Shoes and the public


I needed a new pair of shoes; the old pair didn’t survive Bali.

The sales assistant at Famous Brands saw me take an interest in a sample shoe on the shelf. I was flexing it to check its suppleness, scrutinising its sole, but still a little doubtful about the colour. She said, in Chinese, “It’s a good brand.”

“Why are you speaking Chinese to me?” I asked. “Would you speak English to me please?”

“Yes,” she replied (in English), followed two seconds later with another sentence in Chinese extolling the virtues of the shoe.

“Say that again in English,” I requested.

“Yes,” she said, complete with a brave smile. But didn’t repeat what she had earlier said.


“Do you have this in other colours?” I asked, to which she responded with some other sentence (in Chinese) along the lines of what a great brand it was, but a reply unrelated to colour.

“You don’t speak a word of English, do you?” I finally observed.

“Yes,” she said (in English) to prove me wrong. She did speak one word of English.

I put the sample shoe back on the shelf and walked out of the shop.

One floor up, I found a World of Sports shop, which has a good range of shoes besides other sports equipment. Right at the back of the shop I found a model that I liked. According to the price tag, it was nearly twice the price of the shoe in the other shop. However it was a different brand and different model so it’s not a comparison one can easily make.

Now the moment of truth:  I signalled for help and a neat-looking young man came bouncing up to me. Relief!  He spoke fluent Singapore-accented English.

After some trying on, it came to the matter of price. He then explained the various discount schemes they had: Pay by this kind of credit card and you enjoy this, flash your membership and you enjoy that, plus these free gifts — options, options and more options.

I thought to myself: the woman in the other shop would never be able to communicate the options the way this young man did. She could never have provided the kind of service necessary to close the deal.

* * * * *

The other day, I had an opportunity to ask a bus driver from China, working for SMRT, whether he had any company-provided English language lessons. SMRT is one of two public bus companies here. I asked because it struck me that although he had been driving for nearly two years, he didn’t seem to know a word of English. The answer I got from him was no, learning English was not a condition of employment and there was no company-provided language course.

He added that in any case, given his need to work overtime to make enough money, he wouldn’t have time to attend English classes.

A fellow worker added that they were taught the route by driving but there was no structured scheme to teach them the names of the roads in English. He himself had to get a map and learn the names of the roads. It didn’t entirely work out, he said, because while he could see from the map the “ABC” of the road names, he didn’t know how they were actually pronounced.

Indeed, a non-English speaker would struggle to pronounce “Dunearn Road”, “Guillemard Road”, “Clemenceau Avenue”, “Gloucester Road”, or even mono-syllabic “Haig Road” just by looking at the words on a map. If a commuter asked the driver to indicate when they’ve reached Guillemard Road, so he can alight, would the driver understand?

Beside the question of public service, I wondered, how would such a bus driver understand diversion signs?

A recent controversy was over making announcements of station names in Chinese, on SMRT’s train lines. When negative responses became loud, SMRT quickly declared that it had been a “trial” and said it would be discontinued immediately (see SMRT ends trial on station announcements, Yahoo news, 9 Dec 2012). Actually, it wasn’t scrapped immediately, despite what they said. The same announcements were running as of yesterday.

SMRT said that the anouncements had been intended to aid elderly Chinese Singaporeans who did not speak English. It was met with widespread disbelief, an example of which can be seen from a letter by Patrick Tan, published in Today newspaper on 11 December 2012:

To heartlanders, it’s Somerset, not Suo Mei Sai

I beg to differ with Mr Tan Sung, in his letter “MRT Mandarin announcements are for heartlanders, too” (Dec 8).

Singaporeans, including the old and uneducated, have been using our MRT system for 25 years and would have got used to the station names. They may not be able to pronounce Somerset in Queen’s English, but they know where it is. Ask them, though, where Suo Mei Sai is and they would probably be scratching their heads. It does not bear any semblance to the English name.

It seems to me, therefore, that the direct beneficiaries of the Mandarin announcements were not heartlanders who may not understand English but the mainland Chinese who are here as tourists or residents.

Frankly, I cannot imagine how annoying it would be if all the station names were to be broadcast in the four official languages – a sure way to drive commuters out of the trains.

Patrick Tan

* * * * *

What the above suggests to me is that some shop owners and SMRT management have a rather skewed perception of the public they serve. What do they imagine the “public” to be?

