02 December 2007

Migrants should be required to take English courses

After 40 years of getting Singaporeans to accept English as a neutral inter-ethnic link language, this achievement is under threat from new migrants from China. Singapore's majority Chinese need to understand how alienating this is to our ethnic-minority fellow citizens. Full essay.


Anonymous said...

"We shouldn't expect our ethnic minority citizens to do all the adjusting."

The government, by permitting so much immigration from China, is encouraging exactly this. If immigration were from diverse sources, then all would have to adapt, but it seems as if the main immigrant pool is China.

I completely agree with you on the problem, but I don't think your solution will be effective. I don't think immigrants can really learn English in Singapore's current environment. It's just too easy for them to get by in Chinese, so easy that many even expect non-Chinese to know Mandarin as if Singapore is part of China.

Granny still can't speak English even though she's lived in Singapore for decades. She even took classes. I doubt that uneducated immigrants from China will fare any better.

I would like to suggest that instead of making uneducated Chinese take English classes, I think Singapore should bring in immigrants from more places, like Vietnam, Cambodia, etc. for increased diversity. Besides, isn't English already taught throughout China as a required subject to all children? If they go through so many years of schooling and still can't understand a few English words, then I'd say the situation is more or less hopeless for them.

jason said...

Dear Alex,

I totally agree with you. As a personal principle, I absolutely and flatly refuse to respond in Mandarin to someone who starts a conversation or asks me a question in Mandarin, even though I'm more than fluent in the language. As one can probably deduce, this happens mainly with the China-Chinese set. Some might call this behaviour petulant, my this is my way of "punishing" and prodding them with the reality that not everyone in Singapore speaks Mandarin, (Wherever they got that idea from I wonder) even those who seemingly look "Chinese".

Your article brings to mind something similar that was reported in the ST sometime ago. It was about the person in charge of bringing foreign sporting talent into Singapore. Seems like he mainly chose athletes from China, not because they were the best, but because they were culturally more similar, and this talent scout had hoped that they will eventually make Singapore their home. promising long distance runners from Africa, who could have easily won a major sporting gold for Singapore, were thus dropped in favour of these second grade Chinese "imports".

Well, he has since concluded that the foreign sporting talent scheme has failed. (Credit though must be given to him for openly admitting his shortcomings, in the ST no less)

However, lest you brand me as a anti-foreigner/immigration/China bigot, let me state that this couldn't be furthur from the truth. I disagree with Sharma (the ST forum writer) that the solution lies in giving local Singaporeans priority in the employment queue. May the best person get the job, regardless of demographic profile. All they need to do is demonstrate the relevant qualifications and competence. I, for one, am always delighted to be served by foreign wait-staff in restaurants and I find that their service often surpasses Singaporeans. I always make it a point to compliment them on a job well done - in English of course.

Billybong said...

Leave it to the Chinese and Indians (who form the bulk of our foreign labour force) to work out an arrangement at their workplace even when they cannot speak the same language.

I was always amused when i watched my former chinese and Indian workers communicating in broken English, and still get the job right! That is something that has always impressed me: the willingness to work together and get the job done far outweighs the language barrier.

End of the day, you don't need to enforce a 'langage test' to ensure a streamlining of basic English. The 'horror' stories these foreign labour tell when they take their biennial home leave is enough to force most newcomers to re-think their work-in-singapore plan. For many that make the trip, they are mostly adaptable and always open to learn.

Yawning Bread Sampler said...

Billybong -

I agree that the men who come here to work realise they need some English, and as I said in my essay, these ones don't seem to be the problem.

The problem tends to be the family members they bring in.

In the UK where many Asians (which term means Indians, Pakstanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans) marry wives from the subcontinent and bring their families over to the UK, there have been reports of such family members never learning English despite 10 years living in the UK!

When they suffer abusive husbands, etc, they don't know how to approach the authorities and social workers for help.

