish? That’s an option, I guess. But my preferred approach is to whip it out, lending authenticity to a local context. When in Rome…
Because when it comes to languages, Singlish is closest to my heart. It makes for colourful vocabulary (and fantastic swearing), but writing it goes beyond simply dressing English sentences with lah, leh, and lor.
In fact, Singlish has its own set of rules. I’m no linguist, but if, like me, you insist on using Singlish when writing, you must prepare to know and explain these rules—in English, of course.
1. Lah, leh, and lor are not sounds. The three ‘L’s are particles that have no lexical meaning on their own, but are associated with another word or phrase to impart meaning or create a certain mood. What this means is that they are not empty, miscellaneous sounds that people toss in for fun and games. Nor are they pointless fillers in between proper sentence constructs. One does not simply use lah at his disposal.
“I doubt you will understand me if I use Singlish.”
“When I talk to you lah, I reckon you won’t understand if I use Singlish lah.”
“You understand Singlish meh?”
Still confused? Read on.
2. It’s about the nuances, such as where the word is placed, and what it modifies. The ‘L’ particles, for instance, each convey a different emotion or mood. They are used for a reason. Here are a few examples.
Lah: A particle that can express exasperation or pleading. It can be attached to ‘please’ as in, “Please lah, give up smoking. You have been coughing for months now.” Or as the generic, “Don’t like that lah,” she says to her boyfriend who refuses to talk to her after a quarrel.
Leh: A largely negative particle that can turn: 1) a question into a statement; or 2) a sentence into an omen, foreshadowing something bad. For example in, “Why leh. You aren’t happy with ‘us’?” Or, “Please leh. If you don’t give it back, I’m going to tell mummy.”
Lor: A particle that can be used to express general agreeability as in, “Ya lor, I oso say.” It can also be used for humble bragging, for instance in, “Please lor, I knew this riot would happen before the verdict was out,” the police spokesperson tells me.
3. Words become archaic. If you’re writing about a time-specific topic, take care to use the right words associated with the right era. Uncle Lim may talk about his childhood memories using words such as tuckshop, wallop, kampong, and about the goli, and hantam bola games he used to play.
But millennial YouTubers such as Noah Yap and Naomi Neo wouldn’t be caught dead using such dated terms. It’s 2015, not 1965. It’s canteen, not tuckshop. It’s whack, not wallop. Digital devices have taken over children’s lives. And we all know what became of kampongs.
4. It’s a polyglot’s nightmare. Singlish is the pulse of Singapore’s cultural composition. It is English stewed with Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Tamil, and Malay into one sweet melting pot of confusion. You could also describe it simply as rojak.
Some languages are used more often than the others, though. If you must pick which to learn, a typical Singlish conversation would largely consist of English, Hokkien and Malay, such as this one between a sergeant and Terry, a man serving National Service.
Sergeant: Terry, run faster leh.
Terry: Sergeant, cannot tahan already.
Sergeant: Haolian, thought you say can outrun me?
5. The shorter, the sweeter. Singlish comprises many contracted sentences. Imagine two Singaporean aunties chatting over breakfast at the coffee shop. And it may be farfetched, but let’s also imagine that these aunties are fastidious about Queen’s English, and faultlessly read The Elements of Style.
“How could it be? Didn’t you know that Tan passed away?”
“No, when did he?”
“I thought you knew! It was the day when it finally rained, and the haze cleared.”
“I thought I saw him at the market.”
Now imagine the two aunties going at it in full Singlish.
“Wah piang, Tan up-lorry you don’t know meh?”
“Raining then haze no more that day lah!”
“Den who I see?”
Like copywriting, the point is to convey something, eye-catchingly and in the least amount of words — that’s power. Meaning is often implied, which reduces the overall word count. Dramatic events can be summed up faster than you can say, “tweet”. That’s why Singlish is the language of choice for the lazy, like me.
 Oso: Singlish for ‘also’
 Kampong: a village with many attap houses within its compounds
 Goli: a game of marbles played by using pitting one marble in your arsenal against an opponent’s. Winner keeps the loser’s marbles
 Hantam Bola: this game, known as ‘hit ball’ in Malay, was played in schools from the 1950s to 1970s, before students somehow stopped playing it, perhaps for its tendency towards violence and bully. It involves hitting opponents at close range
 Tahan: Malay for ‘stand’ or ‘uphold’, or in this context, ‘endure’ or ‘hold out’
 Haolian: a Hokkien word that describes someone boastful.
 ‘Uncle’: a middle-aged man
 Wah piang: a polite way of saying wah lau, a swear word
 Den: Singlish for ‘then’