One possible reason may be that these bosses and managers come from Chinese-speaking circles; they project their personal environments onto the entire Singapore landscape and think that Chinese is of similar importance and should have equivalent status to English.  At the same time, non-Chinese are relatively absent from their family and social circles and so while “elderly Chinese who don’t speak English”  — an explanation that SMRT used for its “trial” — seem to them like a reasonable basis for action, elderly Malays and Indians do not come to mind at all.

Actually, the very fact that SMRT chose to recruit from China speaks volumes. Why didn’t they choose to recruit from Philippines, India or Indonesia where they are more likely to find drivers who can speak some English already? It may be partly because our state adopts a nationality-based system for foreign hires. Service staff cannot be recruited from India or Indonesia, according to the Manpower Ministry’s stated policy. That however, still leaves Philippines as a possible source. So why didn’t SMRT go there to find drivers?

Did SMRT think that English is not an essential part of the job? How on earth did they come to see the Singapore public that way? Perhaps they failed to remind themselves that they are a public service company, that is to say, they were so focussed on financial deliverables — often a symptom of top management obsession with shareholder “value” and bonusses — that even if they know they are a public service company, the needs of the public have been relegated to a secondary consideration.

The right thing to do is to ensure that all frontline staff — not just bus drivers — speak English. If they don’t already speak the language then the company must include language classes as part of their training regimen. The company must also make sure that their employees are paid reasonably during normal hours so that there is no need for them to work overtime hours to meet their income objectives. Employees must be able to free up time for language lessons.

Something else about the above controversy also struck me. The decades-long effort to create a Singapore nation is paying off. Singaporeans are showing in several ways that they see themselves as a nation, but not quite in a way that the formula of the post-independence 1960s intended. We’re not a nation of four distinct races or ethnic communities coming together for practical advantage. The nation that is being built is a blended one, and the blending of the linguistic landscape with one language — Singapore English — becoming supreme is a sign of that. No, we don’t need four languages, said Patrick Tan in his letter above. English will suffice.

The nation being built is also one with emotional weight, and this can result in an ugly side: the tendency to see foreigners negatively. When we were not yet Singaporeans, but Chinese, Indians and Malays, we used to view China Chinese, India Indians and Malaysia Malays sympathetically. I don’t know how Singapore Malays see Malaysian Malays, but for sure, we don’t see new immigrants from China and India quite the same way now.

The problem is that our political doctrine is still stuck in the 1960s, and the older generation, civil service and government-linked company officers have not seen the new reality. That’s another side to Singapore’s institutional failure. Subservience still rules the day in many quarters. Nobody in these quarters has the guts or the critical-thinking to question the increasingly archaic “four races” or “four languages” ideology, not even in a public service company like SMRT. They claim they serve the public, but they imagine the “public” through the lens of either their personal biases, or government doctrine. They claim to be professional, but they are not making a professional job of it. They cannot objectively see their customer as he evolves. Not Famous Brands. Not the SMRT.

The result is a series of ham-fisted decisions that show how removed they are from a changing world.

41 Responses to “Shoes and the public”

  1. 1 Skywalkers Sg 12 December 2012 at 14:45

    Our govt is one that does what is practical and necessary for either a stated/unstated “National Agenda” or for GDP Growth, that’s why:
    1) Casinos are ok as long as they increase employment figures, although the fact that most “low” level jobs are low paying and exploitative, foreign workers were hired by these casinos, and in the end, the citizens do not benefit from these gambling dens other than giving them another outlet to lose money.

    2) It’s ok to abstain from voting for Palestine because the government has no backbone to stand up for what is right and for justice, because Singapore needs the USA as an ally.

    So it’s not surprising that with China getting stronger and more influential around the region, our govt will do what it can to please China, with Chinese-centric policies.

  2. 2 harishpillay 12 December 2012 at 15:17

    FWIW, these are the names of the stations that I travel between work and home:

    Oh-nan-yuen – Outram Park
    chiong-bah-lu – Tiong Bahru
    hong-shan – Redhill
    new-han-chen – Queenstown
    lien-pang – Commonwealth
    bona-vee-is-tah – Bouna Vista
    tu-fuu – Dover
    chin-ruen-tai – Clementi

    While I see expressions of bunched up eyebrows on the part of the travellers looking annoyed and where there are groups of school children mimicking the names, what is amazingly surprising is how SMRT has chosen their way of introducing this.

    They never did any of this:
    a) Prior announcement of a trial being planned
    b) That they had gotten feedback (after almost 25 years of service) that there were people lost (and all of them were ‘elderly’ Singaporean Chinese)
    c) Never confirmed that every station name is “different” only in Chinese and not in Malay or Tamil.

