TwentyFifteen Interview 13/20: Zinkie Aw speaks to Leonard Goh


Tell us, Zinkie, how Singaporean are you? Do you use tissue paper packets to chope seats at the hawker centre, or have you queued for Hello Kitty plush toys at McDonald’s?

Based on your two tests, I probably don’t pass lah, but I think I am very Singaporean because I eat, think, breathe and speak like one, and I am self-confessed sibei kiasu with my photography.

While working on this project, I also realised that many people have the misconception that only ah bengs or ah lians or army boys use Singlish. But hey, wrong lor! The whole Singapore does!

What’s your favourite Singlish catchphrase?

Bo-xi-kan and jin-bo-eng (busy, no time)!

From your previous projects, such as Meet the Candi-dates (which documented people playing Candy Crush, 2013) and Republic of Pulau Semakau (about people and trash, 2012), you seem obsessed with social habits. Why?

I am interested in sociological habits and identities that seem to be mundane or banal. Most of my observations come from personal ‘complaints’ or ‘bitching’. (Very Singaporelang hor?) For instance, it can be what I dislike, or what I find wacky. I don’t need to photograph superstars or heroes to make a statement or to make ‘good work’.

What Singaporelang habits do you find the most interesting? And what do you find most disturbing?

Consumption plus hoarding. These two themes are intertwined and can appear overtly or subtly. I see them in myself as well! I am hoping to remix them into something visual.

There are a lot of Singlish phrases in Singapore. How did you select the ones presented in this book? Was there a vote among friends, or did you simply tikam and decide?

This is an ongoing project and I have selected my best (so far) 15 images for I picked the Singlish phrases that I wanted to photograph based on a long list from books, comics and online dictionaries. Then I spoke to ah gongs and ah mahs, professionals, uncles and aunties, people from different races in Singapore, and also young children in primary schools..

Which is one phrase you want to shoot, but weren’t able to include in this book?

Tio Stomp’! For me, the more classic the term, the harder it is to illustrate.

What is the best and worst thing you have heard about your photos?

Best: They really capture a slice of life and in a roundabout way, I make a social statement that hits the viewer at the end of my series.

Worst: Some people have said my works are exaggerated and contrived. I think exaggeration is needed because Singlish is never used in a subtle way. Also, some friends say my photographs are outrageous colour-bombs. But I like that!

Who are your photography heroes?

I am very influenced by street photographers, especially those who have stories in their images, but I would rather not name them.

Complete this sentence: “In 10 years, I hope Singapore will be …”

sibei tok kong but give discount on cost of living.

Is Singlish a behaviour or just a language?

To me, it is a happening way of life.

Give us an example of a funny Singlish exchange you were part of, that left bystanding foreigners looking totally ‘catch no ball’.

I was trying to explain the pronunciation and meaning of piah (to strive hard) to a Thai friend. Ironically it sounded so downbeat and unsure that it didn’t encapsulate the spirit of the term at all! We had a wacky time trying to add emotion to the word.

Do you think the authorities will ever regret trying to discourage Singaporeans from using Singlish?

I don’t think it is a matter of whether the authorities have a say. To me language is about the people on the streets who use it. As language historian Anne Curzan puts it, “there is no objective dictionary out there that is the final arbitrator of what words mean … if a community of speakers is using a word and knows what it means, it’s real.”

It is really a question of attitudes – are we bothered by the question of language change, or do we find it fun, interesting and creative? We are asked to make new music, art … so how about new words?

Given that after going through years of Speak Good English campaigns, we Singaporelangs still stick with Singlish, it probably means that Singlish has withstood the test of time. We just use English and Singlish for different contexts.


The portrait of Zinkie Aw was drawn by Flee Circus; and Leonard Goh, who will anchor all the interviews in this series, is a co-founder of Platform.

To purchase a copy of Singaporelang – What the Singlish? by Zinkie Aw, please visit: