Monday, December 1, 2008

Communicating in Singapore - crossing cultures.

Nov 30, 2008

Service grouses spill to Facebook

2,000 join group to air grievances over service staff here who speak only Mandarin
By Gracia Chiang
They are irate customers and they have found a way to air their grievances - on Facebook.

Some 2,000 people have joined a group called 'I am Singaporean and tired of service staff who can only speak Mandarin' on the popular social networking site.

At least 20 establishments - from big-name supermarkets and foodcourts to retail shops - have been singled out by members who have come forward to share frustrating experiences at these outlets.

Started in August by undergraduate Kavita Devi Thamilselvam, 22, the group has drawn many non-Chinese as well as Chinese who are not fluent in Mandarin.

'It's as though non-Mandarin speaking customers are not valued. It makes us feel like foreigners in our own country,' Ms Kavita told The Sunday Times.

Another member of the group, Ms Nor Hafiza, 28, said she once had to approach four different sales assistants at a supermarket before a Singaporean employee was able to answer her queries.

The early childhood educator was surprised one of them even asked if she could speak Mandarin.

'When you are serving a multiracial community, it's important to have employees who can speak English,' she said.

Most members in the group said they are not against hiring foreigners, but are frustrated at the lack of English training given to them.

Ms Kavita said she had initially set up the group so that like-minded customers would have an outlet to vent their frustration.

But she now wants to take the group's feedback to the establishments. Industry watchers empathised with such sentiments.

'This sends a clear signal to the operators that it is important to ensure the competency of their service staff,' said the president of the Consumers Association of Singapore, Mr Yeo Guat Kwang.

Singapore Retailers Association executive director Lau Chuen Wei felt that English tests may be a good idea to ensure a minimum level of English proficiency.

'If such tests can be implemented for domestic helpers whose contacts are largely confined to the families that they work with, what more for those whose contacts are with the larger community?'

First-time maids have to sit for an English entry test to ensure that they have basic numeracy and literacy skills to do household tasks and adapt to life here.

When The Sunday Times did its own tests on five big businesses listed on the Facebook group, three - Giant, Kopitiam and Food Republic - did not fare well, while two - Haagen-Dazs and Takashimaya - passed with flying colours.

When contacted, all except Takashimaya said they have already been conducting some form of English classes for staff.

Companies explained that recruiting English-speaking service staff in both F&B and retail industries is already challenging enough, as many people shun such jobs.

Most added that employees from China form barely 10 per cent of their total staff strength. Service-sector companies are allowed to employ foreign workers on work permits - up to 50 per cent of the company's total workforce.

Said a spokesman from supermarket chain Giant: 'It will take some time for them to learn a new language...We hope the Facebook group can give our staff a bit more learning time.'

[Comment: I can imagine that when the Chinese-speaking foreign worker was thinking about coming to Singapore, he or she might have thought (in Mandarin), "I think I'll do fine there. Sure, I can only speak Mandarin, but most Singaporeans are Chinese. It should be no problem for me to fit in! Not like Australia or the U.S."

And quite possibly, as they move about in Singapore, the predominantly ethnically Chinese population may have given them (false?) comfort that Mandarin was probably the lingua franca in Singapore. (Interestingly, in China, Mandarin is called "putong hua" or the common language, which is roughly the definition of lingua franca.)

So they come with the assumption that if they are mostly Chinese, they should be able to speak Chinese and the rest of the "foreigners", well they should know "putong hua" right?

Amazingly (on reflection), while the kopi tiam uncles and aunties may not be able to speak English, they may know "pasar melayu" sufficiently to deal with non-chinese speaking customers.

(On a trivia aside, It seems to me that all Indian hawkers know Malay - well, their menu is often in Malay and you can order in Malay.)

The worst case scenario is a polarised situation where "You're in Singapore, speak English!" is met with "We're mostly Chinese, so learn Mandarin!" That way lies destruction.

It will not do for one ethnic group, particularly the predominant ethnic group to impose its language, it's culture, it's values or it's philosophy on the rest of the country. This was the lesson from the man in this article:

So it is right for a group like this to remind us all why there is a need to keep a neutral language (that has clear business advantages) as the language of business. But if this group only attracts the support of non-Chinese, then the cause is already lost. If the Chinese this group can attract are only the non-Chinese speaking Chinese who would have a vested interested (and perhaps "Chinese Guilt" - the guilt of not being able to speak their "mother" tongue) it will lack credibility.