    For the record, City Hall station is labelled on the walls and other places in Tamil as “Na-ga-ra Man-da-bam” and not a Tamil transliteration of City Hall which the SMRT would like us to believe. And they saying that even with Malay as our National Language, our “elderly Chinese Singaporeans” could not recognize Tiong Bahru? And really, they would have called Dover, “tu-fuu”?

    English is the main language of this country, albeit the Singaporean adaptation and the other three languages have to play second fiddle.

    If SMRT is so very concerned about doing the right thing, they should also consider labeling and announcing the stations names in Tagalog, Hindi and Urdu as well.

    But, as you say quite correctly, the management of SMRT (as is a significant portion of the government and the policy makers) are in a petrified state of cluelessness. And therein lies the Singapore Dilemma.

  3. 3 Rin 12 December 2012 at 15:30

    Pandering to the 1m PRCs here, that is what the SMRT announcements are for. Don’t use my grandmother as an excuse. She may not pronounce Bugis properly but Bugis to her is Bu-gits or Peh Sua Pu. Not Wu Ji Shi. Good grief!

  4. 4 Duh 12 December 2012 at 16:28

    Part of the problem is that SMRT also lied about its recruitment policies. I remember some time back when the public made an outcry over the engagement of PRC bus drivers who couldn’t speak a single word of English that resulted in discriminating non-Mandarin speaking Singapore commuters, SMRT’s (or perhaps SBS’ response – my memory of the details fail me here) comment was that a rudimentary English course was offered to these drivers. I think this discourse occurred in the ST forum page. We know that this is clearly false. Even if it were true, the course is clearly optional. SMRT, like the PAP and most organizations in Singapore, has no obligation for accountability and honesty – even to the people that actually contribute to their profits – the commuters. There are simply no laws to enforce these organisations to be transparent in their management of the organisation and this is despite these companies providing what is essentially a public service.

    The other point is that Singapore is a gigantic groupthink effect – we have the ruling party, PAP, appoint like-minded individuals in key appointments within the civil service, GLCs, NUS, and what not. And these like-minded individuals are compliant and docile (see recent Yale discussion with invited speakers Dr Chee, Mr. Jeyaretnam, and Prof Weiss). PAP’s aim is to enhance policy enforcement efficacy but in the process, compromised on policy assessment and integrity (remember the PM’s talk about what he thought the opposition’s agenda was in the last GE?). This has led to many ill-conceived policies to be passed efficiently and without challenge. PAP, failing to re-invent itself, continues to be oblivious to this and even if it was aware of this failing, is unable to change to rectify this major failing. The selection of the audience for the recent National CONversation also confirms this mindset of the PAP – the compulsion to include only like-minded, compliant, and docile individuals in their brainstorming sessions. The other evidence is the setup of the PAP Internet Brigade – again, the compulsion to (mis)represent everything online as pro-PAP rather than see it for what it is.

  5. 5 K Das 12 December 2012 at 16:39

    The shoes and the public in the title appear seemingly unconnected and yet it could be profoundly connected in conveying a subtle mocking message that the public should throw their shoes at the government agencies running hopeless services.

    As 75% (if not more) of the population is Chinese with the heart-landers and older folks among them forming the majority probably, it is only practical and reasonable to employ more Chinese drivers who can speak Mandarin, better still along with some dialects. In this aspect, mass recruitment of drivers from India and Philippines is definitely out of the question. Malaysians and Indonesians (especially the Chinese) could be a better fit but will they come in sufficient numbers?

  6. 6 K Das 12 December 2012 at 16:47

    To be added to my above comment: The ability to speak and understand basic English should of course be made a mandatory requirement.

  7. 7 ape@kinjioleaf 12 December 2012 at 16:48

    If the case for the SMRT stations names broadcast in another language was to cater for elderly Singaporeans as claimed, I would argue for that other language to be in Malayu. There are two reasons for this.

    Most of the elderly Singaporeans I come across can speak simple Malayu. They may be Indian or Chinese. An Indian lady told me that she could manage elderly Chinese if they converse in Malayu.

    The second reason is Article 152 of Singapore’s Constitution. This Article may be contentious but should it’s existence (still) at least guide us whenever choice of a second language in public services come into question?

  8. 8 ape@kinjioleaf 12 December 2012 at 17:08

    On the training given to public bus drivers from foreign lands.
    Are foreign domestic helpers subject to English proficiency tests? Why is that that FDH, who may be employed to help elders in the family who may not utter a single English word be subject to the test, yet foreign public bus drivers are not even trained?
    Besides language, is how familiar are these foreign bus drivers with our roads? A commuting friends witnessed first hand the difficulties faced by the driver who had to detour because of a fallen tree blocking the usual route. The driver had to communicate with control centre for the alternate which is unfamiliar to him and the process took them further and further, having missed a few opportunities to be back on route. My friend had to step in and guide the driver, after insisting that he should stop taking directions from control centre.
    These issues make me wonder if ‘essential service’ is in the minds of our public transport operators management.

