Local Culture

Filed under 10. Village Culture
Dressing In Holland V 

Smart casual’s good too

Casual’s the day

Keyword here is casual, meaning, sundresses, shorts & T-shirt and flip flops or slippers. But if you, like many others, feel a bit more dressy, you might want to put on a pair of jeans and a polo shirt (many spotting a collar-up here). You might also want to grab your shades.

However, if you are dining and wining – especially along Jalan Merah Saga where the more renowned and pricey restaurants are – etiquette would require you to wear befitting the occasion.

But hey, no one is going to deny you your place just because you are wearing sneakers or flip flops although you may feel a teeny bit out of place. But of course, you can’t go wrong with smart casuals in Singapore.

However, Fridays, Saturdays and eves of public holidays are hugely party days in Holland V, so you might want to drag out that sexy outfit you just bought!

The Friday crowd is generally more formal as executives head straight for the drinking joints right after work. Sundays are casual days for families and friends. And on weekdays, Holland V gets a mix of students from the nearby universities, polytechnics and international schools.

However, not too long ago, two university students from Sweden decided to stroll down Lorong Mambong stark naked, even stopping by to chat with revellers as they perform their 15-minute walk toward Tango (if you google “naked couple in Holland Village”, you should be visually well-informed). Well, as people now say, they should have known better in view of the authority’s uncompromising position on such matter.  

Local Culture – Addressing People

Singapore is clearly more westernised than other Asian countries, so whatever Asian culture there is in this city, it is not as pronounced or obvious as perhaps in HongKong, Taiwan or China.

Nonetheless, respect is still an Asian cultural observation. Asian cultures require that younger people respect the older generation.

Hence, many adult Singaporeans address those who are significantly older (say 2 decades?) then themselves with the terms “uncle” and “auntie” (yes, in English).

This is another example of Singapore’s need to reinvent things established – in this case, new meanings to the English word or shall we say, words? We know that the English terms, “uncle” and “auntie” mean relatives and would not use them unless we are related to the person being addressed.

But Chinese Singaporeans (it’s pan-cultural now), when using these two terms, do not make the distinction whether the person is related or not (even though Singaporeans may speak English). This is because the closest Chinese equivalents of these two terms do not make those distinctions.

The Chinese “words” for “auntie” and “uncle” are not only used to address relatives but also strangers and acquaintances – as a sign of respect.

Hence, local service staff (not only the Chinese staff – but all sorts) sometimes greet their customers with “uncle” and “auntie” as a sign of respect and perhaps a suggestion of “kinship”.

However, there has been a growing disdain in younger people to be referred to or be addressed with these terms (for obvious reason).

Just remember that these terms are used only on the streets, wet markets, coffee shops and shopping centres, especially among the mandarin-speaking and dialect-speaking Singaporeans.  But they are slowly creeping into official settings and even long-term staying westerners are adopting these terms in their weekend grocery shopping.  

To be sure, the only place you should use these two terms is when you are invited to a local home and you greet the elderly as “Auntie” and “Uncle” (yes, it’s alright even if the families are other than Chinese). Don’t use them anywhere else – just to be on the safe side – even if you are convinced you are younger than the person being addressed or when you see others using the terms. 

Caution: do not use these terms on people of the same age as you or younger.

Of course, no one is going to correct you if you decide to adopt the more suitable terms, “Sir” and “Madam”.

Greetings

What should you say when you encounter a Singaporean acquaintance or when you enter someone’s home?

If you had worn off your, “Hello, how are you?” greeting and have nothing else to say, just ask, “Have you had your lunch?” or “Have you had your dinner?” This is the local equivalent of “How’s the weather?”

But what if you are there for dinner?

Well, then almost anything goes. How are the kids?

How much did you pay for this house? (just kidding!)

Common Conversation Topics

Other convenient topics: COE prices (Certificate of Entitlement to drive a car in Singapore; one must bid for this certificate before he can drive on the roads; bidding can go as high as $50,000 and above), housing prices, sales promotions and government hand-outs.

The average Singaporean expects the government to offer hand-outs as a “bonus” when the economy does well and when it does not do well. Any topic related to money and purchasing of possessions is a welcomed topic.

Asking about the prices of possessions and personal belongings are treated as part of getting-to-know-you conversation.

If you are asked, “How much did you spend on your trip to Phuket?”, you might want to respond with “Not much. What about your holiday in Shanghai?”

Language

Singapore’s education system ensures that its citizens are bilingual. Singaporeans speak English and Mandarin (or their mother tongues, which are usually Chinese dialects, Indian dialects or Malay dialects).

