One man’s quest to save the Peranakan language

This story was first published on The A List SG on 3 October 2020.

Educator and Peranakan Kenneth Chan will be speaking at Writing the Chrita-Chrita Baba: a means to save the Peranakan language. (Photo: Kenneth Chan)

Popular dramas and tasty culinary offerings have kept aspects of Peranakan culture alive in Singapore. The Peranakan language, commonly known as Baba Malay, however, has been fading away from everyday use. One man hopes to stem this tide.  

Author Kenneth Chan, a Peranakan himself, has been writing books on Baba Malay and teaching language classes in the hope of sparking a revival of the vanishing vernacular. He penned a textbook on Baba Malay in 2018, and last year, published Chrita-Chrita Baba, a collection of short stories in Baba Malay accompanied by English translations.

On his motivation to save the Peranakan language through his sharing sessions as well as frequent updates from his site,, Chan explains: “Even though there has been great focus on the Peranakan culture, little importance has been placed upon Baba Malay, especially when the English language has become the dominant lingua franca. Since I am well-versed in Baba Malay and am presented with opportunities to help out, my wife and I have decided to step up and develop a curriculum to revive the language.” 

The author will give an online lecture on 6 Oct about how he uses his short stories to introduce readers to Peranakan folklore, rituals and beliefs. The session, titled Writing the Chrita-Chrita Baba: a means to save the Peranakan language, is hosted by the NUS Centre for the Arts.  

Here, Chan shares three things most people might not know about Baba Malay: 

It has Malay, Hokkien, Dutch and Portuguese influences 

To strangers of Baba Malay, the Peranakan language does superficially sound like the Malay language. It borrows many words from Malay and Hokkien, but its grammatical structure can be traced back to Hokkien. Dutch and Portuguese influences are also found in Baba Malay. For example, the word duit, which means money in Baba Malay, is also the denomination of a Dutch coin used by the Dutch East India Company. The word for soldiers in Baba Malay, soldado, is the same as that in Portuguese.  

In the term mata-matamata means “eye” in Malay and when used as a double term, it refers to “the police”. According to Chan, mata-mata was also used by Peranakans in the past to mean “one on all eyes”, just like the policemen who patrolled the streets.

Beware, some common words have a different meaning

You will be surprised that some common catchphrases are linked to the Peranakan language too. 

The popular Singlish word “shiok” also exists in Baba Malay, but with different connotations. In Singlish, the word is used to describe an enjoyable experience and often associated with tasting delicious food. However, in Baba Malay, the term is more commonly associated with licentious activities. “Whenever youngsters say it aloud today, the Peranakan elders cringe,” says Chan.   

The sayings in Baba Malay are colourful

Idioms in Baba Malay are often vivid expressions and they are commonly used in everyday conversation, adding colour and flair to even the mundane. For example, the idiom hujan lebat tanah tak basah, which translates as “heavy rain does not wet the soil” in English, is used to describe an outcome that is not worthwhile. 

Another interesting saying is sian pukol tambor lagik ada salah, amcham lagik gua, or “even the deities make mistakes drumming, much less me” in English, and it means “to err is human”.

Sign up for Writing the Chrita-Chrita Baba: a means to save the Peranakan language here.

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