  9. 9 JK 12 December 2012 at 17:17

    I’m from the UK and personally I don’t mind how many other languages are used on the MRT and don’t find it annoying at all. I would even welcome announcements in Singlish. I just see it as an opportunity to learn another language. I find people talking on mobiles and people not queuing annoying.

    My wife used to work for a German bank and they provided German lessons for her during office hours as she was a valued member of staff and as such, they quite correctly invested in her (no bond either). I can’t see a PRC bus driver paying for his own lessons out of hours mainly due to the cost. SMRT should provide them with lessons purely for safety reasons because they could not give or receive instructions in the event of an accident and therefore put customers at risk. No doubt SMRT would try and charge the drivers as they do for accommodation. Also they might be able to participate in society and add to the general good.

    PS, does anyone know where I can get Singlish lessons?

  10. 10 SingaporeWTF (@singaporewtf) 12 December 2012 at 17:50

    Until Singaporeans vote with their dollars, by walking out, not patronizing stores that employ people who don’t speak English, nothing will change.

  11. 12 Lye Khuen Way 12 December 2012 at 19:14

    Strange place, this modern Singapore.
    The language issue highlighted with regards to SMRT train stations announcement was a damned good one.

    I commented somewhere, that they can stop pretending to cater for us older folks. When the MRT first stated, calls for Mandarin and other official languages were dismissed.

    Most of those affected have passed on or are too frail to be on their own by now, so that Bull Shit from SMRT as just that. BS.

  12. 13 yuen 12 December 2012 at 19:45

    policy issues aside, I am curious why you refused to speak Chinese to the shoe shop girl; I assume you passed Chinese at O level at least

    the issue of which type of workers can be recruited from which country is a confusing one; since a large number of maids come from Philippines but none from China, there appears to be no set policy against Filipinos; maybe some MPs should ask the question in parliament

  13. 14 twasher 12 December 2012 at 23:42

    “Did SMRT think that English is not an essential part of the job? How on earth did they come to see the Singapore public that way?”

    Actually, my cynical suspicion is that it’s simply due to sheer racism. SMRT’s management is majority Chinese. Racism would also explain why they recruit only in China and not the Philippines, as you pointed out.

    I’m also struggling to think of a non-racist explanation for why MoM does not allow Indians and Indonesians to work in the service sector.

    • 15 octopi 14 December 2012 at 19:33

      I think that racism has something to do with it. Put it this way, if we didn’t have a flood of immigrants in the past 10 years, the percentage of Chinese in this country would be something like 60% because the Malays have higher birth rates than the Chinese or the Indians. When the ministers speak of having to “solve the problem of low birth rates” they aren’t necessarily referring to all three major races, that’s for sure!

      We have a lot of “foreign talent” from Malaysia and Indonesia as well but – guess what, they’re all Chinese. So my guess is that the rate of immigration in Singapore is pegged to the Malay rate of reproduction.

      Same thing is happening in Israel now: they want to make sure that the Arabs don’t become a significant proportion of the people in Israel and they’re flying anybody from Russia who calls himself a “jew”.

      • 16 Reza 15 December 2012 at 03:23

        It’s definitely racism at play here. I don’t see it as very much different from the White Australia policy. Also, the birthrate of the Malay community is 1.6, still lower than the natural replacement rate of 2.1 so I’m pretty sure the problem of low birth rates applies to all three major races, but a little less for the Malay community.

      • 17 octopi 15 December 2012 at 19:03

        When things grow exponentially numbers can change very fast. Small differences in exponents are very deceiving.

  14. 18 Loh Pei Ying 13 December 2012 at 01:25

    Great article Alex.

  15. 19 SG GIRL 13 December 2012 at 07:27

    It’s sad that most companies choose to hire non English speaking staff and ignore potential non Mandarin speaking customers/clients.

    Take a look at Hong Kong, the PRC have to speak Cantonese in order to work in the service industry. Even the maids/domestic helpers from Philippines and Indonesia speak Cantonese. It is a dialect that is more difficult to learn compared to English and Mandarin. So I do not see why employers here do not make these PRCs learn English, a common language of how our local Chinese, Malays and Indians communicate with each other.

