Language and Culture
A Multicultural Kaleidoscope
One of the most remarkable aspects of Singapore is the truly cosmopolitan nature of her population, a natural result of the country’s geographical position and commercial success. Established by Thomas Stamford Raffles as a trading post on 29 January 1819, the small sea town of Singapore soon attracted migrants and merchants from China, the Indian subcontinent, Indonesia, the Malay Peninsula and the Middle East.
Drawn by the lure of better prospects, the immigrants brought with them their own cultures, languages, customs and festivals. Intermarriage and integration helped knit these diverse influences into the fabric of Singapore’s multi-faceted society, giving it a vibrant and diverse cultural heritage. By the end of the 19th century, Singapore became one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Asia, with major ethnic groups in the country being the Chinese, Malays, Indians, Peranakans and Eurasians.
Today, the ethnic Chinese form 74.1% of the Singaporean population, with the country’s original inhabitants – the Malays, comprising of 13.4%. The Indians make up 9.2%, and Eurasians, Peranakans and others making up a combined 3.2%. Singapore is also home to many expatriates, with almost 20% of them made up of non-resident blue collar workers from the Philippines, Indonesia and Bangladesh. The rest of the expatriate population include white collar workers coming from countries as diverse as North America, Australia, Europe, China and India.
As a reflection of its collage of cultures, Singapore has adopted one representative language for each of the four major ethnic or ‘racial’ groups. The four official languages in Singapore’s constitution are English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil. However, in recognition of the status of the Malay people as the indigenous community in Singapore, the national language of the country is Bahasa Melayu, or the Malay Language.
The presence of other languages, especially the varieties of Malay and Chinese, has obviously had an influence on the type of English that is used in Singapore. The influence is especially apparent in informal English, an English-based creole that is commonly known as Singlish. A badge of identity for many Singaporeans, it represents a hybrid form of the language that includes words from Malay, as well as Chinese and Indian languages.
habis – finished
makan – to eat
chope – to reserve something
cheem – difficult, complicated
ang mo – a white person
rojak – mixed, a mix of
liao – finished, the end
kiasu – afraid to lose mentality
Speakers of Singlish will usually end his sentence with a distinctive exclamation. The three most common are ah, lah, ley and what.
Ok lah, bye bye.
Don’t like that lah.
You are going there ah?
No parking lots here, what.
The price is too high for me lah.
And then how many rooms ah?
It is very troublesome ley.
Don’t be like that ley!
I’m not at home lah. That’s why ah.
Almost everyone in Singapore speaks more than one language, with many people speaking as many as three or four. Most children grow up bilingual from infancy, learning other languages as they become older. With the majority of the literate population bilingual, English and Mandarin are the most commonly used languages in daily life. While English is the main language taught in schools, children also learn their mother tongues to ensure that they stay in touch with their traditional roots.
Among the different Chinese dialects, Mandarin is promoted as the main language for the Chinese instead of others like Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka, Hainanese and Foochow. The second most commonly-spoken language among the Singaporean Chinese, Mandarin became widespread after the start of the Speak Mandarin campaign during 1980 that targeted the Chinese. In 1990s, efforts were undertaken to target the English-educated Chinese.
Explore the various cultural precincts and religious landmarks around the island and get acquainted with Singapore’s multicultural society. Whether you join a tour or discover your own Singapore, you’ll be sure to catch a glimpse of the impressive history, cultural diversity and lifestyles of Singaporeans during your visit to our city-state.