Anonymous said...

alex - may I point out something peripheral to your discussion: you sound rather like the singapore ministers and civil servants, in believing that every problem can be solved by introducing a few courses and rules

if your concern is non-english speakers would have difficulty functioning in this society, including knowing how to seek help, I dont think the problem as serious as you make it

if your concern is unhappiness among locals towards newcomers who do not seem to be "fitting in", it is even more obvious that this is a complex social issue and english courses are not the solution; here again you are like the ministers and civil servants who deliberately oversimplify issues


Anonymous said...

The Indians from India is another group. But the problem they bring with them is not a linguistic one, but of a feudal nature, one that still plagues modern India. The caste system, social arrogance, segregation. You can see it at the work place, the way they treat their own kind, and it is usually the educated ones most responsible for this.

Anonymous said...

There is nothing wrong in encouraging new immigrants or ppl wanting to work in singapore for an extended time to learn English. I volunteer (not in in sg) with immigrant women and Im astounded by how many of them get by without knowing how to dial 911 or call for a cab or an ambulance. A 68 year old client recently learnt how to write her address in English. She's been here for over 20 years btw..
My concern is really abt ppl like them not getting the help they need. Its a problem with the women esp, if they are an abusive situations.
Part of the problem is the unwillingness of many immigrants to learn something new or assimilate. They'd rather stick to their own kind. Its unfortunate.

Yawning Bread Sampler said...

SgSociety -

I don't pretend that making immigrants take a a basic English course is any magic wand that will solve the problem by itself. It should be obvious for example that some might know English and still refuse to speak it. Others might lose it quickly if they stick to their own kind, as the above poster mentioned. Or they can still be rude to other ethnic groups. But making them take a course is a step in the right direction.

veii said...

I live in Malaysia, and I get furious whenever I get serviced by recent arrivals from China who clearly do not speak English or Malay. I am chinese, but not a Mandarin/Putonghua speaker. As you say, I believe that when someone works in a service job in a foreign country, he/she should be linguistically competent with that country's communities.

recruit ong said...

Taking an english course just means certification rite? I don't think this solves the problem. In my school now, there are a lot of foreign students from china. Enrolment in the course requires them to pass their english. So all of them have the necessary proper cert, but in real life they cringe to speak english and will stick among themselves.

The problem i see is numbers. Bcos there are so many of them allowed in they end up sticking with their own kind. If their numbers are few they will hv no choice but to mingle with us and integrate.

Mike said...

Hi Alex,

I’m a Singaporean currently working and living in Australia, and when I brought up the Forum letter to my wife a couple of days ago, she said exactly the same thing you did: that English proficiency tests be made compulsory for everyone wanting to reside in Singapore.

Australia recently introduced similar reforms to its immigration system under the ex-Howard government, and I fully support the English requirements despite my disdain for Howard. I have friends who have gotten degrees from Australia but whose English is barely passable despite studying and working here for more than a decade (blame too much mixing exclusively among their own kind). Already there are issues here in Australia with newcomers failing to integrate, and I fear the same thing will happen in Singapore if we carry on down the road we are on.

Sgsociety.com. yes English tests will not be the be-all-and-end-all solution, but I do agree it’s a step in the right direction to helping integrate the new arrivals. Taking the test, and explaining the rationale behind the test to the candidates, will at least force people like the woman mentioned in Alex’s article wake up and realize that not everyone in Singapore automatically understands Chinese.

Anonymous said...

What the hell is the problem here? Isn't there already enough of english language in this island where a good number of people (usually the elite) can only converse in? At the last count, there are about 200,000 Chinese nationals residing in Singapore. Most of our ancestors come from this part of the world as well. There is also a "speak mandarin Campaign" by the Singapore government. Most Singaporeans have at least a decade of Mandarin language education. Our ethnic minorities are also encouraged to take up Chinese language courses as well.

Once again, it is always the (mainly ethnic Chinese) Anglicised elite who have little regard for their verncular asian cultures imposing their values on others to make their own world more recognisable to themselves (like England and America). As MM Lee has reminded us, "Most Singaporeans on the streets still speak Mandarin and other Chinese dialects."

