Singaporelang exhibition explores Singlish

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Singaporean photographer Zinkie Aw poses next to one of her photographs on 3 Sept at Objectifs. Aw feels that Singlish is “a secret code that brings people together”.

By Lim Yen Siu

SINGAPORE, Oct 8 (Campus Eye) – In an interactive visual exhibition at Objectifs, Singaporean photographer Zinkie Aw is hoping that visitors can delve into and explore the vocabulary and heritage of Singlish.

Titled “Singaporelang- What the Singlish?” rotating word panels and post-its allow visitors to label pictures of everyday scenes with a Singlish word of their choice.

“I had started with one word in mind like ‘pek chek’ (Singlish for annoyed) but after I shot the scenes, I realized there was more than one phrase for each scene,” said Aw, 30.

“I guess that’s the beauty of Singlish, in that different people may have different palettes of Singlish because of the different words they use daily.”

As part of the exhibition, Aw traced the various languages from which certain Singlish words originated.

The meaning of each Singlish word was then translated into Singapore’s four national languages – English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil – accompanied by sample sentences to demonstrate its use.

By providing insight into the roots and meaning behind each Singlish word, Aw hopes that the language would “be more accessible to people, especially foreigners who might not understand it”.


The importance of Singlish to Singapore’s culture has been hotly debated for decades.

Some have denounced the language for being ‘broken English’ and portraying Singapore in a bad light.

In 2000, former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong launched the Speak Good English Movement to encourage Singaporeans to speak Standard Singapore English instead of Singlish.

However, others feel that Singlish is an integral part of the Singaporean identity.

“There is always a stigma associated with languages like Singlish that has so many local terms,” said Professor Bao Zhiming of the National University of Singapore.

Yet, the English language and linguistics professor believes that “Singlish carries Singapore’s history, Singapore’s culture and essentially Singaporean-ness”.

“It’s like a ‘rojak’ (Singlish for mixed) language. Many people use the word pidgin and creole to describe it but I don’t think that is an accurate term from a technical point of view,” Bao said.

A pidgin is a simplified version of a particular language while a creole is a pidgin that has evolved to become the native language of a community.

At the recent SG50 National Day Parade, Singlish floats such as ‘blur like sotong’ were also included in the programme.

This could indicate that the government has become more accepting of the language.

Aw has been a full-time photographer since graduating from the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information in 2008.

This is her second solo photography exhibition.

Singaporelang- What the Singlish? will be displayed at Jurong East Regional Library from 26 October.

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