From day-to-day behaviour to cultural quirks, some things which seem strange to others just seem so normal to us. Like calling everyone who owns a taxi our Uncle.
To all our foreign friends, you shall be confused no more.
Here’s your cheat sheet to understanding the top 10 common quirks that Singaporeans possess. And for my fellow natives, it’s time to ponder the realisation that – sia lah... – we ARE kinda weird!
1. How are there like, FIVE languages in one sentence?
How is it possible that we can cram a multitude of languages and dialects into one simple sentence?
Source: Renae Cheng
For a nation with a culture and ethnic mix so diverse, our language is just as colourful. Growing up as a Hakka Chinese girl, I spent recess hanging out with not just my Malay and Indian besties, but also fellow Chinese kids who were Hokkien, Peranakan and Cantonese - our unique slangs soon rubbed off on each other.
Source Seeing schoolmates in their national costumes every Racial Harmony Day is something we all looked forward to.
Any time an unfamiliar term came up in conversation, we’d ask around for the meaning, and another new word or phrase would be added to our vocabularies.
To this very day, I’m still learning bits and pieces of foreign languages that aid in my communication with everyone around me. There’s no joy quite like coaching your foreign friend with handy slangs and hearing them exclaim, “wah, shiok!” when they dig into that plate of char kway teow during lunch. We had some foreign friends over recently. Watch how we taught them Singlish below!
2. Why everything must end with “one”, one?
“Two apples please! I want that one.” *points*
“Ok, you want one?” “No, I want TWO!
But I want this one.”
What’s up with our obsession with punctuating our sentences with “one”? Do we love this single digit so much that we’ve decided to incorporate it into our secret language?
In Singlish, “one” acts as a closer in our statements much like “lah”, “leh” and “lor”.
One theory is that this is the result of a bastardisation of the Mandarin translation of “one” (一个/yi ge). In Mandarin, 个 (ge) is used to refer to ANY particular object, person, or situation, regardless of the actual number (when they say "3", they say 三个, meaning "three ones"). This habit crept into speaking habits when Mandarin speakers started speaking English more often.
Regardless, if all else fails and the explanations don’t seem plausible, just remember: “It’s like that one”.
3. Why is “can” both the question and the answer to so many things?
This simple but oh-so-powerful word means no time and effort goes to waste in our daily interactions. Not only is it a common noun, the fact that it can also be used not only as a question but also an answer means it's all you'll ever need to facilitate conversations.
Situation: Asking someone to meet up tomorrow.
Full length: "Would you like to meet up with me tomorrow?"
"Why, yes! That would be lovely and I am fully agreeable with that."
The power of Can: "Tomorrow meet up. Can?"
That said, the word “can” could also be used for passive aggressive subtext. If "can" is preceded by an “ok” or even – gasp! – a “k”... you'd better run.
How to know if really can.
4. Why are ALL your meals doused in chilli?
Source Chilli sauce on Japanese tonkatsu? BLASPHEMY!
Noodles, rice, even snacks. There is no escape from that familiar flame set to your taste buds. I went out for dinner with a friend recently and she had spare chilli sauce packets in her handbag?! Um.
As a nation, there is no denying that we LOVE our chilli. Whether chili sauce packets, dried chilli powder, or the iconic sambal belacan, I want them all. And this love for all things spicy isn't limited to Singaporeans! My European pal who has an embarrassingly weak spice tolerance perseveres, face full of tears, dipping his chicken into that plate of orange goodness when he eats chicken rice… in the name of chilli. That, my friends, is true bravery.
Also, #throwback to 2008 when McDonald’s removed their glorious garlic chilli sauce packets. In a truly trying period in many Singaporeans' lives, remember how we revolted demanding its their return? Yep, that pretty much says it all.
5. Why are you calling me your “boss”? But yay thanks for thinking I’m handsome/pretty!
Every time I order cai fan, the lady behind the counter calls me boss, when I am clearly not her employer... Have I perhaps hired a personal cook by accident? Should I be issuing her paychecks from now on?
While shopkeepers and other service staff tend to address you with a simple “sir” or “ma’am” in most countries, the Singaporean style of calling you “boss” is a sign of utmost respect. It also acts as a candid and cordial way to establish contact with you and hopefully open up the channels of lighthearted banter as you proceed with your transaction.
As far as the shuài gē (handsome guy) and měi nǚ (pretty girl) titles go...we hate to break it to ya. But they’re probably just buttering you up to make a purchase. Sorry!
6. Are you all somehow related to one another?
Why is literally everyone older than you either your aunty or uncle? How is it biologically possible that the entire population of Singapore are long-lost relatives to one another?!