The English educated elite have also used the arguement of maintain inter-ethnic communications as a red herring to maintain their grip on power and privilege in Singapore over the masses from all ethnic backgrounds which have been continously and systematically marginalised.

If we follow YB's requirements, all the older generation of Singaporeans would be thrown out.

Requiring our new migrants (and probably everyone else) to learn English has the same repressive political undertones of telling gays to be straight.

Anonymous said...

if a employer hires people who
are not proficient in the language
used by the customers, the fault
lies with the employer, not with
the government for letting such
people in, since they may come for
other reasons; it is more
reasonable to demand that the
government only issues employment
passes and work permits to people
with required language proficiency

this is a separate issue from the
Singapore government's immigration
policy, which appears to compensate
for lower birth among the chinese
by seeking more mainland china
immigrants, rather than strictly
assess immigrants by employability


Teck Soon said...

To the anonymous above, I don't think it's a fair analogy to compare providing a few English classes to new immigrants to systematic marginalisation of minorities.

In fact, Alex's respect for non-Chinese minorities is clear, since he doesn't think it's fair for them to bear the brunt of pressure from new immigrants. Shouldn't the new immigrants from China at least have to adapt a little bit?

While I agree that maintaining racial harmony is used too often as an excuse for political repression in Singapore, I don't think this qualifies. Likewise, the government's "Speak Mandarin Campaign" is not targeted at Singapore's ethnic minorities, but at dialect-speaking Chinese.

We wouldn't have this problem if everyone were required to take Mandarin in school, but currently the only language common to all of us is English. It's not about colonialism, it's just cultural inertia. Since more Singaporeans understand English than Chinese, English would seem to be a better choice for a common language.

Joe90 said...

I totally disagree with Anonymous of 3rd Dec, 10:40. We really don't have to go too far and talk about newcomer Chinese immigrants alienating local non-Chinese-speaking ethnic minorities with the former's inability to converse in English. And we don't have to talk about the so-called English-speaking Chinese elite's supposed cultural hegemony.

As it is, with my being a non-Chinese-speaking Singapore-born and bred Eurasian, on the ordinary day-to-day level of having to interact with my "average Joe" Singapore-born Chinese colleagues at work, very often I'm left out of the conversation, especially during lunch breaks, when they choose to converse amongst themselves in Chinese. Mind you, my born-and-bred Singaporean Chinese colleagues are very well capable of speaking English, especially since that is the medium of communication we have to use at work. But most probably because they usually take it for granted that all Singaporeans (regardless of race) can speak Chinese, that they very often forget that there is a non-Chinese-speaker amongst them (namely me), and so they just proceed to chat away in Chinese without a moment's consideration at all to include their bewildered non-Chinese-speaking colleague and fellow countrymen in the on-going conversation. It becomes even more disconcerting when they share a joke in Chinese, and I don't even know what why they are laughing.

The point I'm trying to make here - one which I believe Yawning Bread is also trying to make - is that just because a particular ethnic group comprises the majority in this country, that doesn't mean that this majority can take it for granted that every person from other minority groups in this country can and must speak what is essentially the mother tongue of the majority ethnic group. And just because you are in the majority, that doesn't automatically give you the right to demand that everybody else (namely other minorities) must speak your mother tongue, as well.

That's why, I agree with YB that, for the sake of better inter-racial communication and harmony, we should make it a requirement that all foreigners who wish to take up citizenship or extended periods of residence in Singapore must be officially required to learn and speak English. And on top of that, our existing born-and-bred Singaporean Chinese citizens should learn to be more sensitive and considerate towards their fellow Singaporeans who do not speak Chinese.

Let me end with a poem I call "Great Wall," which I wrote to address this particular issue:

"Like a gwai loh outside the kingdom,
is how I feel
every time
I dine
with my 'Hua Yu' friends
who talk amongst themselves
in Putong Hua.

We may sit together
but we do not share a meal
because the tongue of the Han
barricades this barbarian."

Anonymous said...

