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.
* * * * *
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.