cmlabs Official Writing Guideline for Singapore Region

Written by cmlabs | Last updated at Jun 13, 2024

NO. 00286/PP/CID/VI/2024

1. Language Aspects

Singapore's linguistic tapestry is woven with a rich blend of cultural influences, creating a unique language landscape that reflects the nation's diversity. Understanding the country’s common rules in using language will help deliver messages that resonate effectively with its diverse population.

A. Dominant Languages

Singapore is a multilingual and multicultural society with four official languages: 

  • National Language: Malay.
  • Official Language: English, Mandarin Chinese, Malay, and Tamil.
  • Language of Administration or Primary Language: English.
  • Variation or Popular Creole Language: Singaporean English (Singlish).

Standard English that follows the British spelling is more encouraged to be used in professional environments, or when engaging with individuals of higher authority, including educators, supervisors, and government officials.

B. Slang

Identified as a language variation, Singlish contains a plethora of slang that is widely embraced by Singaporeans in everyday conversations. However, it is essential to note that Singlish, and by extension, these slang, are generally not recommended for formal writing.

The informal and colloquial nature of Singlish, although cherished in daily interactions, may not adhere to the conventions of standard English expected in academic, professional, or official settings. Below are examples of conversations using Singlish:

Singlish

Standard English

Tomorrow don't need bring camera.You don't need to bring a camera tomorrow.
Walau, I want to eat chicken riceDamn, I am craving some chicken rice.
I go bus-stop wait for youI will be waiting for you at the bus-stop.
Dat joker there cannot trust.You cannot trust the person over there.

C. Common Expressions

In many cases, Singaporeans prefer Standard English to deliver messages in a formal context. Singlish, however, is limited to only informal settings and certain conditions. 

The Infocomm Media Development Authority states that Singlish is allowed in TV or radio interviews only if the interviewee speaks only Singlish, but the interviewer must refrain from using it. 

In written text, Singlish is occasionally included in newspapers or books to capture the authentic voice of characters or to convey a sense of local flavor. Below are some common expressions using Singlish:

Lah, Lor, Leh

These are particles commonly added to the end of sentences for emphasis or to convey a certain tone – think of ‘yeah mate’ in Australia or ‘eh’ in Canada. 


 

For example: "Sure lah, we can meet for lunch tomorrow."

AlamakAn exclamation used to express surprise, dismay, or frustration. It’s similar to saying "Oh no!" or "Goodness!"
ShiokDescribe something enjoyable, satisfying, or great. It’s equivalent to saying "awesome" or "fantastic."
KiasuRefers to a fear of missing out (FOMO) or being overly competitive. For example: ‘ “She's incredibly kiasu; she joined the queue two hours before the store even opened to secure the limited edition release.” 
ChopeTo reserve or claim a seat or place. If you're asked to get a table during busy hours, do it like Singaporeans. Instead of saying, "I'll get a table", they say "I chope lah" by placing tissue packet (or other handy items they can afford to lose on the table.
SaboDerived from the word “Sabotage” that means playing a prank or setting someone up for trouble. 
Can

Used to say yes to someone’s request or whether something can be done. It’s equivalent to saying “Sure”. For example:

A: “Do you want to go for a dinner tonight?”

B: “Can, I go chope now” 

PaisehExpressing embarrassment, awkwardness, or a sense of apology. For example, if you accidentally bump into someone, you might say "Oops paiseh, I didn’t see you" to express regret.
Walao ehAn exclamation expressing surprise, disbelief, or frustration. It’s similar to saying "Oh my goodness!" or "Wow!"
Bo jioDescribing the feeling of not being invited to a social activity, such as a party or a gathering. For example: “You guys bo jio me for drinks again ah?” 
Why you so liddat?This phrase is equivalent to “Why're you so like that?” in English”. It is an informal way of asking, "Why are you behaving like that?" or expressing dismay at someone's actions.
WhatThe word "what" in Singaporean slang serves more than its traditional role of asking questions. It is often used as an expression to emphasize a point or to show disagreement. For example: "This is a good bargain what, other places cannot find one."

D. Communication Styles

While Singlish is a unique aspect of Singaporean culture, its use in formal or official content may not always be appropriate. Understand the context and audience before deciding to incorporate Singlish.

  • Avoid using Singlish in a written form (article, news, publication, or press release), unless necessary. 
  • Singaporeans are characterized by their formality and politeness, resulting in indirect communication to convey messages tactfully (both verbal and nonverbal interaction).
  • Singaporean culture places importance on respect for authority and hierarchy.
  • Singaporeans address individuals by their titles and use formal language.
  • Singaporeans mostly use body language, facial expressions, and vocal intonation to convey significance.

