Should everyone in Singapore speak English?

MAY 30 — There is a popular TikTokker in Singapore who makes funny videos that zero in on the annoyances of our everyday lives.

From unthinking comments made by our older relatives to service staff who don’t speak English.

The comedian is often clever and incisive and his content resonates but his point about English in a now widely shared video gave me pause.

In  the video he expresses his frustration at service staff, typically recent immigrants from China, who tend to speak to all customers in Mandarin. 

He opines that given he is visibly not Chinese, service staff  should make the effort to speak English to him and that more broadly everyone in Singapore should make the effort to speak at least some English. 

Funnily enough, he makes this point partly in Mandarin — so clearly a lack of linguistic capability isn’t the source of his frustration.

His point is an interesting one. After watching the clip, I shared it with some friends and family along with a quick poll: Is the expectation that a foreigner working in the service sector in Singapore must speak English a fair one?

Overwhelmingly, the response was that it is an unfair expectation.

This is my immediate response too.

After all, this is a city of migrants — and I don’t think many of our ancestors arrived speaking English. So, a hodgepodge of languages is the basis of our identity.

Isn’t that Singlish? We all speak a little bit of everything.

English has long been the language of education, the language of commerce and it is also the language of Singapore's courts and parliament. — Reuters pic
English has long been the language of education, the language of commerce and it is also the language of Singapore's courts and parliament. — Reuters pic

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However, the truth is — despite the quirks of Singlish — it is still fundamentally English and yes we are a migrant society and it is precisely for this reason that we need a common language that binds us.

It could have been Malay but Singapore is in many respects a British creation so our lingua franca is English.

We have four official languages: Chinese, Malay, English and Tamil and fundamentally government services and information should be available in all four languages. 

However, English has long been the language of education, the language of commerce and it is also the language of our courts and parliament.

When Singaporeans of different ethnicities speak to each other, we almost always speak English and even within ethnic groups, many Chinese- and Malay-origin families and I would say most Indian-origin families as well speak English at home. 

Therefore, to participate in Singapore’s basic economic, social and political life you need to speak English.

 You could argue, on the other hand, that 70 per cent of Singapore’s population is of Chinese origin so its fine to speak only in Chinese but I am not sure it’s that simple. 

Singapore is not a Chinese country. Unlike, say, France or Thailand which are nations and also ethno-states — homelands for the French and Thais respectively — Singapore is an immigrant nation.

It is not fundamentally the homeland of any group of people.

Chinese was not the language  of this nation’s founding fathers (who were broadly English) or of our historical inhabitants (Malays).

In fact, Mandarin was traditionally alien to most of the Chinese in Singapore whose ancestor’s typically hailed from various parts of Southern China.   

Basically ours is a settler state. No one group has more claim to it than any other. Even the vast majority of our Malay inhabitants are the descendants of immigrants.

Having Chinese become more entrenched as the language of coffee shops, of service — if you need to speak Chinese to communicate at the supermarket — well that is only going to lead to a sense of exclusion among other communities in Singapore. 

This fact was well understood by our founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew who gave a great deal of thought to language policy: 

“One of the things we did which we knew would call for a big price was to switch from our own languages into English.

“We had Chinese, Malay, Indian schools — separate language medium schools. The British ran a small English school sector to produce clerks, storekeepers, teachers for the British.

“Had we chosen Chinese, which was our majority language, we would have perished, economically and politically.”  

So while part of me thinks, “Well of course people should be able to speak whatever language they like as long as they are polite, fundamentally I have to say an effort should be made by all immigrants to Singapore and especially those who seek live here long term to learn and speak at least some English.” 

But we must be mindful at what cost?

It would be easy to decree that a knowledge of English plus one of our three other national languages (even at a very elementary level) should a be a basic prerequisite for the granting of citizenship to new citizens. 

Because language sits at the core of any nation or society and while it’s necessary to know English to participate fully in Singapore’s society, English alone is not sufficient. 

So, one could argue you should have at least some command of one of our national languages to really call Singapore your home.

However, this may favour the wealthy who can afford to do this and it limits our diversity... bringing us back to the (coffeeshop) table: How should we speak to one another?

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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