    • 20 Eric Lee 13 December 2012 at 23:13

      Hi SG Girl,
      just want to point out that Cantonese, Hokkien n Hakka are bona fide stand alone Language, separate from Putong Hua/Mandarin.
      The former are ramnants of old Han languages, whereas Putong Hua is an amalgamation of Northern Languages and Imperial Court language of the invading Qing people into Central Territory

  16. 21 TCU 13 December 2012 at 07:59

    SMRT should recruit from the Indian subcontinent. Southern India, Sri Lanka & Nepal comes to mind. And of course Indonesia.
    The population of Filipinos has reached a very high proportion vis a vis the other migrant workers in the last 2 or 3 years and they will become a critical mass to demand what they want & may turn out negatively for the public commuters in the near future the same way the China workers have reacted recently.

  17. 23 jonno 13 December 2012 at 14:53

    Singapore is already functioning as a two-tier society; the top tier (elite class) consists of Government Ministers & senior bureaucrats; the rich, top level executives, bankers & professionals, etc; and the bottom tier (commoners) which consists of none of the above top tier (for obvious reasons).
    In the top tier, English is the prerequisite language but are only spoken within the inner sanctum of power corridors, sophisticated society and formal office settings. Only the top tier are comfortable with using English and only they are aware of the importance of English in communications.
    For the bottom tier, Chinese and Chinese dialects for the majority, Malay and Tamil for the minorities. These are heartlander’s choice for communication within their levels. These are obvious class boundary levels within Singapore today and the boundary barrier are becoming higher. It is no coincidence that our GINI coefficients shows a wide disparity of income & wealth distribution in Singapore. Language is the reason!
    Mainstream education through Bilingualism policy deviated from making English the main language by subverting it beneath Mandarin. It was a political and popular decision for the heartlanders but a few decades on, we are seeing the true cost and implications of the policy. The end result was the dumbing-down of English within Singapore society. The Singaporean majority now “look East” (Cultural norms and values) rather than “look West” (Technology and philosophical thoughts) in their mindset and thoughts. Singaporean have long lost their ability to think and argue and now, they rather conform and be passive. This language mindset problem is becoming a formidable barrier to Singapore’s economic future and long-term prospects.
    In addition, the population birth control policy (ie. Stop at two) which had squeezed the birth replacement of naturalised Singaporeans and now, we’re seeing more & more foreigners coming in to boost and replace the extinct naturalized Singaporean. Why didn’t the government acknowledge their role in this? Instead, they are championing the cause of the “foreign talent. What talent do they bring except their willingness to work cheaply?
    Since the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997/1998, there have been a tremendous hollowing out of the Singapore economy – in Manufacturing, Logistics, Banking & associated services. Those jobs and value-added skills (English proficiency, know-how & work experience) were completely destroyed in the aftermath. These days, the only jobs are in the services sector and wages & salaries there are, indeed, pitiful. The fact that English serves no purpose in today’s domestic economy shows how far Singapore has fallen. Singapore just need foreign worker ants (mechanical action human beings) to just to function and operate the general economy – being lowly paid and able to live in tight spaces are the requisites. Is this the future for Singapore? Are we regressing to our forefathers time as coolies?

  18. 24 CRICKET 13 December 2012 at 16:48

    My family has never employed a maid but I understand all maids have to pass a sort of ‘English’ test before they can obtain a work permits to work in Singapore. If this is true, why is this rule not also applied to other foreign workers, including hawkers and hawkers’ assistants, who have to interact with the public. Perhaps the Ministry of Manpower would care to look into this.

    • 25 yawningbread 13 December 2012 at 22:54

      That was the old policy. Starting in the middle of this year, the English language requirement for domestic maids has been scrapped. That said, I would argue that any foreign worker hired for service sector jobs (excluding domestic help) should be required to take English lessons and show a basic pass by end of Year One.

  19. 26 KiWeTO 13 December 2012 at 21:11

    To today’s political masters:

    One cannot get up and leave in the middle of a game. The endgame must be reached no matter how unpleasant one might find the outcomes at the ending of the game.

    Just try not to strip mine this country completely at the end of your game. The next group of players can’t continue nation building with nothing.


  20. 27 Chow 13 December 2012 at 21:47

    I would think that this is more likely due to pragmatic reasons that are economic in nature.

    I don’t know for sure but I suspect that given the way PRs and citizenships were dished out previously, a large number of them will be from China and are more comfortable in Mandarin.

