Fish Tales

My life in Singapore Taipei. And then some.

I once heard someone describe Singapore as “Asia for Beginners”. It’s true. Most everyone here speaks some English.

About the English part.

With such a diverse population, everyone speaks the language a bit differently. And that introduces minor inconsistencies in words and their meanings. Most of the time it’s not a big deal. But, for whatever reason, a few words seem to… distract me. Much more than they should.

The words:

Pity (pĭt’ē) – Sympathy and sorrow aroused by the misfortune, distress or suffering of another leading one to give relief.

Where I’m from, this word isn’t generally used lightly. It denotes something not-so-good has happened. Someone, somewhere is hurting. But, I’ve found people in Singapore use it much more casually. For example, read this email I received last week:


Whoa… was it THAT bad he missed the call? Okay. Maybe it was.

Nice (nīs) – Of good character and reputation; respectable. Having a pleasant or attractive appearance.

Easy enough, right? Usually there aren’t problems with this word. People and some things are nice. Got it. Except, when it comes to describing food. Most everyone in Singapore uses this word and it just sounds off. Food is good or great, not nice… right? Another email:


Maybe it’s just me. But, nice or not, it distracts me every time.

Would (wuh d ) – A past tense, present participle of will. Used to express the future in past sentences.

Another common word. But, sometimes I hear it used in a different way I’m not so used to. One more email:


See what I mean? I’m not an English expert, but I think it should only be used as a conditional tense for “will” – to give advice, to explain hypothetical situations or to give tentative options. Using it like this introduces a sense of uncertainty for me. Like, maybe he will revert… but, I’m not so sure he will.

Gentle Reminder

Okay, two words. But, I see this adjective + noun combination quite often in Singapore, especially in common, every-day type communication. Another email:

Gentle Reminder

For me, I’m used to “gentile reminder” being associated with a somewhat awkward topic. Like, “Umm, just a gentle reminder… you may want to use deodorant for your B.O.” But, in the example above I have no idea why it calls for a gentle reminder. Why gentle?


  1. When they used the word “nice” to describe food, it drove me crazy! People are nice. Things are nice. Food isn’t nice.

  2. Viva
    11:01 pm on May 24th, 2010

    One other mistake you miss out. Wrong use of revert. Revert is not the same as respond or reply. Revert means return whatsoever to the original state.

    From a Singaporean Chinese.

  3. subie
    12:40 am on May 25th, 2010

    ok so..

    1) “gentle reminder” shows up in non-singaporean workplace email too. like all the time. sometimes it masquerades as “friendly reminder”. dang, i think i write that all the time.

    2) laksa is nice at newton center la.

  4. @Sue – you are so right. I didn’t even make the correlation. Friendly reminder = gentle reminder. Crap.

  5. I really liked this post. Thanks. I notice this sort of thing all the time.

  6. Yilin
    10:57 pm on May 26th, 2010

    Perhaps it will be easier if you just think of it as a different culture using the same words in a different way.
    Sometimes because Singapore is such a diverse society with the 4 main races blending in well with each other, it’s inevitable that influences from the various cultures and language will affect the way we speak English.

  7. AlyV
    5:25 pm on June 10th, 2010

    I’m very new to Singapore as well, also from America and right away I noticed the use of the word “nice” in describing food. I totally agree with you and at first thought it was kind of odd, but it’s starting to grow on me and I’ve even adopted it into my food talk.

    Also, one to add to your list, the word “can” as in when I ask people at work if they “can send me a document” I get the response, “can, can.” Same with a taxi driver “can you drop me off at X?”… “can, can.” I just giggle to myself.

    I like these little idiosyncrasies, though. It adds to the whole experience of living in a different part of the world.