HELP FROM CO-WORKERS, CUSTOMERS
A Chinese national who only wanted to be known as Mr Qu recalled asking his co-workers for translation help while working in a Peranakan restaurant in the early 2000s.
“Everything was ordered in English. My boss didn’t speak Mandarin and I couldn’t even apply for leave,” said Mr Qu, who was a kitchen assistant then.
“I had to find translations for everything,” said the 50-year-old. Now a masseur, he can communicate with customers using some basic English words.
Dunlopillo said it was open to employing staff in customer-facing roles who cannot speak English, but would pair them with staff who can. The mattress retailer has six to seven work permit employees in such roles, but all can speak English.
“It is not a big obstacle to employ them, to be honest,” said national sales manager William Chua. “Singaporeans can use a lot of body language.
“So long as communication does not break down. If there’s any problem, (we can) just tell the customer that we don’t understand.”
Mr Chua said the customer can also be referred to another of its more than 15 outlets or shop spaces islandwide, or asked to return another day when an English-speaking employee is around.
To Mr Chua, the NTUC FairPrice incident was an “isolated” case.
Singaporeans who find themselves in such situations would usually switch to a language that the other party understands, he said.
“Unless I don’t know how to speak Mandarin and you cannot speak English, the only way out is you get your supervisor or someone who can speak the language so you can communicate.”
KNOWING ENGLISH WILL GET WORKERS FURTHER
Mr Koh of Future Employment recalled a case where a candidate who spoke basic English still had difficulty adapting to his workplace.
The Chinese national was hired as a waiter and had to work with multiple nationalities, including Sri Lankans, Indians and Koreans.
Due to the fast-paced nature of the job, the man was not given enough time to settle into his job and was scolded when he failed to pick up instructions. After a month, he gave up and returned to China without even considering a change in job, said Mr Koh.
On the other hand, a bubble tea stall assistant from China whom Mr Koh recruited managed to work her way up with a basic command of English. Within three to four years, the woman was promoted to team leader then to cluster manager, Mr Koh said.
Two Singaporeans of minority races that CNA spoke to had different views on whether companies should employ workers in front-facing roles if they cannot speak English.
A 26-year-old Singaporean Indian, who did not want to be named, said people should be more understanding as migrant workers were simply trying to make a living.
The researcher said he picked up simple Mandarin terms to communicate with workers who did not speak English at the coffee shop he frequented. He described it as a “let me help you so you can help me kind of thing”.
But Mr Kirill Petropavlov, 33, who moved from Switzerland to Singapore and is now a citizen, said speaking English is important to cater to visitors and the country’s diverse population.
“On one occasion, I visited a shop that sells doors, and the sales lady there only spoke Mandarin. She tried her best to use the few English words she knew, but it was not sufficient for effective communication. Luckily, my wife, who can speak Mandarin, was with me and helped me communicate with the salesperson,” said Mr Petropavlov, who works in a bank.
“While it would be beneficial to know some basic Mandarin terms to help in certain situations, the main barrier is the complexity of the language and its limited usability across the globe,” he said.