What this group needs is clear support from Chinese-speaking Chinese who have clearly faced the (tempting) ideals of a renaissance "Nanyang" and dismissed it on the basis of pragmatism.

We need to keep to the ideals of an inclusive society, not a "New China" or a "Nanyang", where some cultures or languages are elevated above others.

We need to have a culture of crossing cultures and languages. Like the next article.]

Nov 30, 2008

Vannakam, where to Miss?

By Nilanjana Sengupta

'So should I say vannakam or namaste?' the Chinese cab driver asked me with a smile.

The former is Tamil for hello, and the latter is Hindi.

His question made me stop fiddling with my mobile phone and stare at the back of his head. He had caught my attention.

As it is, whenever I pass anyone on the road speaking in one of the 18 officially recognised Indian languages, my ears perk up at the familiar sounding words.

But to hear a Chinese man speak some of them, albeit haltingly and with the pronunciations a little off the mark, was surprising indeed. And I was impressed.

It was not the first time that a non-Indian cab driver in Singapore was attempting to talk to me in Hindi or Tamil. But even as I came across more such drivers over the last 11/2 years I have been here, they have never ceased to make an impression on me.

For one thing, I realise that they do not have to go out of their way to painstakingly memorise unfamiliar words. After all, a cab is not like a hotel where customers are wooed so that they come back to the same hotel on their next visit. The chances of a cab driver picking up the same passenger are slim.

Also, it may be easier to learn Tamil words in Singapore because it is an official language of the country. The ethnic-Indian population is mostly Tamil-speaking, there is a dedicated Tamil TV channel, and the announcements in Tamil on the MRT can be quite easy to grasp after listening to them every day. But the same cannot be said for the other Indian languages.

So, to try and establish a rapport with the passenger with some choice words from his or her native language is, I think, commendable. This is especially since, based on a couple of experiences, I had branded Singaporean cab drivers as either too curt and uncommunicative, or too inquisitive and talkative, like asking whether the passenger is married and offering to take her clubbing on Saturday nights.

But my discovery of the passenger-friendly cab drivers changed all that. I have also come to appreciate the important role they play as ambassadors of a country.

For an outsider, the cab driver is often the third Singaporean one meets after landing in the island city, after the ever-smiling air hostess and the non-smiling immigration officer at the airport.

We meet him much before we visit the plethora of tourist attractions and the malls that Singapore is famous for. And his attitude towards his passenger could make or break the relationship between the visitor and the city.

For me it is not just the cab drivers who greet me with a vannakam or namaste or the ones who ask which state I am from, whether that state is located in northern or southern India, and whether that means people from my state eat roti, prata or rice, whom I respect and value.

They include the concerned driver who asked me if I had remembered to take my passport and ticket on the way to the airport, and the driver who opens the automated door and waits patiently till I, juggling my bag, phone, house key and jacket, disembark.

Then there was the Indian cab driver who became a Singapore citizen earlier this year. 'You must take citizenship madam, life is very good here,' he enthused. 'Even if I am offered double my salary or more in any other city, I will never leave this place,' he told me.

But I shall never forget the cab driver whom I hailed outside Mustafa shopping centre in Little India earlier this month. Laden with shopping bags, I asked him if he could stop at an ATM on the way home. 'Why? No money, ah?' he asked.

I showed him the collection of small change I had in my wallet. 'You girls, all day shopping and then sitting in a cab with no money, 'aiyah',' he said, shaking his head. He made me count all the change I had and said it was just enough to see me home, so there was no need to stop at an ATM.

I felt like a schoolgirl who had been admonished by a teacher, but the scolding also pleased me in an odd way.

There is an Indian saying which roughly means that we get angry only with those who mean something to us.

The concern, scolding and ramblings in Hindi and Tamil by cab drivers bring alive that saying for me.

The writer is an Assistant to Editor on the Straits Times Foreign Desk. She has been in Singapore for 11/2 years.

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