Singlish vs Manglish – What’s the difference, ah?

The Singapore-Malaysia Causeway. Photo by Lionel Lim (Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
The Singapore-Malaysia Causeway. Photo by Lionel Lim (Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

In the colorful tapestry of Southeast Asia, the linguistic landscape is as diverse as the cultures that inhabit it. Two unique varieties of English have emerged in neighboring nations, Malaysia and Singapore, known as Manglish and Singlish, respectively. 

These creole languages are a testament to the rich history, multiculturalism, and shared experiences of these two nations, yet they each possess distinct characteristics that set them apart.

Now, outsiders may feel a little out of the loop in their first exposure to Singlish and Manglish, so we’ve put together this list of some of the most common words you may hear during everyday conversation, and their subtle differences between Singapore and Malaysia. Learn some of these and you’ll be on your way, lah.

‘Sia’ (Singlish) vs ‘Sial’ (Manglish):

One of the most conspicuous differences between Singlish and Manglish is the frequent use of “sia” or “siah” in the former. This term, seldom heard in Manglish, is a versatile particle used for emphasis or to express envy. 

For instance in Singlish, you might hear someone say, “Crazy sia!” which means, “Damn, that’s crazy!” 

In Manglish, there’s a similar term but it is accepted and understood as a swear word, which is “sial.” This word can mean many things from being a curse to expressing one’s annoyance towards another person, like “You damn sial lah!” 

‘Tikam’ (Singlish) vs ‘Tembak’ (Manglish)

Tikam” in Singlish might be used in a sentence like: “I didn’t study for the test so I just tikam only.” Here, the word implies doing something without being fully prepared for it – taking a stab in the dark, as it were. 

On the other hand, “tembak” in Singlish could be used in a sentence like: “Don’t just tembak your opinions; think before you speak.” In this context, “tembak” means expressing opinions without much thought or consideration.

Basically, both mean using very few brain cells. 

‘Genna/Kana’ (Singlish) vs ‘Kena’ (Manglish)

The words are used to indicate experiencing something negative or receiving a punishment or scolding.

In Singlish, you might be late for work for the fifth time in a row and you “genna/kena” scolded by your boss again. 

Whereas in Manglish, you might park your car wherever your heart desires and risk “kena” a fine. 

‘Gajiao’ (Singlish) vs ‘Kacau’ (Manglish) 

Kacau” means to disturb or annoy someone, and it’s a common term in both Singlish and Manglish. However, in Singlish, this word is often spelled differently, showcasing the creativity of language.

In Singlish, you might tell someone “Don’t gajiao me!” which means, “Don’t disturb me.” 

While in Manglish, you might hear someone say, “Eh, I kena kacau last night” which means something or someone disturbed the speaker (it’s usually not human). 

‘Scarly’ vs ‘Sekali’

Scarly” and “sekali” both serve to express “what if” or “in case,” but the pronunciation varies:

In Singlish, someone might say, “scarly she finds out you are talking to a different girl, you are dead!” 

Whereas in Manglish, it might be something like; “You better prepare extra food. Sekali not enough then how?”

Manglish and Singlish are living languages that encapsulate the essence of their respective nations. While they share a historical connection and a multicultural influence, they each have their own distinctive traits. These languages are not merely linguistic curiosities but symbols of identity, unity, and resilience in the face of change.


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