The official language for commerce is English but most public signages in Singapore also combine Malay, Indian and Mandarin languages, such as seen on this poster. If someone tries to speak to you in languages other than these, do not pay any attention.

Poster with the four official languages

Singaporeans are always helpful and may go all out to help you especially if they know you are a visitor. And they will always be friendlier to a visitor than to a local, knowing that you are a guest in our country.

Almost all the personnel in retail and service establishments, including coffee shops and food centres in Holland V, converse in English.

But because Singapore has foreigners forming almost half its working population (and many in the hospitality and service industries), it is possible that you might encounter service staff who may not speak a word of English at all. If so, look out for one who speaks English or simply make use of your creative communication skills such as sign language and other bodily contortions.

Singlish

However, let it be known that no one can escape Singapore’s street brand of English, the so-called “Singlish” – which apparently is regarded as a thing of beauty by locals. It is spoken everywhere. And it is a matter of degree how Singlish a conversation might go in Singapore.

Essentially, this complex colloquial mishmash consists of 70% badly spoken English words, 20% badly spoken Chinese words (could be in Mandarin, Hokkien or Teochew dialect), 8% badly spoken Malay words and 2% badly spoken Indian words. You get the idea? You might say it’s also apportioned according to national demographic percentages!

Singlish combines the intonations from the 4 different languages. So, a Singaporean could actually deliver a sentence in combined English, Chinese, Malay and Indian words with an English, Chinese, Indian or Malay intonations, or a combination of them (fortunately this is not the instructional language used in higher learning institutions!).

It takes years of practice to perfect this confusing manner of speaking, so do not attempt this overnight.

Here is an example of such mishmash:

“Last night got watch the match or not? Singapore boleh kalah, ah? Kua leow chin sian. Ai yeoh!”

Here is the translation:

“Did you watch the match last night? How is it possible for Singapore to lose, hmm? I was bored to death watching it. (“Ai Yeoh” is an Indian exclamation, which suggests pain.”)

There may also be other syllables added such as “ah”, “meh”, “lor”, etc in a sentence, which originated as useless sounds but which have evolved into meanings of their own. “Ah” and “meh” are usually put behind a question, for example, “You want to leave so early, ah?” and “You want to leave so early, meh?” The women tend to use the latter while the men may use the former. But some gay men (and some not so gay) have began using “meh” as well.

It is highly likely that the English words spoken in Singlish may not be discernible to you because the speaker has adopted localized intonations. For example, the three-syllable word, “government” could be shortened to two syllables and is spoken as “gaument”.

Usually, a sentence in Singlish will have all the nouns, adjectives, prepositions (if any) and adverbs jumbled up. Actually, most Singlish sentences are structured according to how Chinese sentences are constructed (thought out), rather than following the rules of English sentence construction. Here are some examples you are likely to hear:

You will, without doubt, be at a lost when an entire conversation is spoken in this manner. And you will get to hear this all the time in public places when Singaporeans speaks in “English”, or I mean, Singlish.

(Here is a sample of spoken Singlish by Singapore’s leading standup comedian, Kumar)

Singapore Abbreviations

This tiny place has the longest list of abbreviations built into its normal daily conversations. You will encounter them in taxis, conversing with strangers and simply walking about aimlessly. Here are some:

Dining
Singaporean’s Favourite Food

Singaporeans favourite pastime is eating. Do not be surprised to see food centres and restaurants cramped with people outside meal times!

Their favourite food is mostly found at stalls inside coffee shops and food centres (the latter often referred to as “hawker centres”), which are non air-conditioned.

A typical scene in a food centre

These are where they relish local delights such as Fried Kueh Teow, Laksa, Hokkien Mee, Fried Carrot Cake, Bak Koot Teh, Rojak, Nasi Lemak – to name just a few – while bathing in sweat. (To find out local food ingredients, go to: http://www.holland-village-singapore.com/local-food-ingredients/)

Holland Village Market & Food Centre along Lorong Mambong

In coffee shops and at food centres, the menus are displayed in light boxes (with accompanying pictures) which are hung above each stall.

Light boxes as menu

Ordering Food

You order your item simply by pointing to the desired item on the light box, menu or window display, and by giving the seller your table number (this is imprinted on every table, so get a table before ordering). If it is self-service, you just stand and wait for your food or you tell the seller you will come back and collect a few minutes’ later.

Number on table in food centre

Yes, the coffee shops do not serve only coffee, as the name would imply but they also serve a variety of meals. Do not expect a waiter to come to you with a menu.

Like food centres, coffee shops also house individual stalls with their own menus, which are shown in light boxes above each stall. You order your food the same way as in a food centre or hawker centre.

