Top image: Stephanie Lee / RICE File Photo
Singaporeans want new citizens to speak English. That much is clear.
What remains to be seen, though, is if a one-off test for new citizens and permanent residents can address the language barriers in our multilingual melting pot of a country.
It’s been over a month since Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh advocated for English proficiency tests for aspiring Singapore citizens and permanent residents, and Singaporeans are still debating the issue.
We’ve said our piece on the limitations of language tests and half-jokingly made a case for a Singlish exam instead. There is some validity to making aspiring citizens communicate in the true lingua franca, after all.
As it turns out, a large swathe of locals do think testing potential new citizens on English is a good idea.
About 80 percent of Singapore-born citizens support Mr Singh’s suggestion, a recent poll by CNA reveals. The inability to speak English also was a dealbreaker for 53 percent of the 500 respondents, who said it’s grounds for citizenship applications to be rejected.
There are some pretty compelling downsides to implementing such tests. Adequately assessing English proficiency isn’t as straightforward as it seems. Even in countries where new citizens have to pass English tests, requirements differ wildly.
Second Minister for Home Affairs Josephine Teo also pointed out in Parliament that such a test would likely disadvantage new citizens’ and permanent residents’ spouses. This demographic appears to struggle the most with the language, she said, citing on-the-ground interactions.
So why is there still overwhelming support for Mr Singh’s proposal?
It appears to be less of an issue of maintaining high English standards here. It’s more of a deep-rooted frustration with Chinese nationals who can’t communicate with non-Mandarin speakers.
Speaking to CNA, sociologist Shannon Ang pointed out that Chinese immigrants aren’t as hard-pressed to learn English since a majority of the population (62.3 percent) are literate in both languages.
“The problem here then is not that Chinese immigrants cannot ‘integrate’ due to deficiencies in language—they will probably do fine—but that they threaten our notion of multiracial inclusion, for which English is a fundamental tool.”
It’s not clear how many Chinese nationals are granted Singapore citizenship or permanent residency each year. The government doesn’t publish detailed breakdowns on the nationalities of new residents—an attempt to avoid “negative sensitivities with other countries”, per Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law K Shanmugam.
But the reality on the ground shows bubbling frustrations and tensions among locals. A glance through Facebook comments suggests that Singaporeans believe immigrants from China have it easy to acquire citizenship, with or without English proficiency.
As a Mandarin speaker, I rarely face the vexation of dealing with language barriers daily, but I can’t say the same for my non-Chinese counterparts. In fact, I’ve had to act as a translator for some of my ethnic-minority friends in various common spaces, from hawker centres to private-hire vehicles.
One colleague mentioned how he’s reminded of his minority status in Singapore when trying to speak to people who refuse to communicate in any language other than Mandarin. It’s the feeling of being a second-class citizen in his own country.
Comments on a recent Reddit post report similar experiences.
One commenter shared: “I don’t care about a construction worker who can’t speak English but it sure as hell is infuriating for us non-Chinese when the bus driver or cashier needs a Chinese translator.”
Another commenter echoed their frustrations: “It [is] so damn tiring when F&B or service people don’t understand a single word in English and try to speak Mandarin. I’m not expecting you to quote Shakespeare but at least learn numbers and basic words, for the love of gods.”
Language barriers don’t just play out as awkward social exchanges. Just last week, a food delivery rider took to TikTok to share how Mandarin-only signages at some food stalls led to delays in his order fulfilment, as he had to take the extra step of asking around for assistance.
Sure, Mandarin is one of our official languages. But when certain spaces are exclusively Chinese, and can inconvenience or even alienate non-Mandarin speakers (not a new phenomenon by the way), it’s not right.
It’s also worth noting that some of these Mandarin speakers who can’t—or won’t—speak English might not even be affected should the English proficiency test become reality. Many of them are likely on employment passes and are more concerned with earning a living than settling down long-term here.
Lost In Translation
There does seem to be a clear racial divide on the issue. Not only do Chinese Singaporeans view China more favourably than their Malay and Indian compatriots, but they’re also less passionate about English literacy than Malays and Indians.
According to the CNA survey, while 66 percent of Malays and 63 percent of Indians said it was very important for new citizens to have English proficiency, only 47 percent of Chinese said the same.
To be clear, we aren’t painting Chinese nationals as the villains in this. Not all of them are staunchly anti-English. In fact, some well-heeled Chinese nationals are moving to Singapore for their kids to enjoy our more ‘Westernised’ school syllabus, the Wall Street Journal reports.
But our point is that a one-off language test administered to new citizens and permanent residents is unlikely to solve the frustrating language barriers at play.
It’s a deeply-rooted issue, and simply passing a quiz isn’t going to make people magically more considerate of the non-Mandarin speakers here. The quiz proves that they can communicate in basic English. But will they?
Maybe the solution is to put the onus on businesses and companies to set the standard and ensure that there aren’t communication issues in the workplace or with customers. That means making English fluency a basic requirement for their staff, and on things like products and signages.
Mandarin speakers, as a majority in the country, also have a responsibility to be cognisant of when it’s appropriate to be speaking the language. Speaking it at home with your grandma? Perfectly fine. Breaking into a Mandarin conversation during a meeting with non-Mandarin speakers around? Not okay.
Sure, we Singaporeans love our tests. But sometimes, believe it or not, standardised testing isn’t always the answer.