When Singlish isn't very shiok

This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 13, 2013 

I'll be honest. When I first saw the new Singapore Shiok tourism video, I was utterly confused.

First, I was wondering why there was a Caucasian man going "Shhh... shhh" at the start of the video.

Was he trying to share a secret about the wonders of Singapore? Was he asking me to be quiet so I could better appreciate the wonders of Singapore in silence? Or perhaps he was trying to urge a small child off screen to go to the toilet so they can later enjoy the wonders of Singapore uninterrupted?

And I remain confused even as the ad rolled on, showing the definition of shiok ("A Singaporean expression denoting extreme pleasure or the high quality") followed by scenes of people using the word in highly inappropriate contexts.

When I say inappropriate contexts, I don't mean inappropriate in this sense: "Yes, yes, yes, faster, faster, faster, shiooook, more, more, more."

"Eh, hello Miss, that's it. The air-con is set to maximum already."

When I say inappropriate, what I mean is that if some of the scenes in the video were repeated in real life, everyone would wonder if the person in question was a foreigner receiving bad advice on how to blend in or a Singaporean under the influence of powerful drugs.

For instance, no local has ever used the term "shiok" to describe a canopy walk, zoo animals or a luxury goods store.

You will never hear phrases such as "This view of the jungle is very shiok" or "Those elephants are shiok" or "It is extremely shiok to take an Instagram of this luxury goods store".

The more appropriate colloquial phrases for these situations are: "Wah, this view not bad but this place is too far away lah. No car, very hard", "Eh, like that only ah? I thought they would have more elephants" and "Wah lau, this shop is darn expensive".

After all, there really is nothing more Singaporean than complaining in Singlish.

So yes, the further into the ad I got, the more confused I became. It was only right at the very end that one mystery - the case of the Caucasian man that says "shhh" - was solved.

It seems he was tasting some local food and then struggled to pronounce the word shiok due to a speech impediment.

Ok, to be clear, I do not know for a fact that he has a speech impediment. I am merely coming to this conclusion based on the fact that he is struggling to pronounce a simple two-syllable word and that the completion of this rather basic task was greeted by hearty applause from his Singaporean friends.

They applauded his successful pronunciation of shiok the same way parents are known to congratulate small children for simple achievements like not getting mashed carrots in their hair.

To give credit where credit is due though, the video was quite a slick production and it did include many scenes where the word is used correctly.

The problem, of course, is that they tried to use Singlish and that is just asking for trouble. Singlish is a very tricky language especially when trying to use it to communicate to foreigners.

Any attempt to try and retrofit it to work within the boundaries that non- Singaporeans understand will always produce less than satisfactory results.

Consider the example of PhD student Ng E-Ching who recently attempted to teach a class of Yale professors Singlish in preparation for their stint at the Yale-NUS (National University of Singapore) college that will open here later this year.

Here was a very bright person teaching a class of very bright people.

Yet, she committed the cardinal sin of trying to come up with rules for Singlish.

She said that in Singlish, a verb repeated once - as in "try try only" - means doing something briefly. But when repeated twice - as in "try try try still cannot" - it means excessive action.

While this sounds correct, it is far from being a rule. It is more of a one-off example. I struggle to think of any other situation other than the one given where this principle can be reliably applied.

Beseeching someone to "eat", to "eat eat" or to "eat eat eat" doesn't carry significantly different weights. In Singapore, regardless of the number of times the verb "eat" is repeated, it always means excessive action.

Hence, there can be no satisfactory answer to the follow-up question posed by Yale-NUS dean of faculty Charles Bailyn to ask whether using a verb four times had yet another meaning.

This is also why it is impossible for anyone to properly articulate the rules of using "lah" in such a way that a non- native speaker can grasp it.

Singaporeans can always instantly tell a fake Singlish speaker because they invariably use the "lah" in the wrong place ("Can I have one char kway teow lah?").

Ultimately, the thing we must all learn to accept is that Singlish is a language that cannot be taught. It is a language that has to be lived.

If you try and shortcut the process, you are setting yourself up for failure.

Try and use it in a tourism ad and you may end up with a video that has Singaporeans asking: "What is this shhh...?"

This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 13, 2013

To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to