Anonymous of 3rd Dec 10:40 said, Quote:
"Requiring our new migrants (and probably everyone else) to learn English has the same repressive political undertones of telling gays to be straight."

Telling gays to be straight? A person who thinks like this is the type who fails to see that it is not possible to change a gay person to become straight. For umpteen generations, people had tried to do this and failed - they tried everything, all kinds of brutal brainwashing up to even chemical treatment and electro-shock therapy! By and large, in this present century, people who are reasonably sane and knowledgeable have agreed that all these treatments failed. Indeed, the desire of gays themselves to change to straight is so universal that the person who can find a treatment that actually works will become the next billionaire, far richer than Bill Gates, I promise you.

The same thing cannot be said for migrants to learn English. I dare say at least half of them will pass and very delighted they will be too, that their stay in Singapore had enabled them to pick up such an useful international language. For the other half who do not pass, don't you think it is a welcome privilege for Singapore that we can exercise a quality control and reject them?

We welcome foreign talent. Those less talented please take the next bus.

Yawning Bread Sampler said...

Anonymous 3 Dec, 22:25 -

He he. Please lighten up. He was using "telling gays to be straight" merely as a rhetorical device.

Anonymous said...

For YBS and all the idiotic commentators, before you implement this English-course requirement for immigrants, shouldn't you make EVERY Singaporean (including grandparents, uncles, aunties, ah bengs, ah lians, uneducated malays/indians, etc) learn English??!! If Singaporeans themselves have the right to speak in whatever language they are comfortable in (be it Mandarin, chinese dialects, malay, tamil), what right do you have to impose your will on immigrants?!?!?

Yawning Bread Sampler said...

Virtually all Singaporeans under the age of 50 would know some English. More importantly, they know that it is a social faux-pas to speak Chinese to a non-Chinese, and so know when not to cause offence. If the older generation don't speak English and still need to communicate with a non-Chinese, they may try bazaar Malay or ask a relative to do the speaking for them.

The issue before us is that _some_ new migrants do not know the social "rules" in Singapore, and because of that, they cause insult and offence. As I have highlighted, the insult is not a minor one because it can heighten a sense of alienation and 2nd-class citizenship among our ethnic minorities.

The response therefore must be to find some way to (a) inform the new migrants of the social rules and (b) equip them to act according to the social rules.

Thus - (a) take classes wherein they absorb the need to be sensitive to racial minorities and (b) learn some basic English to cope with it.

Let's not get overheated and imagine we want everyone including one's grandmother to speak the Queens' English or abandon his/her own language.

Anonymous said...

Just as YB finds it unacceptable that gays should be specifically targeted for HIV tests, I find it equally disturbing that he feels that Chinese nationals should be targeted for English language tests or else...

To begin with, the larger forces alienating our ethnic minorities as well as working class Singaporean Chinese ARE NOT Chinese nationals, but the ethnic Chinese Singaporean Anglicised elite which YB can be lumped together with occassionally.

It is usually not the Chinese nationals, but our almost boys and girls in our almost monoethnic elite schools and professions that harbours that most insensitive regard to our minorities that goes far beyond whether tea is prounced as cha or teh in the koptiam.

And, I think it is more important that Singaporeans be given tests on how to relate to foreigners, especially the less privileged, respectfully instead of the latter observing our so call " social rules"

Lastly, as YB commented:
"The steady inroads made by the Chinese language in social and public life not only reverses 40 years of nation-building..."

I find this comment which associates much of Singaporeans' cultural heritage with something negative to be rather offensive, revealing YB's entrenched prejudices and disdain as an English educated middle class Singaporean on the rest of us.

Xiang Dong

Anonymous said...

To Joe90,

Anyway why must your colleagues always have to accommodate you like the way the entire population has to accoomodate the few English speaking elite? Why don't you learn Mandarin instead for starters?

IF you have not been paying attention in Chinese language classes (because you think it is not as cool as English), or if you never had a chance to learn mandarin, ther are plenty of nightclasses around if you are sincere enough in engaging your ethnic Chinese singaporean friends more meaninfully.