    At the same time there is also the consideration that some planner somewhere is projecting that China will be the largest economy soon and that the Chinese will have a huge middle class willing to travel and spend. That being the case, they figure that it will become advantageous for us (regardless of race) to speak Mandarin hence the push towards making Mandarin occupy a much larger position in our everyday language.

    • 28 K Das 14 December 2012 at 12:09

      The points you have raised are real and may reflect the future to come. Possibly in 5-10 years’ time, loads and loads of cash rich mainland Chinese are going to transit Singapore and splurge their dollars here and boost our economy.

      How do you ensure that the minorities here will get to play a part and share the fruits of this new economy?

      The present language policy may have to be changed. There should be no deviation in retaining English as the premier and working language. What needs changing is the one concerning second languages. Give the option for the minority students to do two second languages from any of the three i.e. Mandarin, Malay and Tamil, starting from Sec 1. Likewise the same option can also be given to the Chinese students. To ensure that those doing two second languages are not disadvantaged from entering JCs and Institutions of Higher Learning, tweak the entry level requirement from the current credit level pass (I hope this is the position now) in one second language to two ordinary level passes in two second languages as an alternative.

      This will set a trend for a new generation of students to pick up a third language and change the language landscape here. I foresee two significant positive changes in this policy:

      (i) The employment opportunities for the minority will increase as they will not be denied jobs in certain sectors just because they do not know Mandarin.

      (ii) More Chinese will take up Malay language, bringing the language from dormancy, back to life. This will, over time, expand the opportunities for us to reap political and economic benefits as we are in the midst of the Malay Archipelago.

      As for the language purists who want their children to study only the mother tongue and excel in it, the government can, perhaps, build more SAP-like schools.

      • 29 Reza 15 December 2012 at 03:15

        I like this idea. I’ve always wished that all of us were able to learn each other’s languages in school as a non-examinable subject. Perhaps as part of Civics and Moral Education.

        The problem is that Singaporeans have not woken up to the reality that Indonesia and its 4th largest population in the world, is growing steadily year after year, in a slower but less volatile manner, in our very own backyard.

      • 30 Eric 17 December 2012 at 10:50

        It’s common for a European to know how to speak 2 other languages other than their own, which I heard, the schools there require students to learn another language other than their own.
        So it’s surprising that, given our geographical location (advantage) and rojak mix of races, that our education system do not push for learning of a 3rd language on top of English (compulsory), Mother tongue(for the Chinese race, this should mean Hokkien, Cantonese, etc), and miss the opportunity of developing really cosmopolitan citizens.

        Then again, our curriculum is so kiasu in pursuit of grades that maybe we have all missed the forest for all the trees.

  21. 31 William 14 December 2012 at 15:44

    How about this for an alternative narrative:

    SMRT assessed that many of its commuters speak Mandarin as a 1st language and decided to introduce the announcements for them, but also as part of a general branding exercise. After all, it matches the goal of appealing to more commuters, including foreign workers, business travelers, relatives of Singaporean residents etc etc.

    A large majority of Singaporeans also speak Mandarin as a 1st or 2nd language, and the others will have some knowledge of the language so surely no confusion would be added for them. And it’s not like we’re taking away the English announcements or signs.

    Chinese is one of Singapore’s ancestor cultures, and funny-sounding names can be fun and entertaining, but also encourage us to reflect on the names of the places we live in, how they came to be, and how we should think of them. Indeed Mr Brown took it one step further and his video is both hilarious and uplifting.

    If we’re trying to increase energy independence and less congestion on the roads, but also to be plugged in to global trade and flows from China, then encouraging business travelers and foreign relatives, many of them Chinese-speakers, to use the MRT surely helps. A small act showing we are attentive to their needs can reap huge rewards, just like staff at Paris Orly airport have been trained to hand cards and cash with both hands.

    And finally, plenty of subway and train systems around the world do it already, mostly by having announcements in English but also sometimes in Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, and pretty much every European language you can think of.

    Basically the scheme ticked all the boxes.


    Unfortunately, when some members of the public started complaining that this wasn’t inclusive, SMRT couldn’t come out and say what I’ve just said. That’s because Foreigners Are Bad, Especially Chinese (FABEC).
    So they had to scramble for a plausible excuse: elderly Chinese Singaporeans. Nobody can argue with that, right? There’s been lots of talk about elderly Singaporeans in need recently. Phew. Disaster averted. We’ll just cancel the “trial” discreetly as soon as we can.

    This is what we should really learn from this story. After GE 2011, the PAP promised to pay more attention to what the people wanted “even if it means being more populist.” And so they did. And people lapped it up. Crammed trains? It’s because FABEC! Inflation? Because FABEC! Today’s foreigners are just not the same as our grandparents! FABEC!

