Thursday, 24 November 2011

Singapore working language is English? Yes and no


Yes. It used to be the way, especially when the first language in our schools is English and we have effectively phased out other language schools in Singapore.  For local citizens, English is the working language plus may be our unique singlish.

No. When our population increases to 5 or even more millions, with a sizable foreign born population, it is quite impossible to have only one working language. You may ask property agents, insurance people, car dealers, entertainers, or even some doctors and lawyers, what is their working language?

Then we may have to define what working language is. Is it different from official language in the government and courts?  Look at Hong Kong, the working language is English or Cantonese?  Hong Kong people will tell you that it depends on the money factors.

You may argue Hong Kong is different.  More than 90% of the population are Cantonese. In Singapore, we have different races and cultures. Then, you look at USA, a dominant English speaking country but with a quarter of the population speaking Spanish. 

Singapore has two worlds. People in one world will only claim that English is the only working language. Just like some rich and elite Americans who only know English and no others.  They fail to realise there is another 25% Spanish speaking Americans plus another few percentages who speak other languages.

Our foreign born population in terms of percentage is one of the highest in the world.  With such a high percentage and even in number, it will easily be 2 or even more millions. This is equal to how many Ang Mo Kio or Toa Payoh put together.  For this group of people, it is not sure whether their working language is English.

So far, Singaporeans are complaining about the non-English speaking service personnel and workers.  There are also training courses conducted in other languages. Are these working or non-working languages?

If we step out of our comfort zone, Geylang is like another world. Little India is another one.  I am not sure whether you can extend the working language English to these areas. 

Language of money and politics

Unfortunately, we are facing the challenge of money and politics in defining a working language.  Ask the sales girls in Hong Kong, can they not speak Mandarin to the high purchasing power Chinese? Can our property agents not speaking Mandarin to rich Chinese buyers? Can we do business with China with only speaking English?

Even when we come to politics, when the election is so fiercely contests, like Potong Pasir, Joo Chiat, etc, the foreign born voters will be the king makers.  This is why political Americans are forced to speak Spanish; Ma Ying-jeou has to force himself to speak in “taiyu” (台语). 

Perhaps, we cannot define working language as a working tool for money and politics.  This is wrong and in Singapore, working language means the administration language of the government because the government has the monopoly power to decide the working language. If this is the case, you are not listening to the money, politics and people.  Can such so-called working language survive in the long-term?  

Just like bilingualism, if Singapore wants to be an international business hub, we have to be flexible and not only limit ourselves to English.  There is an urgent need for young generation to know more than one working language. The Americans are doing it. The Europeans are doing it.  What is the need to restrict Singapore with one and only one working language?

To survive under the language of money and politics, the working languages are decided by the people who are the buyers, voters or decision makers.
  


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