Xiang Dong

Yawning Bread Sampler said...

I did not propose that only Chinese migrants be required to take English. I said all migrants be required to show at least a basic grasp of the language.

It is perfectly justifiable for any country to establish qualifications before accepting migrants so long as these qualifications serve a rational purpose. I think in the case of language, it does.

Joe90 said...

To Xiang Dong or Anonymous of 4 Dec, 17:53, with all due respect, you do not get the point of what I'm trying to say. What I am saying is, knowing full well that I am unable to speak Chinese, when my English-and-Chinese speaking colleagues and I (the sole non-Chinese-speaker) are together in a social situation, they, i.e. my Chinese-speaking colleagues, at least, should have the common sense, courtesy and consideration to include me in their conversation by carrying out the SIMPLEST solution in such a situation (e.g. where the majority are both Chinese AND English-speaking and the minority is only English/Malay speaking), which is: just simply speak English so that everyone can understand, that is, if they, my Chinese-and-English-speaking colleagues/friends are truly sincere and considerate about including everyone, regardless of race, in such a social situation. It is not about demanding accommodation, it is about reminding everyone (meaning all Singaporeans, all races included) to practise common sense, consideration and courtesy in all social situations where members from more than one ethnic group are present together at the same time! But then again, seeing as how this is actually all about doing the simplest, correct and considerate thing in such a situation, don’t you think it is only right and reasonable to expect the majority that is well capable of speaking English also, to accommodate the non-Chinese-speaking person/s in the group, by simply speaking English so that everyone is included in such a social situation? So, why do I or any other non-Chinese-speaking citizen for that matter, should have to “demand for accommodation,” when in the first place, accommodation and consideration for the sensitivities of our minority friends and citizens, ought to be second nature to those in the majority, without anyone having to demand it or remind them of it?

And I have never said it is “uncool” to speak or learn to speak Chinese. And to reiterate the point made by some other commentators, the main purpose of the Speak Mandarin campaign, that is aimed solely at the ethnic Chinese Singaporeans, is to foster cultural unity amongst the Singaporean Chinese; it is not, and was never, meant to be aimed at other ethnic minorities in Singapore in order to enable them to assimilate into the culture of the ethnic majority Chinese. There is no reason for the ethnic minorities here to be assimilated with the Chinese majority. Instead, what we have and ought to uphold in this country is the facilitation of inter-racial integration and harmony through the common, official and universal language of English.

But as it is, mainly out of my frustration with the inflexible and unreasonable status quo, for a long time, I have considered taking up conversational Chinese lessons, just so that I may not be left out from the discourse when my Chinese friends or colleagues so unconscionably choose to speak EXCLUSIVELY in Chinese, when they are very well capable doing the simplest thing for all concerned and just speak English … that is, if my Chinese friends are really sincere about engaging their ethnic minority friend. But whether I choose or not choose to learn Chinese, only I have the right to make such a decision, based on whether I find it necessary to do so or not. For the time being, I do not find it necessary to go to all the trouble of learning Chinese just to ACCOMMODATE my Chinese-and-English-speaking friends, when most of my friends and colleagues and I have one thing in common, namely that we all speak English. Why should I make things difficult for myself, when there is already a ready, simple and common sense solution for all concerned?

Joe90 said...

P.S. to Xiang Dong, there is no need for you to take a condescending tone with me. Just by doing so, you have lost whatever respect I had left for you to begin with, and just goes to reinforce my view that the Chinese Chauvinists in this country are so recalcitrant and arrogant in their demanding that other ethnic minorities assimilate their culture or else flounder.

ybin said...

As a Chinese national myself, I find my linguistic experience in Singapore rather interesting, so to speak. I always open up any conversation/question in English. However if somewhere along the conversation the other party knows I am from China, s/he would immediately switch to Chinese. Mind you, my English is functional and accent-free. So exactly who is encouraging the thinking that
Chinese is a functional language in Singapore?

