This “rap” video (which plays in MRT stations and on some trains) and door sign speaks to life in Singapore by referencing popular entertainment and Singlish. (Not to mention the ever-present campaigns by the government to encourage kindness and cultivate ideal citizens, as discussed in this NYT article.)
The rapper is Phua Chu Kang, a character in a local TV comedy by the same name. I have not seen the show, (clearly in the name of “cultural understanding” I will need to change this), but I have heard about it.
PCK is famous for the catchphrase, “Don’t play play,” which – as I’m sure you can gather – means to take things seriously. The repetition of words (usually verbs) is a feature of Singlish, although I’ve most often heard this with “can can” – a frequent response when asking if something is allowed or can be done. (The opposite is “cannot.”) The most prevalent word in Singlish, though, is “lah.” This is inserted at the end of sentences for emphasis; it doesn’t really have a meaning by itself. (You can catch it in the video at 0:38, although it wasn’t noted in the lyrics.)
I haven’t had a problem understanding Singlish, as it’s English-based and largely intuitive, as illustrated in the examples above. Nevertheless, there are a lot of words that come from other languages spoken in Singapore, such as Malay and Hokkien. The words I learned immediately were: makan (Malay – to eat); shiok (from the Punjabi shauk – great; used to express satisfaction, especially after eating something delicious); and ang moh (Hokkien – “red hair”; a supposedly pejorative term for Westerners. Since I’m literally an ang moh, I don’t find it offensive.) For more Singlish words, check out the Singlish dictionary.
Another reason I may not be noticing as much Singlish could be due to the government’s efforts to eradicate it. The government discourages the use of Singlish in favor of “official” English and initiated a national “Speak Good English” movement in 1999. Of course, while some may look down upon the use of Singlish, others consider it a vital part of Singaporean identity and are working to preserve it. In this context, it’s interesting to note the use of Singlish in the MRT sign and video, given the government’s role in creating these materials.
Want another Phua Chu Kang rap video and a lot more Singlish? Fortunately, he did one on SARS. It gets old after a minute or two, but has the occasional gem like, “SARS is the virus that I just want to minus.” I’m eagerly awaiting a Swine Flu video.