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Five Malay words Singaporeans claim – to the annoyance of their neighbours 

Malaysia and Singapore have a healthy rivalry in just about every sphere, but especially when it comes to language. Having been admonished by a reader, we delve into the Malay roots of some Singaporean English words

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 April, 2018, 6:32pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 April, 2018, 5:03pm

Confusing a Malaysian accent for Singaporean or vice versa is always going to land you in hot water, but don’t even get them started on the roots of their respective spoken languages. 

The intense rivalry felt between the two neighbouring Southeast Asian nations extends to just about everything, from food to nightlife – but most especially language and how to pronounce specific words. 

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While Singapore has four official national languages – English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil – the English-hybrid language Singlish is also commonly spoken. The choppy, staccato language borrows from a number of other Asian languages, including Malay (known in Malaysia as Bahasa Melayu). 

It’s this inadvertent “borrowing” of the words that is common cause for debate among the two nations. Singlish is often sprinkled with Malay words or variations of Malay words. When a native Malay word is used in Singlish, the meaning, spelling and pronunciation has often been inadvertently changed over the generations. 

That means that sometimes even non-Malay Singaporeans don’t know that a word they thought was Singlish was actually Malay all along – while to a Malay speaker, they are just butchering the word. 

For example, the Malay word for “disturb” is spelt kacau , but in Singlish it can be spelt kachiau . Who knew? Well Malaysians certainly do, and they will let you know if you get it wrong. 

Recently the Post came under fire from a reader for a story about Google Home understanding Singaporean English. The writer said the word kaki was Singaporean English for “friend”, which is technically correct. But the reader was also correct in arguing that the origin of kaki is Malay, where it means leg. So what’s in a name, and who can take ownership over it? 

Here are five other common Singlish words whose roots are actually Malay. 

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Original Malay meaning: potato (spelt kentang in Malay)

Singlish meaning: Westernised Singaporean 

The word kantang is used to describe a Singaporean who can only speak English and can’t speak his or her mother tongue. It is probably derived from the idea that Westerners like to eat potatoes, instead of noodles or rice. The original Malay word is actually spelt kentang, but has morphed into kantang when spoken by Singaporeans. 

Karung guni

Original Malay meaning: gunny sack (hessian bag)

Singlish meaning: rag and bone man

A familiar sight in old Singapore housing estates was a rag and bone man carrying a gunny sack to collect used newspapers. He would also buy old clothes, radios and televisions off residents for a small price as he went around with a horn and cart. 

Since they don’t use gunny sacks any more, karung guni is used to describe the rag and bone man instead. 


Original Malay meaning: wood 

Singlish meaning: not being fair/stupid/blockhead 

If you’ve ever attended a soccer match in Singapore, you will have no doubt heard the crowd screaming, “referee kayu” if the referee made an unfavourable call against one team. The original Malay term means “wood”, so Singaporean fans like to criticise the referee as a wooden blockhead if they are making an unfair decision. 


Original Malay meaning: offshore fishing platform 

Singlish meaning: match fixing/cheating 

Here’s another soccer example. If an outcome of a game seems questionable, Singaporeans will say the result was kelong. In Malay, kelong refers to a wooden platform fisherman use when offshore. Fishermen need to ensure their nets are fixed before being cast into the sea, otherwise their catch will no doubt escape. Likewise a bribed player will no doubt throw the match if bribed. Therefore kelong is used to describe a guilty player or a fixed match. 

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Original Malay meaning: marble (spelt gundu in Malay)

Singlish meaning: idiotic 

The origin of goondu is still up for debate. The Malay word gundu refers to something hard and heavy, therefore, it’s believed the Singlish word goondu evolved from it to mean someone who is stupid or thick. However, other people believe goondu actually came from the Tamil word kuntu that means fat or bomb. Either way, you can see how the spelling changed over time once it was co-opted.