Call a “young” lady auntie and suffer the consequences.
The list of strange ways to address people we don’t know personally continues. When we see someone older than us in public, we call them “aunty” for the ladies and “uncle” for the men. Not that we’re their niece or nephew, it’s simply a way for us to address them without even having to know their name! If anything, it stems from a place of affection and respect.
7. Why do you eat hawker food… even when you’re not at the hawker centre?
I’m eating sushi! Just kidding, it’s chicken rice. Again. With chilli, of course.
We love dining at kopitiams. But why is it that even when we share a meal at cafes, fancy restaurants or even the DESSERT parlour, we somehow manage to pick the most localised and hawker-style dish on the menu?
Simply put, we just love hawker food - it’s affordable, fuss-free and delicious. When we’re away from our favourite zi char stall, we miss the familiar flavours and aromas wafting through the crowds.
Or perhaps we just need an excuse to pig out on fresh and piping hot otah in an atas (high class) setting. Like these swanky hawker recreations featured on the menus of hipster cafes and upscale restaurants! And yes, desserts based on hawker favourites are a thing too. Chilli crab flavoured ice cream, anyone?
8. Why do you love queues so much?
The act of willingly queueing is as Singaporean as it can get. Typically regarded by others as a mind-numbing, time-waster of a chore, locals find great thrill when they chance upon a snaking line of humans. What lies at the finishing end? Is it freebies? Yay! We don’t even care what it is - we need it in our lives.
We chirpily hop in to join queues for tables at a hot new eatery for overhyped food, or at clearance sales to buy cheap clothes we didn’t even need to begin with. Top tip for life: Not sure what food to get when you visit a new hawker centre? Just head to the stall with the longest queue! Duh.
Let’s not forget the infamous overnight queues for McDonald’s Hello Kitty plushies. That’s right. Grown men and women. Clamouring for plush toys of a mouthless cat. You know it’s getting real when fights break out mid-queue…and people still refuse to leave the line and just go home.
The plus side? You sure can do a lot of bonding in the time spent getting to the front of the line! I once got to hear a new acquaintance’s life story in the duration it took for us to acquire a complimentary goodie bag. Beat that!
9. Wait, what are we rushing for again?
Source That moment when the MRT door opens...
This falls under the category of unexplainable cultural phenomenons that just become ingrained in a collective society over the time. Like how people from certain countries are known to be extraordinarily punctual, courteous, or conscientious.
Fun fact: A study by The British Council showed that Singaporeans are the #1 fastest walkers in the world, followed by people who live in Copenhagen and Madrid.
While I’m usually rushing by default to make it in time for school or work, I find that I’m speed-walking even on the days when I can afford to travel at a leisurely pace. With that many people in your midst just whizzing by you to chope a seat on the train, it just feels weird to be shuffling along slowly.
OR...there’s a queue for something right around the corner and hey, we wouldn’t want to miss that!
10. Who eats ice cream with BREAD?
When we say ice cream sandwich, we’re not referring to the hipster cookie versions that costs up to five bucks a pop. We’re talking about the good ol’ scoop of ice cream straight out of your friendly neighbourhood uncle’s cart of frozen treats, sandwiched between the folds of bright and cheery rainbow bread.
Oh, the glorious things you could do with bread! Some genius also decided one day that bak kwa sandwiches should be a thing. Shout-out to whoever it is, I’ve enjoyed many a quick and easy meal just by slapping some bak kwa goodness between two pieces of roti.
The More You Know
These 10 quirks are things that no self-respecting Singaporean will go "huh?" about. It's "normal" for us to walk at our usual pace, to use a rojak sentence with 3 languages fluently, or to simply have our food the way we want it.
But do you remember the last time you went to a different country and were flabbergasted at the things they did? My friend once told me how he had to stand in a cinema in Thailand before the movie as a short clip of the Thai king played. That's "normal" for the Thai folk, but is enough to make any Singaporean raise an eyebrow. The next time you see a foreigner looking curiously at you eating an ice cream with bread, you should remember that what’s normal to you may be strange to them!
So the next time you catch a friend from a different country low-key judging you for something you do without a second thought, let them in on the fun! As much as we want to be seen as "not weird", that's all our foreign friends want as well. So give them the backstory of how that particular quirk came about, and see them using it in real life situations like a true-blue Singaporean.
You’ll both revel in the fact that such wonderful knowledge of our culture was passed on, hopefully through generations and across the globe. Hey, it sure beats having to pick up a history textbook!
This post is part of an initiative to promote better understanding between Singaporeans and foreigners.