The phone rang. A voice on the other side asked if I could speak Chinese. Obviously the caller was not local. “Can you speak English?” I replied. The phone went dead.

There is some upside to our penchant for foreign talents after all. Getting rid of telemarketers has never been easier.

I wanted to buy a steam cleaner/vacuum. I called up a known local company to make an enquiry. I wanted to check how well the machine worked and wanted to go to a branch with a demo machine.

“Can you speak Mandarin?” the sales assistant asked.

“Can you speak English?” I replied.

“errmm…” was the reply. I gave up and asked in my very basic Chinese if she had a machine and how much it cost. Yes, they had the machine in the store.  And the price she quoted me was $200 more than the price quoted on the website. Nonetheless, I went to that particular branch to take a look. Only one sales staff was present. She could speak no English – NONE. She gave me a blank stare when I asked to see the vacuum cleaner. Finally, she understood what I wanted, and showed me a machine. It was not available for sale in that store which only sold massage chairs- something that they did not tell me over the phone. They did have a machine, but it was meant for internal use and unfortunately it was not working. So I could not even see a demo.

I bought a German made machine from another shop.

My husband went to the petrol station. When he was going to pay, the cashier spoke to him in Chinese. He spoke no Chinese and could not understand what was being said. A Malay staff member happened to be nearby and acted as the interpreter.

So I find Seng Han Thong’s statement (“I noticed that the PR mentioned that some of the staffs, because they’re Malay, they are Indian, they can’t converse in English good, well enough, so that also deters them, but I think we accept broken English.” ) inconsistent with what I experience in real life. As a student with friends from many races, I have found the Indians far better with languages than the Chinese. As a school teacher, among the weaker students, the Chinese student tends to be the one with the most difficulty with oral English as compared to the other races. This is a generalization and there are exceptions of course. Even Mr Seng Han Thong himself seems to have proven this point. He must be an intellectual and academician – he would not have been invited to join the PAP team otherwise. But his English is appalling. “staffs?” “cannot converse in English good, well enough?” Can someone be so careless with oral English on TV?

I am more inclined to disregard his comment. As far as I was concerned, I do not read racial undertones, but that he expressed himself poorly, thanks to his ability in the language. He communicated poorly, misquoted what the SMRTspokesman said, and opened a whole can of worms.

At first I was upset by the vitriolic that spewed forth. Last night, I talked with some friends over this situation. I was upset because I felt that while SHT had put his foot in the mouth, a disease that seems to afflict many in the PAP, I was concerned that more disturbing issues are now sidestepped, and there is a misdirection of energy and focus on a less important issue. My friends pointed out that there was no denying the level of anger this caused. It would be wise to try to understand the fury.

Where did this anger come from?

  •  Racial tensions are simmering. Racial sensitivities are more apparent than any time in the past. What is causing this? I read a comment that for years, the commentator had difficulty getting a job despite his degree and diplomas because he cannot speak Chinese. Now we are employing foreign talents as frontline staff even though they speak no English! Totally incomprehensible to me. The perception is certain races have been marginalized. Perception is often more powerful than fact. Of course this is not a research or intellectual paper, and my comments are superficial to say the least. Nonetheless, if there is racial tension, then the ruling party had better be aware and take steps to address it before it explodes.
  • Insensitivities of PAP MPs and Ministers. For far too long, they have been able to get away with whatever statements they make. The people are no longer willing to take this sitting down. The arrogance of the past and brushing off comments of the people on the ground are no longer well tolerated. The reason is simple. While times are good, and the people are enjoying affluence, they are more willing to accept those in power and stomach the big allowances they are getting. Today however, the income gap is way too wide. It is not easy to tolerate someone who earns obscene amounts of money, making trite and insensitive comments when the man on the street finds it hard to stretch his dollar to make ends meet. Besides, you are always telling us we are paying top dollar for the best people. If we pay top dollar, do not expect us to be tolerant of foibles and insensitive mistakes.
  • PAPpoliticians and CEOs linked to GLCs are being watched and judged. This is a natural consequence of being constantly told how we should be grateful we have the best people on the job. You are paid well, yet we feel our lives have not improved. Naturally you will be watched to see that your performance is up to scratch. Especially since it is clear that very able people are now willing to be counted and to be members of opposition parties.  It is also deplorable that our politicians cannot speak English good/well enough.

This is the new normal. Get used to the harsh criticisms. At least you are not in danger of being sued or be threatened with the ISA.

As for the announcements and blaming it on the unwillingness of the train officers to speak English – come off it. In this modern day and age, headquarters can easily make announcements if the right equipment is in place. Otherwise, the driverless trains will be in deep trouble in the event of a breakdown! The real issue is the lack of proper contingency and evacuation plans. The fault is not with the train officers but the management and possibly even with the LTA.

And while we are at it, can we make sure that frontline staff can speak English please?

Categories: Oh SHT, Singapore Scene
  1. December 26, 2011 at 4:00 am

    Good article. Can I submit any articles from your site to TR Emeritus in future (www.tremeritus.com)? Of course, your articles will be correctly credited to you. Thanks!

  2. George
    December 26, 2011 at 11:25 am

    Wow! Every word is to the point and after my own heart. Such clarity! Keep it up. Let’s have some more of your articles. Simple, direct, down to earth, accurate and eloquent. Bravo!

    It is so true that for far too long, the Ministers and MPs have been shooting off their mouths without any regard for the people. We all know who the chief violator is and also a few other minnows who think too highly of themselves. Chief among the reasons for such disregard for our feeling is that they know that the national service newspapers would NEVER dare to offend them by casting them in the poor light that they often richly deserved and in fact the editors of the SPH newspapers would go out of their way to please the govt at the expense of the credibility of their own papers which have sadly become no more than media for printed advertisement masquerading as newspapers.

    The SPH stable have had their way for a long time until the advent of the Internet and blogging which very decisively pull the rug from under them. The cybernews bearers have indeed proved to be the great undoing of the SPH and the govt propaganda machinery. No longer are they able to avoid or prevent being gain said when they utter questionable statements.

    But, we can already see moves underway in the wings to reign in cyberspace. So all concerned must prepare and gear ourselves for the fight that is sure to come. IMO, 2012 and 2013 may prove to be critical years for the future of unfettered freedom of news reporting, dissemination and communication here.

    We should adopt the boy scount motto and ‘BE PREPARED”.

  3. sim37wis Loh
    March 3, 2012 at 7:50 pm

    I know of a eurasian lady that has lived in Singapore for many years and married to a Local SG Chinese man. She tried to order something from a coffeeshop in English because she thought the guy manning the counter would understand. It wasn’t obvious he was PRC Tiong. The guy, without even bothering to clarify he couldn’t undestand english blurted out in chinese

    “Damned foreign woman, dunno how to speak chinese don’t stay in Singapore”

    This Eurasian lady replied in fluent mandrain


    Everybody at the coffeeshop stared at them. PRC tiong OWNED big time!!!

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