I first heard the Singlish saying steady pom pi pi a few years ago while visiting a Singaporean restaurant on the island nation. The words were uttered in response to my reckless show of food-bravado: ‘I’ll take the spiciest dish you’ve got,’ I announced to the waiter. He looked up from his order pad, raised an eyebrow, and then recited the adage. I had no idea what it meant, that was, until he brought out the chili-infused Red Hell Hot Pot for me to try. Along with a tub of yoghurt.
Steady Pom Pi Pi – What does it mean?
The waiter explained that steady pom pi pi is to keep cool when facing a challenge. In a way it echoes the now-clichéd and oft-modified WWII British motto, ‘Keep calm and carry on’. But its meaning is more nuanced.
The steady part of the motto points us towards the need to be prepared, informed and vigilant without being paranoid, even when faced with the spiciest of dishes. Pom refers to cheerleading pompoms, a symbol of encouragement towards victory: you will conquer the chilis. Pi pi meanwhile, is from the Hokkein language and is used to denote a celebratory ‘whistle’; a foresightful well done, you survived, and here’s the bill. Add all of this together and it creates a winning mindset to tackle a Red Hell Hot Pot of a situation.
What’s more, the act of boosting someone’s morale with these words also shows a degree of care and consideration; there’s a genuine wish for the recipient to succeed. The kindly waiter wanted me to at least make a stab at the dish, and he galvanised his care by providing the tub of cooling yoghurt. (It helped a lot, yet I still lost the use of my tongue for a week).
A slogan for a pandemic
The saying has recently appeared in a public awareness campaign launched by the Singapore government in response to Covid-19. The campaign, which urges its citizens not to delay in getting vaccinated, comes in the form of a dance video containing what I can only describe as info-disco, wrapped in an aura of warmth and compassion.
Disco has seen something of a resurgence during the pandemic, rescuing us from the monotony of lockdown as we boogied in our kitchens to Dua Lipa and Kylie’s recent releases (well, at least I did). In this Singapore offering however, we witness the country’s very own sitcom-actors-cum-disco-divas Phua Chu Kang (aka Gurmit Singh) and his on-screen wife Rosie (Irene Ang), reassuring Singaporeans through their lyrics that the vaccine is safe. The chorus line is, ‘Singapore, don’t wait and see, Better get your shot steady pom pi pi.’
V for victory
From the very beginning of this virus outbreak Singapore has been ahead of the game. A speedy shut down of its borders together with clear government messaging led to low infection levels, aided by Phua’s earlier video, ‘Singapore Be Steady!’ in March 2020, lyricising the method of handwashing and the wearing of masks. The country’s suppression of the virus is a remarkable achievement, along with its musical accoutrements.
For those nations bereft of info-disco, and who’ve struggled with high case levels and vaccine hesitancy, there’s every reason to take heed of Singapore’s virus-response and observe Phua and Rosie’s message to be steady pom pi pi.
The vaccine rollout will hopefully see us enter the final stage of this Red Hell Hot Pot pandemic. By imbuing the spirit of steady pom pi pi we can move together towards the finish, accompanied by the sound of Singapore’s cheerleading disco with pompoms and tubs of yoghurt to help us whistle across the victory line.