The Birth, Growth & Withering of ‘Paser’ Punjabi!

Lempu Kholke, Pisoh Lehke, Bengku Te Behke, Bayam Nu Ketoh. Dig this version of the Punjabi lingo

Late Fauja Singh Suropada with his wife Pritam Kaur with their first two children in Singapore in early 1950s. Sardarji worked in the Defence forces for the British initially and later as a Security ‘Jaga’. Mahji, who is healthy till today, was a housewife all along.

By Jatinder Singh

‘Paser’ (pronounced Pah-Sir) is a term which in its original Malay form, ‘Pasar (Pah-Sar)’ refers to the ‘marketplace’ in traditional Singapore society.

Sarjit Singh Suropada, 71, who was born in Singapore recalls: “The Paser was where one went to get meat and vegetables for cooking, spices, street hawkers, household items, and everything else that was needed to buy.”

The short narrative by Sarjit, can tell us how apart from retail, the ‘Paser’ was a platform for robust interaction, communication, bargaining, recreation, by all members of the community. The ‘Paser’, hence, was a cultural factory, producing common jargons that the people could identify with. Let us take a look at how Punjabi from its original Amritsari or Jalandhar became ‘Paser’ type in the interesting exchange below:

Son: Mommy, that lady just told me, Lempu Kholke, Pisoh Lehke, Bengku Te Behke, Bayam Nu Ketoh’ – whats that?!

Mother: She spoke to you in Punjabi- Switch on the light, grab a knife, sit on the stool and slice the Spinach in Punjabi.

Son: Punjabi? You got to be kidding me. I know Punjabi!

Mother: This Punjabi is not found in your textbooks. This is our very own Singapore Punjabi!

The dialogue above that took place between a Punjabi teenager and his mother, struck my attention recently (2017) at a local Gurudwara in Singapore. I realised that I had written a research paper in 2002 as an undergraduate at the National University of Singapore (NUS), where I had shed interesting light on the unique Malay vocabulary that could be found spoken by Sikhs in Singapore. Apart from being a unique Punjabi, the hybrid language also functioned as an Identity Marker of being Singaporean.

The thesis that I put drafted titled “Creolization of Cultures in Singapore” under the Department of Sociology, centred around the Socio-Historical trajectory that took off in the early 1930s when Sikh Sojourners arrived at Singapore’s shores from India. Fleets of Sikhs travelled to Singapore via Calcutta (this explains the common referral to Sikhs as Bengali) as part of Defence and Military Forces, Traders and other vocations. The Sikh Sojourners were often males who travelled without their families but did so in patterns parallel to that of their ‘Pind’ settlements back home. I shall attempt for purposes of this essay to delineate the processes that led to the symbiosis and precipitation of the ‘Paser’ Punjabi that we address.

Language Mapping

History informs us that the indigenous people of Singapore were of Malay descent. While, there existed pockets of vernacular Malay languages such as Javanese, Boyanese, Balinese, and so on, a common Malay tongue called Bahasa was carved out to unify the different genres. Likewise, within the Chinese populace, Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka, Hailam, Teochew, etc., carried along strong allegiances, and it was only later that Mandarin evolved as a common, binding lingua franca for the Orientals.

The Indian realm was predominantly South-Indian, with masses who had arrived in Singapore, mainly as labourers in plantation, agriculture, construction and road building. They had a fairly loud presence in public spheres as compared to the reserved barrack occupying Punjabi troopers (with increased decibels only on special occasions). Their Tamil lingo was also clearly distinguishable vis-a-vis prisoners deployed here from Chennai clad in metallic leg cuffs. Historians have even attributed the popularity of the terms ‘Keling’, the racial brand for Tamilians in Singapore till today to the cling sound of chain cuffs, and Roti-Canai as a derivative of bread from Chennai.

Language Bridging

I really would love to be bestowed with the talent of Cartoon Sketching to include at this juncture, a creative graphic of the Englishman, Chinese, Malay and Indian at the ‘Paser’. I cannot draw, however, but shall posit this next assertion in a simple point chart:

Englishmen- English, sprinkles of Malay.
Chinese- Dialects, sprinkles of Malay & English.
Malays- Malay, sprinkles of English.
Tamilians- Tamil, sprinkles of Malay & English.
Punjabis- Punjabi, Malay, sprinkles of English.

