The problem with emergence of non-English speaking service staff

There has been an emergence of unhealthy trends in the last few years where front line service staff are replaced by an increasing number of mainland Chinese salespersons, cashiers and helpers who can hardly speak English prompting many complaints from non-Chinese and Chinese locals alike. Some examples:
– At a Swensen counter a few years back, when I spoke to young lady at the counter that I wanted to buy Swensen voucher, she flatly told me in the face in Mandarin (with a strong northern mainland ascent), without a hint of apology, that “I do not speak English”.
– One reader Colin Tan interviewed was quoted on a newspaper (3 Jul 2011) that when he made a jibe with the young waitress if the Japanese food that were served to him comes from the recent Nuclear plant disaster region and if the Japanese food was contaminated with radiation, and the waitress’ answer: Yes, there is radiation.
– Another Straits Times reader Edwina Png also recounted (3 Jul 2011) that a bus driver who did not understand the English question posed by a tourist couple simply brushed aside their query on the bus route by using his hand to wave a “No”. Luckily she was there to their rescue but imagine the awkwardness for the couple to believe who was telling the truth.
While I am proud of my Chinese heritage, Singapore is a multi-racial society and as such it is imperative that the service industry should ensure that their staff are conversant with the English language. Even in the olden days when many locals were not educated, many Chinese learned to pick up conversational Malay and the reverse was true that the Malays and Indians learned the Hokkien dialect in order to communicate. The excuse that I do not speak English just does not cut any ice, we as consumers can always boycott these establishment to force them to clean up their acts. The Government esp MOM and STB should also get their act together as the poor service image will damage Singapore’s good reputation that was painstakingly built up over the last 30-40 years.

Make English skills a work-permit criterion

Source: The Straits Times  Jun 29, 2011

MANY employers in the service industry are hesitant about enrolling their work permit holders for English courses and the Service Literacy Test (SLT) (‘Bosses baulk at sending staff for English test’; Monday).

Each worker who passes the SLT costs his employer $100 less in monthly foreign worker levy. Yet, many employers are willing to forgo the significant savings, citing expensive training costs, uncertainty over whether workers can pass the test, and it being ‘unnecessary’. This marks an incipient failure of the testing initiative to raise English standards in the service industry.

Considering that English is the lingua franca in Singapore, that many tourists visit our country, and that our populace is made up of different races, there is a dire need for front-line staff to be able to listen, understand and respond aptly in English while on the job.

Just as an employer would offer employment only to the most suitable candidates who meet the job specifications, why do we allow less-than-qualified foreign workers to take on front-line jobs in the first place? Why don’t we ensure that they have the necessary skills first before they obtain their work permits?

The International English Language Testing System (IELTS) is a commonly used tool to gauge a person’s command of the English language for purposes such as employment, immigration and education in many countries. It is a well-regarded international test of English proficiency.

In most cases, the candidate applies and pays for the IELTS course in his home country. Only when he has attained at least the minimum score needed for the relevant purpose can he then apply for the visa to immigrate, work or study in the host country.

The Ministry of Manpower should implement this criterion in the issuance of work permits to foreign workers, especially in the service industry.

There are benefits to this: Potential employers do not have to worry about incurring training costs – whether it is in training expenses or staff overtime; staff do not have to fret over passing literacy tests while working; and customers are assured that even newcomers to the service sector can communicate with them.

Essentially, it obviates the need for the SLT and raises the standard of English proficiency in the industry. It is time we raise the quality of foreign workers entering our workforce.

Rick Lim

Bus Driver didn’t understand query in English

Source: The Sunday Times, 17 Jul 2011

I refer to Ms Edwina Png’s letter (‘How a little English on the bus can go a long way’; July 3) and have a similar story to share. Some time ago, I was on SBS service 89. As I boarded the bus, I saw a young Malay boy walk up to the bus driver, a female Chinese national, to inquire if the bus was going to the beach. It was a simple question but she could not answer because she could not understand him. The boy tried his best to convey the meaning of ‘beach’ – such as by using hand gestures to suggest the idea of swimming – but she still could not understand him. Finally, exasperated, he went back to his seat. I wish I could have helped translate his message for her, but I did not know the Mandarin word for ‘beach’. It is true that a little English goes a long way. I do not blame the bus driver, for she came to Singapore to earn a living, and everyone deserves a chance. But I do hope that English skills are made a work-permit criterion, to avoid such situations in future.

Muhammad Fahmi Zainal Abidin


Where are the friendly Singaporeans I knew?
Letter from Brian Nelson

HAVING visited Singapore, one of our favourite destinations, many times in the past 25 years, my wife and I were shocked at the deterioration in attitudes towards tourists. The signs were already there on our last visit four years ago.

The first thing we noticed as elderly people, particularly when using the Mass Rapid Transit, was that the youth have no respect for the elderly and the seats reserved for them and pregnant or handicapped people.

It is also dangerous getting on and off the train when one is shoved out of the way time and again.

Another observation is that nobody smiles or returns a greeting any more. Taxi drivers, particularly, used to be a wealth of information and eager to point out areas of interest but are now, mostly a surly lot.

Service has also deteriorated in shops and restaurants, where many of the staff can hardly speak English, are rude and abrupt. As for the words “please” and “thank you”, they do not exist.

It will not be long before it becomes just a rat race, like in many other cities. Has progress taken away Singapore’s soul, the essence of being human, of recognising one another?

Your city is beautiful, your buildings tall and proud, yet to walk along the streets and see the surliness of a face is disheartening.