Yawning Bread. 2 December 2007

Migrants should be required to take English courses




On 4 occasions in one month, Murali Sharma came across service staff who couldn't speak a word of English, only Mandarin Chinese. Writing to the Straits Times, he said this occurred twice at top hotels where he attended wedding banquets, at an upmarket Chinese restaurant and a supermarket.

He didn't say so in his letter, but Singaporeans would know that if a Chinese-speaking person of working age didn't know English at all, most likely he or she would be a new immigrant from China. Possibly Malaysia where some Chinese speak only Chinese and Malay, but such newcomers from our neighbour are nowadays outnumbered by the flood from China.

In the two five-star hotels, the staff were probably temps. In the past, they came from the polytechnics. I wonder what has happened to this regular pool. Do the students no longer need the money or want to work? Or are the restaurants in the five-star hotels tapping a much cheaper labour market? If this is the case, the hotels are short-changing their customers.

The situation in the upmarket restaurant was similar.

I wonder if these staff are selected on how low a salary they would accept. One could not get a beer, warm water or a change of a chopstick which had dropped on the floor. The staff were quick, eager and always said 'yes' but the service was bad.

-- Straits Times print forum, 1 Dec 2007,
Service Staff must know English

The solution that Sharma argued for was this: The authorities should ensure that locals are employed. Otherwise our reputation as a shoppers' and gourmets' paradise will go down the drain.

I disagree. Commercial businesses should have the freedom to hire whom they wish from the resident pool in Singapore and such foreigners as permitted by our immigration policies. They should of course be aware that hiring people who cannot adequately communicate with customers would hurt their business reputation, so speaking up as Sharma did is the right thing to do. But to insist that all service jobs in the retail and F&B sectors be reserved for Singaporeans is too dirigiste a way to solve the problem.

Instead, I would propose that all migrants -- and that means anyone who receives a long-stay pass whether as a working person or dependent -- should be required to take a basic English language course. I'll expand on this later, but first, let me share an experience I had just last week.

* * * * *

I had made the mistake of arranging a dinner with friends without making a reservation. It was a weekday evening, and I had not expected the restaurant to be close to full, but I guess with Singapore getting ever more crowded, I should have known better.

Fortunately I arrived about half an hour early and had a bit of time to try to sort it out with the maitre d' at the door.

"Table for 4, you said?" He was speaking to himself as he looked around the dining room.

There were two tables free, but each only sat two. Unfortunately, the table between these two free ones was occupied. though the couple there had only just arrived and had barely seated themselves. "Maybe I can move them to the adjacent table and join the two tables for you," he suggested.

I looked at him with a little bemused suspicion. Was it really company policy to move diners like that? Wouldn't they feel offended to be inconvenienced thus? On the other hand, I could be selfish and focus on how that would solve my problem.

He paused for a while more, pondering some other possible solutions and looking around the restaurant again to see which other table might be finishing soon. I appreciated what he was trying to do. At many other places, they'd just put your name down on the waiting list and tell you they'd call you when a table was free, with no effort put into finding an immediate solution. But not this young man.

That was when a middle-aged woman walked up to his desk and asked him something in a language that sounded like Chinese, but not one that I could understand. If it was Chinese, it was a very strange dialect. The maitre d', who was Malay, naturally understood not a word.

He looked to me for help.

"Sheme?" I asked her. What?

She repeated what she had first said, but it was still incomprehensible. However, the fact that she probably understood "sheme" enough to repeat herself meant that she was speaking some form of Chinese, not Lao or Mongolian or Martian. It must be a dialect that is new to Singapore, like Hunanese or what's spoken in Zhejiang, Shaanxi or any number of provinces that historically, few Singaporeans originated from.

"Ni keyi shuo putonghua, ma?" Can you speak Mandarin? I asked her.

She then said something new, but it still sounded strange. After one more try, I figured I could catch one phrase. It sounded like "xi shou jian", though the tones were all off. Nonetheless, "xi shou jian" would make sense, so I pointed her to the nearest restroom in the shopping mall.

"You get a lot of this kind of thing, manning the desk out here?" I asked the maiitre d'.

"Yeah, sometimes," he said. "A bit awkward for me, but it must also be hard for these newcomers to live in Singapore." He was being so diplomatic, he deserved a medal.

* * * * *

It is only to be expected that as immigration increases, xenophobia tends to rise. Linguistic insult of the kind that Sharma or the maitre d' experienced can exacerbate such trends. 

That said, most migrants who come to work in Singapore will know some English, otherwise they won't be able to function at their jobs. This is not just in respect of the professionals and senior technical staff; even the blue-collar workers from China, India, Bangladesh, Burma and Thailand speak some kind of pidgin English among them. How else would they understand their supervisor, or co-ordinate their work with each other? The Chinese tile-layer would need English to tell the Bangla labourer to bring him more cement, for example.

The problem tends to be found in those who do not come here to work, most typically, the family dependents. These include the "study mamas" from China who enroll their children in Singapore schools for a better education than they can get in China, and who then get long-term residency permits to stay here to look after the kids. Other family dependents include wives and parents of managers or professionals.

Quite often, they look for temporary or part time jobs; today we see them in many shops and food establishments.

As Singapore increases our intake of migrants together with the new emphasis on getting the better qualified ones to put down roots, we are likely to see more and more family members being brought over. This problem can only grow.

The steady inroads made by the Chinese language in social and public life not only reverses 40 years of nation-building, a major plank of which is the adoption of English as a neutral platform for communication in order that that no ethnic group will feel disadvantaged, it can be seriously alienating to our ethnic minorities in a very personal way. Encountering such moments makes them feel acutely marginalised in what is really their own country.

You might have noticed in Sharma's story that on two occasions he was attending a wedding banquet at Chinese restaurants, evidently to celebrate with his Chinese friends. It must surely be important for Singapore that such cross-ethnic participation continue. Thus, it would be terribly regressive if an increasing frequency of linguistic alienation ends up discouraging such social harmonics. 

There are also public safety issues. Paramedics, firemen and police officers tend to have a significant number of non-Chinese among them. In an emergency, how are they going to communicate with those who don't understand a word of English?

"Give me your son. I'll carry him. You crawl under the smoke. Crawl. Get down. Crawl. You don't know what crawl is?"

"Close the door behind you. Do you understand me? Close it, close it. Don't let the fire spread."

"Where does it hurt? Don't try to speak, just point. Keep breathing the oxygen, just point where it hurts. You know what 'point' is?"

We need to make greater efforts to maintain English as the inter-ethnic link language. The first step, as I mentioned above, should be to require all who receive a long-stay visa to take a basic English course. Extension of the visa beyond the first year should be contingent on passing a test of spoken English.

In case they lose it all after a while from lack of use, further extensions of the long-stay visa or permanent residency (e.g. every 3 or 5 years) should also be contingent on retaking and passing the test.

Besides giving new migrants a useful skill, the very exercise itself would impress on them as well the fact that we are a multi-racial place. Foreigners should be expected to make the accommodation to their host country. We shouldn't expect our ethnic minority citizens to do all the adjusting.

Yawning Bread