Special: Why some Singapore Hokkien words sound so similar to Malay words

by | Oct 31, 2019 | Hokkien, Hokkien - How Do You Say

Listen to Podcast | Special: Why some Singapore Hokkien words sound so similar to Malay words

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New Words

EnglishHokkienOur Romanization
Ma ta
Gao yin
Go for a holiday食(吃)风Jiak hong

Podcast Transcript | Special: Why some Singapore Hokkien words sound so similar to Malay words

Hello! My name is Eugene and thanks for tuning into our Hokkien – How Do You Say Podcast. Speaking of Singapore Hokkien, did you notice that there are many words that sound similar to the Malay language? A few words that comes immediately to mind are “Salah” and “Suka“, which we have learnt in the previous episodes. Are these words purely a coincidence between the 2 languages? Nope, in fact, these are indeed Malay words that the Hokkien language has borrowed from. Personally, I think this is what makes Singapore Hokkien so unique! As such, in today’s podcast, I would like to deviate from our typical sharing of pure Hokkien words and bring you this special edition of Malay loan words.

First up, my favourite line, “Mata 来了!”, which literally means “police come already”. This is commonly heard, especially in the past, when policemen went after the illegal street hawkers in Singapore. Today, we hear it more in the context of vehicle parking. For example, when the parking officer comes to check for illegal parking, especially around popular eateries where parking is often difficult to find. When someone spots the parking officer, I love the cooperative vibe that comes immediately after. Almost everyone starts chanting “Mata 来了! Mata 来了!” to signify that the parking attendants have arrived, and for those who have illegally parked their vehicle, they know what to do.

So why “mata”? Did you know that in the Malay language, “mata” refers to “eyes”, the window to our souls? In the olden days, Singapore Hokkiens viewed police as a pair of eyes, which was constantly watching their moves. Hence, they used “mata” to describe the police and this term is still retained, even until today. Isn’t that fascinating?

Another local slang that you’ll often hear is “我 bueh tahan 了”. “Tahan” is actually a Malay word that means “endure” or “hold out”. So “我 bueh tahan 了” means “I cannot hold it any longer”.

You may also have heard of Hokkiens in Singapore referring to going for a holiday as 食风. Again, this comes from the Malay words – makan angin – which literally means “eating wind”, or metaphorically, chasing the breeze.

How many other Malay-influenced Hokkien words can you think of? Leave us a comment below and we would love to share it in our upcoming podcasts. I’m Eugene from and till our next podcast!

Love what you are reading? We’ve got lots more to share during our Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese express workshops. Join us to pick up words and phrases for everyday use in Singapore. More importantly, you can help to keep these languages alive!

Our Philosophy for Learning Hokkien in Singapore

The pronunciation of Hokkien words varies from one region to another. For example, Penang Hokkien sounds different from Taiwanese Hokkien. At, we want to make learning Hokkien fun, easy and practical for daily conversations in Singapore. As such, we think it is important to listen to how Singaporeans speak Hokkien. To do that, we have an ongoing process of collecting audio recordings from at least 100 Hokkien-speaking seniors in Singapore and thereafter based our audio pronunciation on the most commonly-heard version.

In similar nature, rather than trying to figure out which Hokkien romanization system to use (e.g. Pe̍h-ōe-jī or Taiwan Romanization System), we encourage you to form your own phonics, so that you make an association with these Hokkien words in the quickest way possible. To illustrate, the formal romanization of the English word, “eat”, is “chia̍h” in Hokkien. However, in our “Have You Eaten” podcast transcript, you’ll find that we use “jiak”, which we think relates to us better. That said, you may use other romanization (e.g “chiah”, “jia”, etc), as long as it helps you to make sense of what you hear.


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