    The number of nationalistic articles and letters in the press is astounding: about NS; about naturalised citizens being less Singaporean than natural-born ones; about homicidal Chinese Ferrari drivers; about Chinese workers illegally going on strike (note that when they drown in concrete on a construction site, we don’t even mention their names); even the Olympic table tennis commentary felt the need to specify for each player: “she was born in China, but she’s very much Singaporean now.”

    To be clear: I’m not saying the PAP encouraged FABEC, only that it tolerated it due to popular demand.
    This is a great lesson in “beware what you wish for.”


    Yawningbread, although I agree with much of your commentary, I disagree with your implicit conclusion that SMRT acted the way it did because it doesn’t care about, or possibly even dislikes, Malays and Indians. Maybe you’re just suggesting that SMRT is out of touch. In that sense you’re right: it hadn’t noticed FABEC rising. But I doubt it’s actually hostile to minorities.

    And by the way, when you say “We’re not a nation of four distinct races or ethnic communities coming together for practical advantage” – you are only partly right. Very few people argued “we’re all the same, and what we speak is English and Singlish.” But actually, as in Mr Tan’s letter above, and in several of the comments on this blog, the focus quickly moved to FABEC: “we’re all together, and we’re not like them”.

    Finally, I disagree with one more of your points: the dreamy nostalgia for a bygone past when things were so much nicer. “When we were not yet Singaporeans, but Chinese, Indians and Malays, we used to view China Chinese, India Indians and Malaysia Malays sympathetically.” I am not so sure. Despite my sarcasm above about FABEC, I believe Singapore is one of the most open and tolerant societies in the world. Seriously. And do I really need to remind you that the race riots of the 60s were often between Chinese from different provinces? That entire sectors of Singapore were controlled by gangs who spoke different dialects? Sympathy to China was often sympathy towards one’s ethnic group, and resulted in much non-sympathy towards anybody else.

    Despite everything I’ve said above, it’s a small miracle that Singapore can live in such harmony given its diversity. Even you mention “four races,” but let’s face it, there are far more. There’s no such thing as Chinese, Indian or Malay: every “Chinese” I know has a superbly diverse heritage, and most “Indians” I know speak Kannada or Gujarati but no Tamil. In fact, I’d argue that race is a silly concept (and one to remove from all our paperwork, at least in its current form). This kind of diversity can be a recipe for disaster, but in Singapore it has blended into one extraordinarily peaceful society. Let’s hope this continues to be the case and that absurdities like FABEC are temporary blips that will quickly evaporate under critical scrutiny.

    And as for the girl in the shoe shop, you shouldn’t have walked out on her. You should have gone to her manager and confronted him about exploiting cheap labour and not even offering English classes.

    • 32 tkl 14 December 2012 at 17:55

      Agree with William, there was no need to be passive-aggressive to the shoe shop girl who was trying her best to serve; the fault lies with the employer who decides on the recruitment criteria, service standard, and staff training policy of his business.

      The linguistic landscape of Singapore has a very complex history. The reality from my point of view does not look like it’s becoming a “blended” society where Singapore English reigns supreme; there are still discrete non-english-speaking groups (and I’m not talking about foreigners) who mainly speak their own tongue but know a splattering of other languages (english, malay, mandarin, hokkien, cantonese, teochew, tamil) to get by in day to day situations. For many of them the predominance of english in our public spaces is neither easy nor comfortable to navigate.

      The difference in reaction seen in the English media and Chinese media over topics like PSLE Chinese weightage and the SMRT mandarin announcements recalls the historic friction between the English-educated vs Chinese-educated.

      When the MRT station names were picked, there was never any real consideration about how they would translate to other languages used by Singaporeans, and whether the place names resonate with these folks. Official Chinese translations has been a longstanding joke among the local Chinese-speaking circle. I’ve no idea what was SMRT’s real intentions, but authentic and relevant translation, and consideration for Singaporeans not comfortable with English (yes even Singlish), has always been a real problem with public transport and public spaces here.

  22. 33 Reza 15 December 2012 at 02:54

    Thanks for this article Alex. To answer your question on how Singapore Malays view Malaysian Malays (I’m Malay) it’s one of latent superiority as we’re a little further up the economic pie. Even if the community is a little behind, there is a certain pride that we’re not being given bumiputra (up north) or pribumi (down south) handouts. However, we also tend to view them as humble and non-pretentious, and certainly without the racism I’ve seen inflicted by Chinese Singaporeans on Chinese nationals.

