Huat ah!

Singaporelang — What the Singlish?

Photos by Zinkie Aw

Singapore’s photography scene is growing in interesting new ways. And it’s not just a boom fueled by social media. An increasing number of local photographers are publishing their own books, holding exhibitions and making a name for themselves overseas.

This new monthly series highlights the diverse range of stories these Singapore photographers have produced in recent years, from a quirky visualisation of Singlish, to an extensive documentary on life in Singapore’s Southern Islands. Often going beyond what mainstream news outlets produce or publish, these photo-essays add rich new layers to the visual record of changing life in Singapore.

We kick off the series with “Singaporelang — What the Singlish?”, photographer Zinkie Aw’s technicolour love letter to Singlish. So, mai tu liao, check out the photos below and see if you can suggest lagi better captions.

Mai tu liao!

About Zinkie Aw: Born in 1985, Zinkie has a self-confessed obsession with ‘trashy portraits’. Her work primarily revolves around her observations on issues like identity, urban consumption, trends and the environment.

Zinkie’s photographs have been featured in publications like the Sunday Times (UK) and Kult Magazine, as well as on online photography sites like Invisible Photographer Asia and PetaPixel.


How Singaporean are you?

I think I am very Singaporean because I eat, think, breathe and speak like one, and I am self-confessed sibei kiasu with my photography.

While working on this project, I also realised that many people have the misconception that only ah bengs or ah lians or army boys use Singlish. But hey, wrong lor! The whole Singapore does!

Wah biang!

What’s your favourite Singlish catchphrase?

Bo-xi-kan and jin-bo-eng (busy, no time)!

From your previous projects, such as Meet the Candi-dates (which documented people playing Candy Crush, 2013) and Republic of Pulau Semakau (about people and trash, 2012), you seem obsessed with social habits. Why?

I am interested in sociological habits and identities that seem to be mundane or banal. Most of my observations come from personal ‘complaints’ or ‘bitching’. (Very Singaporelang hor?) For instance, it can be what I dislike, or what I find wacky. I don’t need to photograph superstars or heroes to make a statement or to make ‘good work’.

Bao ga liao.

What Singaporelang habits do you find the most interesting? And what do you find most disturbing?

Consumption plus hoarding. These two themes are intertwined and can appear overtly or subtly. I see them in myself as well! I am hoping to remix them into something visual.

Stylo Milo.

There are a lot of Singlish phrases in Singapore. How did you select the ones presented in this book? Was there a vote among friends, or did you simply tikam and decide?

This is an ongoing project and I have selected my best (so far) 15 images for I picked the Singlish phrases that I wanted to photograph based on a long list from books, comics and online dictionaries. Then I spoke to ah gongs and ah mahs, professionals, uncles and aunties, people from different races in Singapore, and also young children in primary schools.

Kelong ah!

What is the best and worst thing you have heard about your photos?

Best: They really capture a slice of life and in a roundabout way, I make a social statement that hits the viewer at the end of my series.

Worst: Some people have said my works are exaggerated and contrived. I think exaggeration is needed because Singlish is never used in a subtle way. Also, some friends say my photographs are outrageous colour-bombs. But I like that!

Buay hoo…

Complete this sentence: “In 10 years, I hope Singapore will be …”

sibei tok kong but give discount on cost of living.

Is Singlish a behaviour or just a language?

To me, it is a happening way of life.


Do you think the authorities will ever regret trying to discourage Singaporeans from using Singlish?

I don’t think it is a matter of whether the authorities have a say. To me language is about the people on the streets who use it. As language historian Anne Curzan puts it, “there is no objective dictionary out there that is the final arbitrator of what words mean … if a community of speakers is using a word and knows what it means, it’s real.”

It is really a question of attitudes — are we bothered by the question of language change, or do we find it fun, interesting and creative? We are asked to make new music, art … so how about new words?


Given that after going through years of Speak Good English campaigns, we Singaporelangs still stick with Singlish, it probably means that Singlish has withstood the test of time. We just use English and Singlish for different contexts.

The photographs and interview first appeared in the book Singaporelang published in January 2015 by Platform, a local photography collective. Platform has published 22 books since June 2013 to help mark Singapore’s Golden Jubilee.

For more on Zinkie’s Singaporelang series, go to:

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