Once again, Singaporeans are quick to point fingers at us and blame us as the source of your own problems. As one of the comments here rightly point outs, it is mostly the Singaporean Chinese that are linguistically ostracizing their non-Chinese colleagues. If one wishes to make Singapore a totally English functioning society where minorities do not experience any linguistic inconvenience, the change of attitude must start with Chinese Singaporeans. It is unfair to blame immigrants for problems that essentially originate from the social and linguistic reality of Singapore itself.

karel321@yahoo.com said...

i'm european, speak 6 languages, but no mandarin, and live in singapore.

equallity principal :
1) if all newcomers have to learn english, so has my adorable landlady, who is a singapore national that doesn't speak a single word of english. her son has tried to teach her english ... and failed. for whatever practical reason, applying one set of rules on newcomers and another set on locals is always discriminatory.
2)imposing 1 common language discriminates people that have not been brought up in that language or did not have the educational opportunities to learn it, whether they are foreign or local.

fact : the ability to learn a second language is a specific skill that not everybody has (to the same degree). they are not numerous, but they really do exist : people that are not able to learn a foreign language, regardless of the their intelligence, their will to do so or the necessity they experience.

practical example : imagine a japanese manager or scientist that speaks english fluently. are you going to refuse him an employment pass because his wife doesn't speak (enough) english ? even when you know that call centers here are screaming for japanese speakers, and would love to hire her ... ok, put your feet on the ground. he'll get all the employment and dependent passes he wants, thrown at him (and his wife) !

economical argument (something that usually sticks with singaporeans) : a cheap car doesn't perform like an expensive one. if you want to import cheap labour, you can't have high expectations. if you want bilingual staff, pay for it.

i find it both a bit naive and arrogant to expect that foreigners that want to live here all speak english. let's be pragmatic. offer more cheap english and mandarin courses to everybody who wants to learn it, and very important - make sure that both locals and newcomers of all ages find their way to these courses. everybody will be happy with that. just put these "speak mandarin" and "speak english" campaigns in higher gear ! everybody will take profit from it.

joshua kums said...

The greatest disservice this government did to the Singaporean Chinese was to actually force them to learn Mandarin regardless of what they wanted to learn it as a second language or for that matter whether they wanted to learn a second language at all. Today I feel the xenophobia gripping the Singaporean Chinese is greater then ever before. With this speak Mandarin policy grilled into all of us in Singapore; the Singaporean Chinese cannot see the wrong in the thought process of speaking in a language that is understood by Singaporeans who do not speak the Mandarin language. In fact I feel the Singaporean Chinese who came out of the school education system before this onerous policy of forcing Chinese Singaporeans to learn Mandarin as a second language were more altruistic towards being labeled a Singaporean first then to be labeled as a Chinese Singaporean. So how can you blame the Chinese foreigners to do likewise? Today all the policy makers have this Mandarin zeal in them and it would take a tectonic shift in the Chinese Singaporeans mindset to actually follow the advise of Murali. Of course we have pockets of sensibilities like Mr. Alex Au but they are in the minority.

Anonymous said...

Dear YB,

I disagree with your idea. I don't think that requiring migrants to take english courses or to be able to speak english for that matter will solve the problem. As a matter of fact the cynic in me says that you probably run/work for an English language school, and thus stand to profit if this becomes govt policy.

I don't believe that every problem needs government intervention. And this issue is one of them. Let the market do it, if customers are not being understood, then business will suffer. Things will right itself on its own.

On being offended, I think we all need to be a bit more broad minded. If people speak to you in a language you do not understand, you just reply you don't. Why is there a need to take offense? I always try to remind myself that the labels 'Singaporean', 'Chinese', 'Malaysian', 'Indian', are nothing more than a twist of fate a few decades earlier. If my forefathers did not come to Singapore, I would be a foreigner now. If we weren't kicked out of the Federation, the header would be "Migrants should be required to take Malay courses". So its all relative. If people can get by in Singapore with only one language (English or not), then so be it. If they can't, then its up to them to change, not for us to decide that they must.