By Cher Tan
Malay may be enshrined in the national Constitution of Singapore as the ‘national’ language, but in practice the most common language is English, spoken by almost every Singaporean under the age of 50 with varying degrees of fluency. English is spoken much better here than in most Asian countries. English is also the medium of instruction in schools, except for mother tongue subjects (e.g. Malay, Mandarin and Tamil), which are also required to be learned in school by Singaporeans. In addition, all official signs and documents are written in English, usually using British spelling.
However, the distinctive local patois Singlish may be hard to understand at times, as it incorporates slang words and phrases from other languages, including various Chinese dialects, Malay and Tamil as well as English words whose pronunciation or meaning have been corrupted.
Additionally, it has an odd way of structuring sentences, due to the original speakers being mostly Chinese. For foreigners it may be very hard to understand Singlish, especially when spoken fast. An example of Singlish and how to have fun with it is shown in this video:
Singapore’s other official languages are Mandarin Chinese and Tamil. Like English, the Mandarin spoken in Singapore has also evolved into a distinctive creole and often incorporates words from other Chinese dialects, Malay and English, though all Singaporean Chinese are taught standard Mandarin in school. Various Chinese dialects (mostly Hokkien, though significant numbers also speak Teochew and Cantonese) are also spoken between ethnic Chinese of the same dialect group, though their use has been declining in the younger generation since the 1980s due to government policies discouraging the use of dialects in favour of Mandarin. Other Indian languages, such as Punjabi among the Sikhs, are also spoken.
On the cultural side of things, Singapore has been trying to shake off its boring, buttoned-down reputation and attract more artists and performances, with mixed success. The star in Singapore’s cultural sky is the Esplanade theatre in Marina Bay, a world-class facility for performing arts and a frequent stage for the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. Pop culture options are more limited and Singapore’s home-grown arts scene remains rather moribund. On the upside, any bands and DJs touring Asia are pretty much guaranteed to perform in Singapore. Read our insider tips for some off the beaten track cultural hotspots in Singapore or our tips for the best up and coming Singapore bands.
Going to the movies is a popular Singaporean pastime, but look for “R21” ratings (21 and up only) if you like your movies with fewer cuts.
Shopping and eating are also popular Singaporean pastimes, and one can find no lack of the two options as malls and eating establishments are around every corner of the island, whether in the city or in the suburbs.