 

E. Word Choices

Due to the influences of several languages used in Singapore, some words have slightly different meanings. Below are some of the words that you should pay attention to avoid ambiguity and misunderstanding. 

Singaporean

Meaning

BirdMale’s genitals
Circuit breakerA period of heightened restrictions and lockdown measures implemented by the government to curb the spread of the virus.
BlurDim-witted, birdbrained. 
ActionTo show off, be arrogant or haughty.
HappeningCool, exciting, or wild. 
RevertTo reply or respond.
CockTo screw up or make a mess.
StepTo pretend or be someone you're not.

It’s worth noting that these localized word choices may not apply in formal article writing as Standard English (UK) is expected. However, it is adjustable according to the client’s writing style guide.

2. Technical Aspects

A. Grammar and Spelling

The government of Singapore encourages citizens to use Standard English that retains British grammar and spelling (colour, travelled, centre, realise, analogue, programme, defence) both in written and spoken communication.  

As mentioned above, Singlish isn’t recommended in writing, especially in a formal or professional context. So, avoid using Singlish when writing an article unless it’s necessary to maintain a specific cultural or contextual authenticity. 

B. Naming

Chinese Naming Conventions

  • Chinese naming conventions follow the format: [FAMILY NAME] [given name]. For instance, males may have names like LEE Zhi Hao, while females may have names like TAN Mei Ling.
  • Given names with two syllables or Chinese characters may be written in various ways, such as together, hyphenated, or divided into two. For example, 美玲 could be written as Mei Ling, Mei-Ling, or Meiling. However, it is most common for Chinese Singaporeans to write their given name as two separate words (e.g., Mei Ling).
  • Chinese characters do not use spaces between the family name and the given name, as seen in 李智豪 (LEE Zhi Hao).
  • To avoid confusion, it is a common practice to write family names in capitals.

English Names

  • Many Chinese Singaporeans commonly adopt an 'English name,' which they use regularly and in international or English-speaking environments. For instance, TAN Mei Ling might go by the name "Emily".
  • The name order recommended by the Singapore government is [SURNAME] [Chinese given name] [English given name], such as TAN Mei Ling Emily.

Malay Naming Conventions

  • Malay naming traditions arrange names in the format of [Given name(s)] [Patronymic noun] [Father’s given name]. For example, Razak bin Osman (for males) and Aisyah binte Musa (for females).
  • The patronymic noun is indicated by 'bin' (signifying 'son of') for males and 'binte' or 'binti' (signifying 'daughter of') for females.
  • Some Malays may abbreviate the patronymic noun to ‘B’ in written form or omit it entirely (e.g., Aisyah B. Musa or Aisyah Musa). This abbreviation may cause English speakers to misunderstand the 'B' as a middle name or mistake the father's name for a surname.

Indian Naming Conventions

  • Indian Singaporean names typically follow the structure of [Given name] [Patronymic phrase] [Father’s given name], such as Nagaratnam s/o Suppiah for males and Priya d/o Anandarajah for females.
  • The patronymic phrase, indicating "son of" or "daughter of," is abbreviated to 's/o' and 'd/o.' For instance, 'Nagaratnam s/o Suppiah' translates to "Nagaratnam son of Suppiah".
  • Despite a person’s formal name being "Nagaratnam son of Suppiah," it may be written in different formats: 1) Nagaratnam s/o Suppiah, 2) Nagaratnam Suppiah, or 3) S. Nagaratnam.
  • Indian Singaporeans Sikhs may also have a religious name 'Singh' for men and 'Kaur' for women, following their given name.

C. Numbers

Basic Number

  • Do not use numbers at the beginning of a sentence (spell the number).

                 Example: Ten employers got promoted yesterday.

  • For numbers from 21 to 99, there is always a hyphen to join the 2 words. 

                Example: Thirty-two, ninety-five, etc.

  • Use a comma for numbers over 3 digits.

                Example: About 850,000 senior Singaporeans will receive up to $100,000 in cash.

  • Use figures for fractions.

                Example: About 2.5 million Singaporeans will receive the 2023 Cost-of-Living (COL).

  • Write out big numbers in full or use abbreviations (1k, 1m, 1b).

                Example: Six Hundred and Ninety Billion Singapore Dollars (S$690b)

Percentages

  • Write in number and the symbol of “%”
  • Spell out the percentage number if it’s written at the beginning of a sentence.

               For example: Thirty-four percent of women and 21% of men have reduced their aspirations.

Dates

The format for date and time representation usually varies between languages used in Singapore as listed below.

