Is this sia suay?

By March 21, 2020 March 25th, 2020 Research Publications

“Don’t play play hor!”

A trademark phrase brought to life by character Phua Chu Kang (PCK) in the popular television sitcom in the 1990s, has today, become one of Singapore’s quintessential Singlish phrases.

Essentially a string of non-standard grammatical features of the English language infused with elements of other dialects and languages, Singlish bears its hallmark of distinctive intonations and sentence structures.

Although widely acknowledged and accepted as the colloquial form of English commonplace in Singapore with most – if not all – Singaporeans adopting some form of Singlish or another, are Singaporeans as accepting when it comes to political officeholders utilizing Singlish?

This question surfaced after the recent leaked audio incident involving Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, who was speaking to members of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI) in a closed-door session. Minister Chan’s liberal use of colloquial language in describing Singaporeans during the COVID-19 outbreak garnered mixed responses from fellow citizens.

To acquire deeper insights into Singaporeans’ sentiments towards political language use in Singapore, Black Dot Research recently conducted a survey with 107 respondents comprising a representative mix across genders, race, age groups and educational levels.


The leaked audio recording had Minister Chan addressing the COVID-19 situation in Singapore, Hong Kong and China. In the recording, a littering of Singlish phrases such as kiasu, buay tahan (unable to tolerate), haolian (show off) and the now-made popular sia suay (disgraceful) were used to describe Singaporeans hoarding masks and stockpiling.

While some citizens lauded the Minister’s candidness, some also felt that his tone fell short of how political officeholders ought to conduct themselves.

Slightly less than half (47%) of our panel said their impressions towards the Minister changed after the incident, and their responses revealed a similar mixed bag of sentiments about Minister Chan’s use of colloquial language to describe Singaporeans.

Some respondents however, felt more strongly against the Minister’s use of Singlish and felt he had spoken like an “ah beng (gangster)” who was “not fit to be a leader”. Several also mentioned that the Minister ought to be “more diplomatic” given it was a “formal function” and not speak like “a joker [sic]”.

On the other end of the spectrum, other respondents praised the Minister’s use of Singlish for being “truthful”, with one saying:

“… Letting his hair down so that he doesn’t have to be an elitist all the time and have the lion’s courage to speak the hard truths… without being bothered to be politically correct all the time. Good job!”


The survey also tapped into alternative communication forms and their potential associated impacts in conveying socio-political topics to citizens.

72% of respondents indicated that political officeholders should use such alternatives (e.g. colloquial language) in addressing significant socio-political issues to the public as they were “necessary to convey the fundamental thoughts in an easily digestible manner [sic]”, with 87% rating such different modes to be “Somewhat Important”(62%) and “Very Important” (25%).

From a list of positive and negative associated impacts related to alternative communication forms adopted by political officeholders, equal proportions of respondents (45%) ranked altered public confidence and the government’s public and/or international image as the foremost consequences of different language forms.


Although Singlish has made its way into the hallowed Oxford English Dictionary, three-quarters of our panel of respondents (75%) revealed a preference for Singaporean political officeholders to use formal language in public addresses of socio-political issues. This appears to stem from a view of how political officeholders ought to conduct their public personas, a probable (unintended?) consequence when founding father Mr. Lee Kuan Yew pithily described the colloquial form of English as a “handicap”. With an overwhelming 82% of our panel reflecting that political officeholders should use formal language, the public expectations of political language use seems to be clearly laid out in the Singapore context. 

Relatedly, respondents felt that formal public press releases are the most effective medium for communicating socio-political issues (64%), with social media platforms (e.g. Facebook, Instagram) coming in a close second (60%), followed by informal dialogues with political officeholders (55%).


It seems that being a political officeholder in Singapore isn’t a simple feat – having to separate one’s private self from the public professional image one is expected to uphold, amidst a multitude of various other responsibilities to juggle.

In this latest incident involving Minister Chan, the conventional image of how a Singaporean political leader is expected to speak and conduct himself sparked social discourse that explored the impact of varying communication approaches adopted by political officeholders.

Essentially, local preferences and contexts have to be considered for effective and sustainable political leadership in the long run. What are your thoughts? Share them with us at!

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