You can finish off your meal with a Tiger or a cup of local coffee (called, “kopi”), which has a bitter after taste if you are not used to it. Local coffee producers usually add honey and butter to their beans and over roast them to achieve a stronger aroma and flavour, which goes well with spicy and strongly flavoured local food. Some of my friends from UK can’t live without the Kopi O from their favourite coffee shops.

Your coffee comes in black (ordering term is “kopi O”), with milk added (“kopi”), without sugar and milk (“kopi O kosong”), and with milk and ice (“kopi peng”). The “O” is pronounced as the letter, “o”, not the number zero.

A cup of local black coffee or “kopi O”

A meal and drink should be below S$10. Normally, you pay when food is served but some vendors may ask for payment when you place your order.

You can take a look at the board at the entrance to the Holland Village Market & Food Centre, which has a description of all the local favourites. This is an excellent place to experience local delights or just to grab a quick bite before heading down the street (Lorong Mambong) for a night of drinks with friends.

Poster providing information on popular meals outside Holland Village hawker centre

Getting a seat at hawker or food centres

It is not uncommon to see packets of tissue paper placed on empty table tops during peak hours. This means that the table has been “reserved” by someone else who is already ordering his or her food and will return with his or her meal.

Eating

When eating with Chinese hosts, some may engage in communal dining where each dish is shared by various pairs of chopsticks. More sensitive and discerning hosts may ask for separate serving spoons for the dishes but you should not ask for these if everyone is eating communal.

If you are not comfortable with this eating style, make sure you don’t go to any Chinese home or restaurant.

However, waitresses in the more expensive Chinese restaurants will normally serve portions from each of the dishes to your personal plate or bowl. And this is possibly where you will dine if you are accompanying a company’s outing with clients.

It is not unusual for Indian and Malay folks to eat with their bare hands. But if you are not overly excited about this, you can ask for fork and spoon. It is acceptable.

At the family dining table, it is considered polite to ask your host to join you in your meal before you tuck in. As you pick up your cutlery, the words might go something like this, “Mr Lim, do join me, please.” No exclamation is needed. Facial expression should be a slight smile with a nod (if you wonder how that might go).

But this (I mean the invitation, not the disposition) is not necessary for dining with clients and colleagues.

You might also want to take note that one common feature of local dining with the presence of a foreign guest is for the host (especially if this is an older person) to insist that the guest eat what is considered the best portion of the best dish on the table. This could be a piece of chicken thigh from a chicken dish picked up by the host’s chopsticks. Hopefully he does this before he begins eating!

When eating with local friends in a restaurant, let them pay for the bill if they insist. But it would be polite to afterward ask if you can chip in. If they tell you to forget it, then it’s concluded.

But if they are not sure or are short on words, pay your share. It’s unlikely that all the parties would each produce their share upon presentation of the bill, so usually one party would pay for all and he will afterward collect from each one his share.

Again, treat this as a cultural experience. These are things which are likely to happen but they may not. You should have no problem most of the time.

Tipping

Singapore is a no-tipping city. Some tourists are unaware of this and they continue to tip. But not to worry, you won’t be prosecuted for that.

Toilet & Other Things 

Parasols in the sun

You might catch glimpses of ladies carrying umbrellas on sunny days. No, they are not expecting rainstorms. Neither are they attempting to resurrect a scene from My Fair Lady. It’s just their way of protecting their expensive facials from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Many Asian women place a great value on looking fair skinned.

Ladies protecting their facials with umbrellas

Spitting

An embarrassment to fellow Singaporeans.

Spitting is quite commonly seen (and heard) – usually accompanied by loud and uncomfortable noises from the oesophagus. Not so rampant in Holland V and city areas but still unavoidable in wet markets and nearby drains. Occurs mostly in elderly Chinese Singaporean men but some unfortunate elderly women are also included.

Toilets

Singapore’s public toilets are renowned not for their cleanliness but their distinctive squatting feature. Well, do not despair because the conventional bowl-type is also available.

However, one particular feature of Singapore’s public toilet, which has never been openly discussed (until now), is the size of her toilet bowls. It baffles some people as to why they are so small. Their minuteness may be acceptable to some Asians (certainly not all, though) but they are clearly unaccommodating to the majority of larger-built westerners – pretty much like her public buses and mrt seats.

The good news is that some western holistic practitioners insist that the squatting toilet forces a natural posture for excretion and is best suited for the human body. But this is not the reason for its existence here. In any case, it might prove a useful alternative in case you turn holistic overnight while on holiday here – or when the toilet bowl which confronts you is a little too teeny-weeny for your liking.

However, the choice is obviously there. So, do look on the bright side. Cheers!

A squat toilet can be an alternative if the sitting version turns out to be too small.

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