by Kat Ngoi
Singlish. More than a derivative of English to describe colloquialism in Singapore, it’s become an intriguing cultural phenomenon to the rest of the English-speaking world attracting a mix of both surprise and amusement. Foreigners who visit or have just settled in Singapore may notice the strange way native Singaporeans speak a form of illegitimate English. I could’ve said ‘bastardised’ English but then I risk offending Singaporeans who regard such a word as an expletive.
Which brings me to my next point. Knowing the culture of a nation well is key to understanding the beauty of its many quirks and colloquialism. English words that may seem like ordinary verbs or nouns elsewhere could be deemed as taboo to Singaporeans. For the last 15 years since we relocated from Singapore to Australia, the word ‘bloody’ (regarded as offensive to a Singaporean) still makes me wince when I hear it used casually Down Under. “Bloody hot weather aye”!
In 2006, an Australian tourism video that made a bikini-clad Aussie model Lara Bingle the most exposed poster girl of Oz backfired when aired in Singapore. Quite ironically, its objective was to woo Singaporeans Down Under with the most talked-about question posed by a chirpy Lara, “Where the bloody hell are you?”
If you live in Singapore, you’ll know that ‘bloody hell’ is the last thing you’ll utter in public. In Singapore, it’s vile profanity. My Australian example of cultural faux pas is clearly how not to assume that someone from another culture will understand a common phrase or word locals use on an everyday basis. It is also no easy task to explain it to someone born in a different nation. Perhaps this is mainly because our national culture plays such a key role in determining what’s acceptable banter or what could be considered rude, or perhaps what will draw wide-eyed surprise from non-native speakers—such as the local slang “Shiok!” that we Singaporeans commonly use to describe our joy, satisfaction of pleasure.
“You don’t know meh?” (Haven’t you heard yet?) Through viral sharing on social media, probably every Singaporean living overseas has heard of the controversial local tourism ad campaign, Shiok! which seemed to have put its foot in its mouth in attempting to endear Singapore and Singlish to foreigners through its otherwise technically well-executed tourism video.
A pity as it had the merit of a well-directed storyline,beautiful footage revolving around how and why locals say ‘shiok’. Its every good intention to celebrate our unique, charming and disparate icons was lost in translation like its Australian counterpart, making Singaporeans ‘tak-shiok’ (not quite shiok or satisfied, in Malay). Pure proof that colloquialism is complex. Its wrong use can result in hilarious consequences at best, and cultural faux pas at worst.
Singaporeans applauded as the media and netizens had a field day swinging bats at the controversial Shiok! video to the point it was pulverised into ‘bak chor mee’ (a delectable minced pork noodle dish in Singapore you’ve got to try if you haven’t).
So where exactly did the two-and-a-half minute video go from award-winning to cringe-worthy as it depicted all the scenarios in the indefectible Singapore that would make locals (and hopefully tourists) exclaim ‘shiok’ out of pleasure and sheer satisfaction? Perhaps by inserting ‘shiok’ in one too many places that is ‘tak jadi’ (‘not so’ in Malay)in a way that could only be detected as inappropriate by a true Singaporean at heart.
Like how it’s a dead giveaway that someone isn’t a true local by the way they insert ‘what’, ‘meh’, ‘lah’, ‘leh’ or ‘lor’. For instance, when someone says “I want Chicken Rice meh” when asked what they wanted for lunch. It will no doubt draw a ‘Hah?” (meaning What?I beg your pardon?) from a Singaporean as the speaker has just expressed they aren’t even sure whether they wanted to have Chicken Rice or not.
In the same way, the Shiok! video misused the expression ‘shiok’ in depictions that were a tad exaggerated, unnatural, perhaps misused and would be lost on foreign viewers who aren’t able to understand, appreciate, much less identify with it.
A true blue Singaporean would know ‘shiok’ is how we convey great satisfaction or pleasure in the same spirit of exclamations like Bravo! Fabulous! Wow! Yet only a true native Singlish speaker would understand the correct context of its use.
To be fair, trying to explain what ‘shiok’ means or (how to use the ‘shiok’ correctly) to someone who doesn’t live in Singapore is tough. Such is the delicate nature of Singlish, described by some local writers as a native way of speaking English in Singapore that has to be lived rather than be scrutinised as a form of linguistics to be dissected or analysed. Confusion is rife when foreigners fail to grasp the underlying meaning of Singlish phrases or words, even with common expressions such as ‘shiok’ used perhaps on a daily basis by Singaporeans.
Here’s my take on ‘shiok’, an expression that was derived from a Malay word ‘syok’, representing a myriad of positive emotions denoting extreme pleasure, glee, joy, satisfaction, envy and even anticipation. Let’s simply get back to basics—by using Singlish to tell it like it is.
‘Aiya how to tell non-Singaporeans what is ‘shiok’…’
‘They sure won’t understand one.’
‘Ya lah, if they are not Singaporean, how can they know, right not?’
‘Sure very hard to explain one mah.’
‘Ya lor. Even the tourism video by our own garmen (a Singaporean’s short form for ‘government’) also cannot explain properly, then how to explain, right?’
‘Aiya then you must tell people what is Singlish first mah.’
‘I also know.’
‘I try and try also cannot then how?’
‘Then too bad lor’.
Singaporeans commonly use ‘shiok’ as a noun to refer to the quality of goods and services, places, things, events and in particular, food! Examples are:
‘This plate of prawn noodles is very shiok’.(very delicious)
‘This mattress is so shiok (extremely comfortable),I can sleep here now.’
‘I love coming here, shopping is so shiok’. (very eventful)
The word ‘shiok’ as a verb is also normally used in a phrase to describe a condition or experience, such as ‘Shiok, man!’ A variation is ‘shiokers’ or ‘si beh shiok’ (‘si bei’ is a Chinese Hokkien dialect for ‘very’).
A colleague at work may announce to his co-workers, “tomorrow I’m on leave leh, so shiok.” He was trying to express his glee that he has the day off work the following day and is so stoked about it.
Let’s just say he goes on to boast about his long weekend with, “and then the next day is a Public Holiday, lagi shiok!” (‘lagi’ is a Malay word to mean ‘more’), to mean his joy is multiplied.
In a typical Singaporean response, a fellow co-worker congratulates him with the exclamation “Tomorrow you on leave ah, shiok lah!” The exaggerated alternative to ‘shiok lah’ is ‘shiok, sia’! (‘sia’ is used as a kind of suffix to bring an added emphasis and exaggerated quality to something, and makes ‘lah’ sound more passive in comparison).
Good fortune brews envy. Now enter the office party-pooper (there’s always one in every workplace) who interrupts the pair with “On leave shiok meh? Next day got more work to clear, what so shiok?” A surefire way to dampen your colleague’s spirits by taking the excitement and anticipation out of an imminent holiday. Who needs to be reminded that they have to deal with backlog on their return to work.
Now do you get what ‘shiok’ means, when and how to use it? If you nod, I’ll say ‘heng ah’ (‘lucky me’ in Hokkien). ‘Shiok liao’ (I’m satisfied now). Now my job is done.
This article was first published on the Overseas Singaporean.sg ‘Scribblers’ page on 8 April 2015 SG50 Icons of Singapore #13 Shiok!