Language

Date Format

Example

Chinese

yyyy年m月d日

  • 2021/01/09 (only numerals)
  • 2021年01月09日 (numerals and characters)
  • 二零二一年一月九日 (only characters)
English, Malay, and Tamil

DMY

  • 09/01/2021
  • 09/01/21
  • 09 January 2021
MDY (January 09, 2021) format is also used (sometimes) in media publications, commercial usage, and some government websites.

Currency

  • The currency of Singapore is the Singapore Dollar, and it is commonly abbreviated as SGD.
  • The symbol for the Singapore Dollar is "$" or "S$" to distinguish it from other dollar-denominated currencies.
  • Use the symbol "¢" when referring to cents. For example, S$1.50 would be read as "one dollar and fifty cents".

Ensure consistency in using either the abbreviation (SGD) or the symbol ("$" or "S$") throughout your article.

Examples:

  • The cost of the item is 50 SGD.
  • The total expenditure amounted to S$100.
  • The exchange rate is 1 USD to 1.35 SGD.

Time

Use the 12-hour clock to show times, e.g. 9 AM-noon and 6 PM-midnight.

Phone Number

Use the format of +65 XXXX XXXX to write the phone number. 

D. Capitalization

  • Always capitalize the first letter of a sentence. 
  • For titles, headings, and subheadings, capitalize the first letter of each word, except articles, conjunctions, and prepositions.
  • Capitalize job titles, events, publications, book titles, movies, seasons, nationalities, languages, and places.    

E. Use of Jargon or Slang

  • Only use jargon or slang that is relevant to the context of your article.
  • Provide brief explanations or context within the article when using industry-specific jargon or local slang.
  • Ensure to strike a balance between maintaining clarity and effectively connecting with the local readers. 

3. Cultural Aspects

Understanding the Singaporeans’ culture is helpful to help navigate and write an article that aligns with local values and sensitivities as well as resonates authentically with the diverse and multicultural audience. 

So, if you want to localize your article, make sure to understand and follow Singaporean social values and cultural sensitivities.

A. Social Values

  • Singaporeans value social harmony, respect for authority, and adherence to rules and regulations. 
  • There's a strong emphasis on individual privacy and respect for personal space. Content involving personal stories or images should be handled with care.
  • Using cultural elements, whether it's clothing, language, or practices, should be done with sensitivity and understanding. Ensure that their use respects their original context and significance. 

B. Cultural Sensitivities

Below are some of the misunderstood aspects of Singapore’s culture that writers should pay attention to:

“Everyone speaks Mandarin” 

While Mandarin Chinese is one of the official languages in Singapore, it is not the only language spoken. Singapore is a multilingual society, and people also communicate in English, Malay, Tamil, and various Chinese dialects such as Hokkien, Teochew, and Cantonese. 

“Singapore is part of China” 

Singapore is an independent and sovereign city-state located in Southeast Asia. It is not part of China but has a significant ethnic Chinese population, along with Malay, Indian, and other ethnic groups. Such an assumption undermines Singapore's distinct national identity, history, and multicultural composition.

“Everyone is of the same ethnicity” 

Singapore is a melting pot of diverse ethnicities, including Chinese, Malay, Indian, and others. The idea that everyone belongs to the same ethnic group overlooks the rich cultural tapestry and multicultural heritage that defines Singapore.

“You speak English very well” 

English is one of the official languages in Singapore and is widely spoken. Assuming surprise or making a comment about someone's proficiency in English can be unintentionally condescending. 

Singaporeans are generally fluent in English due to its prevalence in education and daily life, and such comments may perpetuate stereotypes about language abilities in multicultural societies. It's more appropriate to acknowledge language proficiency without surprise.

4. Prohibited Content

A. Hate Speech and Discriminatory Content

  • Ill-written and hostile content that targets certain groups of ethnicity.
  • Spreading personal information online with the intent of bullying.

B. Illegal Activities or Content

  • Advertising any product or causing any product (that is not a health product) to be known as a health product.
  • Misleading content and overpromising advertisement.
  • Advertisements on investments should not contain claims that a certain investment product is "low-risk", "risk-free", "safe", or able to give "high", "quick", and "easy" profits with little to no risk.
  • Slimming services without doctors’ supervision.
  • Hair and scalp products with overpromising claims without approval by the relevant government authority.
  • Content about promoting drugs and weapons.
  • Chewing gum (only therapeutic, dental, or nicotine gum is allowed with a doctor’s prescription).

C. Violent or Graphic Content

  • Nudity: Pornography of any kind is strictly banned. Visualization of sex and nudity is heavily censored.
  • Weapons, ammunition: Promote products that can cause grievous bodily harm.
  • Cruelty: Offensive depiction in visual images and wording.

5. Additional Information

  • Singapore Statutes Online - Open
  • Singapore Code of Advertising Practice - Open
  • Singaporean Culture - Open

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