A comparative analysis of the non-exhaustive list above would expose a ‘trending’ overlap- the Malay Language as spoken by all of the ethnic identities, fluently or ‘broken’. Malay was thus a feasible and viable linguistic bridge to connect cross-cultures in Singapore.

Language Exchange

I shall attempt to explain why Malay as an initial bridging linguistic commonality, imperatively grew to be incorporated into the original language mediums such as Punjabi. Malay, we have developed as the language of the natives which in its modernised form, sprung off far from its original ‘Jawi’ script taking a revolutionary rebirth in Romanised English characters. Bo-Boh La-Lah, BOLA forms a classic example of Malay in its most simplified written and pronounced model. Simply put, the acquisition of the Malay vocabulary was thus smooth and viable. Within the Sikh citizenry across time, the Malay vocabulary inception grew and underwent a process of dynamic normalisation as part of spoken Punjabi. Enclosed are some examples:

. Kunji – Keys- Chabi
. Gamber – Picture- Film
. Pisoh– Knife – Chaku
. Sekuleh – School- Paatshala
. Baju – Clothing- Kapra
. Bugeh – Book- Kitaab
. Hari Satu – Monday- Somwaar
. Hari Minggu – Sunday- Etwaar

And lots lots more!

Language Concretisation

1930s- 1940s: The Sikh Immigration in Singapore; the start of preliminary ethno-linguistic discoveries.

1940s- 1950s: The Colonialist British & Japanese Interplay; The former engaging ‘Divide and Rule’ paraphernalia thus allowing the polity to continue the perpetuation of their linguistic kinds. The latter influence on local culture deserves to be investigated separately. Narratives actually iterate with the Sikh regard, that the the INA (Indian National Army) was formed in 1943 as allies of the of the Japanese in Singapore. Then this way, there surely would exist a double edged “Lingua Franca” common to the Samurai and the Singh!

1950s- 1970s: Politics of Merdeka- a clean up of blurred linguistic identities with the formalisation of a second -language mother tongue in Singapore schools.

1970s- 1990s: Formalised Punjabi remains to take a backseat in schools and in the workforce while Malay as a second-language gains acceleration as the preferred dominant mother tongue option by Sikhs. The prevalent Malay component in informal Singapore Punjabi that took birth decades back witnesses enhanced comfort and footing in the verbal communication by Punjabis when they meet in the home, public space or telecommunications. The only mode of ‘Gurmukhi’ acquisition in its authentic form took place via lessons by learned maestros at Sikh Gurduwaras or at the home.

Wither the Paser Punjabi Language

So the question that emerges would be thus- What happened post 1990s till now?

As modernity took a new wave in Singapore’s socio-economic fabric, new forms of capital flow, culture, and education crept into our everyday lives. Since the 1990s Sikhs in Singapore have immensely concretised their identities via micro and macro institutions including the linguistic sector. The Student now looks beyond any other second-language and instead sacrifices time off the weekends to be educated in top merit curriculum at Punjabi Centres around the island. The curriculum and that to being examinable till post-secondary levels, is propelled by a universal model and structure just like any other mainstream linguistics.

There lies no incentive of any sort for Punjabi academic heads in Singapore to lobby for ‘Paser’ Punjabi to be recognised and formally assimilated into the syllabus. My peers in response to informal discussion with regard to the reality of ‘Paser’ Punjabi as a Singaporean textbook special component often remark cheekily “only if Singapore was in Canada”.

I completed my second language in Malay up to GCE A-Levels in 1994 and am equipped with a decent ‘Paser’ Punjabi ability but only “Laku” with Sikhs my age and older. Communication with the new wave of ‘Desi Pais’ in Gurduwaras and ad hoc situations is typically an alienating experience for me. Their command of English lags far behind, while their Punjabi boasts of ‘deep’ content where ‘Roti’ (Chapati) is referred to as “Fulkeh” and “Tahu Sambel” appears to be ‘Paneer Masala’!

The process of ‘Paser’ Punjabi’s withering is inevitable’ especially when I discover that my nieces understand what ‘Gaind’ is while “Bo-Boh, La-Lah, BOLA” sound like a comical expression or worse, “ Mamaji you sound like a Caveman”!

Jatinder Singh possesses great interest in culture which he studied at National University of Singapore (NUS). He currently trains students and adults in schools and enrichment centres in a range of topics; including public speaking which forms his forte. Jatinder also extends his flair to host and emcee events.


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