By SGN | 20 July 2022
For the past 3 years, Sha-Mayn has been a Singaporean not so much overseas as on the seas.
With her Dutch husband Tobi and their dog Twiggy – a nine-year-old Brussels Griffon – Sha-Mayn has been taking a sabbatical from her tech career in New York and setting sail around the Mediterranean on their 40-foot catamaran S/V Kaya, named after the beloved Southeast Asian coconut jam.
The journey began in 2019, when they boarded the vessel on the Atlantic coast of France, navigated round Spain and Portugal, then passed through the Strait of Gibraltar and into the Mediterranean Sea.
“We’ve spent the most time in Corsica, southern Italy and Croatia,” she shares. “After picking up family from Sardinia, we plan to cross the Atlantic to the Caribbean, but we’ve got to go with the flow so I can’t say for sure.”
The ups and downs of boating life
S/V Kaya is the fulfilment of a dream that Sha-Mayn inherited from her late father to experience life on a boat.
During her childhood in Singapore, she and her sister used to follow him to Changi Sailing Club on weekends, going out on the water and picking mussels off the dock. “I have treasured childhood memories of following him on diving trips, even seeing a whale shark once off Pulau Aur!” she recalls.
Sailing around the world isn’t all roses, however. There are constant hardware issues to solve, boating techniques to master, unpredictable weather to overcome, unfamiliar situations to navigate – and docking a boat has proven far more challenging than parking a car and the cause of countless arguments during their bumpy first year at sea.
“There are lots of ups and downs, but the payoff is huge,” Sha-Mayn muses. “I love being constantly in touch with and in awe of nature. I love dropping an anchor and sleeping under the stars.” She and Tobi enjoy viewing beautiful sunsets and moonrises, sighting playful pods of dolphins, and discovering quaint old towns and breathtaking bays.
“The sailor community is amazing and we’ve gotten so much help and support along the way. It’s a real adventure and a different, slow way to travel.”
Familiar flavours of Singapore
Prior to this marine voyage, Sha-Mayn was largely based in the States. A graduate of Duke University, she spent 12 years working for Google as a software engineer and manager in California, Beijing and New York, launching Google Translate along the way. She then began working with social impact startups in New York, first as a director of engineering, then as a tech advisor.
While living far from home, she connected with Singaporeans in the US and bonded with them regularly over food, gathering for reunion dinner on the eve of Lunar New Year and eating Singaporean dishes to celebrate National Day.
“There’s even a kueh shop in New York now, and I’m really excited that a few friends are deeply involved with the Urban Hawker food hall launching soon,” she enthuses. “Proper laksa and satay are coming to New York!”
She returns to Singapore at least once a year, where quality time with friends and family often entails yet more feasting. Even now on S/V Kaya, in addition to the fresh catch of local fishermen and seasonal produce from farmers’ markets, Sha-Mayn makes sure to always keep some flavours of home on hand.
“I bring dark soya sauce on the boat for bak kut teh (pork rib herbal soup) and grow my own taugeh (bean sprouts) because it’s hard to find Asian vegetables on the coast in Europe.”
Singaporean no matter where I go
Though technically on sabbatical, Sha-Mayn still keeps herself busy with side projects and some part-time consulting and coaching from the boat. In February 2022, the lifelong language enthusiast tinkered with the web game Wordle and created its Singlish counterpart, Word-leh!, which swiftly went viral.
She had been hooked on the original game since it became a global phenomenon at the start of the year, sharing her results religiously with friends and family around the world. When a friend sparked the idea of a Singlish variation, Sha-Mayn found an open-source Wordle clone and within a day modified it and populated it with five-letter words from Singlish glossaries.
This uniquely Singaporean lexicon includes words borrowed from Malay (‘makan’ for ‘eat’) and Hokkien (‘bojio’ for ‘didn’t invite’) as well as warped pronunciations of English terms (‘eskew’ for ‘excuse me’, ‘womit’ for ‘vomit’). Like the original, Word-leh! releases a puzzle a day and allows six guesses, although these may be made in Singlish or standard English.
Sha-Mayn was stunned by the response. “I was sibeh (super) surprised that Word-leh! spread so quickly. Before any press coverage, my friends were hearing about it from multiple people who didn’t know me.” At its peak, Word-leh! has had over 50,000 players per day.
“I’ve learned more about Singlish than I ever thought I would,” she adds. “For example, I had to make sure Malay words are correctly spelled (‘sekali’, not ‘skali’), whereas Hokkien is a spoken language so ‘boh jio’ or ‘bo jio’ oso (also) can. I’m very grateful to Dr Gwee Li Sui and the work of other Singlish experts for hilariously educating me on the technicalities of Singlish.”
As she exhausts her repository of five-letter challenges, Sha-Mayn has launched six-letter Word-leh!, which offers a new stash of puzzles along with an extra guess (seven instead of six). “But from what I’m hearing, that doesn’t necessarily make it easier,” she warns.
Her creation has spurred some entertaining and heartening conversations – in Singlish, of course. “There’s been lots of ‘talking cock’ (idle chatter) and some cowpeh-ing (complaining) about ambiguous spellings and missing words. I’ve been connecting with new people and it was sweet to hear from old acquaintances, including a former teacher.
“I think Word-leh! has reinforced that I am Singaporean no matter where I go.”
Catch Sha-Mayn at Singapore @ Home this National Day and try your hand at Word-leh!
Brought to you by Singapore Global Network in collaboration with Dick Lee Asia and mm2 Asia, the second edition of Singapore @ Home promises a fun and entertaining line-up that will connect Singaporeans across the world this National Day.
Helmed by creative director Hossan Leong, who will also take on hosting duties alongside Siti Khalijah, the 6-hour programme is jam-packed with short films about familiar sights and tastes of Singapore, captivating stories of overseas Singaporeans and homegrown brands, as well as musical performances by artistes such as Taufik Batisah, Annette Lee and Benjamin Kheng.
Look forward to live quizzes that test your Singapore knowledge and exciting games including Word-leh! Register today.