    Why the difference with the way Singaporeans view their Chinese and Indian counterparts? I think a lot has to do with the fact that Malaysian Malays are not being imported by the truckload here. But if they were, I’m pretty sure they won’t be the middle class, educated ones with degrees but from villages, just like the lower-wage workers here. That I feel, will rip open the chasm.

    That said, when I was studying abroad, Singaporeans and Malaysians, across all racial strata tend to clump together if they’re from the same socioeconomic background. From what I experienced, the KL Malays seemed to have no problems socialising with a Singaporean Chinese eating the same kinda food and speaking the same mangled English. I was however, roommates for 6 months with someone from Trengganu and I found him… well, gross.

    • 34 octopi 15 December 2012 at 19:01

      Race, language or religion, as enshrined in the pledge, is increasingly less an important marker of social divisions. In the last few decades, social class has become more important.

      If I were to amend our national pledge, I would amend the line to “race, language, religion, sexual orientation or socio-economic class”. I would expect fairly stiff resistance to this proposal.

      The problem, of course is that not everybody believes that sexual orientation is inborn, and that social class is fungible. But that should not prevent us from listing those things as obstacles to national cohesion.

      Of course, if you want to add “nationality” to that list, it will be even more interesting.

      • 35 Reza 17 December 2012 at 17:16

        I fully agree with you octopi. Class as a social division is one that hasn’t surfaced in its entirety in the national discourse yet but it’s there and it’s real. Beyond including it in our national pledge, we need to remove certain things that are in common practice in our “meritocracy”, like preference for children of alumni in the elite schools, for example that does nothing but enforces the growing class distinctions

        And of course, like you said, it will be met with stiff resistance.

  23. 36 Jaochoui 16 December 2012 at 01:38

    To be honest, most *English-speaking* people will mispronounce “Clemenceau” and “Guillemard” too. And I have a feeling most Singaporeans, English-speaking or not, will mispronounce “Gloucester”.

    Just sayin’.

    (And speaking in Chinese to the salesperson would have been enough.)

  24. 37 The Pariah 17 December 2012 at 12:36

    PAP took almost 2 generations to get English as the bridging communication language.

    Within the last decade, by courtesy of their First World Government laws and policiesm PAP went back – NOT to Square 1, but Ground Zero.

    Even when English is spoken, it is so varied in accent that you have to be a half-linguist to be able to make some limited sense out of whatever-lish that you heard.

  25. 39 Mark 21 December 2012 at 11:03

    I thought I would include an additional point based on my own experience.

    Recently, my family decided to eat at a nearby zichar stall in the east. While the cook and main supervisors were local, the lady who came to take our order was a mainland Chinese.

    While ordering, we requested for the usual local zichar food, one of which was “har cheong gai”, or prawn paste chicken. When we mentioned this to the lady she indicated she had no clue what we were saying. We repeated this several times with eyebrows raised, since this dish should be fairly popular and you would have heard this term being used on ordering. We switched to chinese, using “xia jiang ji” to describe what we wanted, and this time she understood what we asked for.

    Being helpful and assuredly not condescendingly, we mentioned to her that Singaporeans usually called this “har cheong gai” so next time she will know what people order. To this she replied that maybe if we learnt better Chinese we would be able to communicate better. My family was very offended at such a statement and we immediately brought this up with the main owners of the stall before walking out to eat somewhere else.

    Sounds trivial and possibly petty of us? Perhaps, but I would just like to point out that a lack of education might not be the only problem if the immigrants come in with an attitude that does not adapt or promote harmony in their current environment.

    The mainland Chinese have their own pre-immigration views about local Singaporean Chinese and I do not believe it is positive. Unless we correct this, or at least show they have a chance of blending into local Chinese, it would be unlikely they would be receptive to any form of education companies try to give them.

  26. 40 Marco 26 December 2012 at 05:46

    Mark – you hit the nail square on the head. Those from PRC think they are superior to the locals because of the country’s 50000 years or whatever years of culture. Just look at some of their blogs when they speak of us locals…almost always with disdain

    • 41 Jaochoui 26 December 2012 at 14:15

      But the other way round is true, too. The tone and attitude put up by locals when speaking of the Chinese nationals get really bitter and awful (not just in blogs, but comments section articles, Facebook, etc), and honestly, it’s not really because the other party treat us with disdain. We just choose to put up this tone and attitude.

      (Of course, other foreigners are not free from our disdain; it’s just that the Chinese nationals are talked about much much more)

      Now, this sense of superiority exists both sides–we Singaporeans are not free from it, far from it, even. In fact, I have a suspicion we have more…

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