Sun, Dec 13, 2009
The New Paper
Revenge of the potato eater: Speak English to work here

By SM Ong

DURING my full-time national service, someone once asked me in English: "You eat potato?"

What a strange question. I wasn't even eating anything at the time.

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My tuber-fixated interrogator repeated the query, insisting on an answer: "You eat potato?" Hasn't everyone eaten a potato at least once in his or her life? So I said: "Yah, I eat potato.

Don't you?"

"You eat potato," he repeated with bemusement, as if I had confessed to masturbation.

"I eat potato."

"You eat potato."

"I eat potato."

This went on for a while until the person was satisfied that I had indeed confirmed that I ate potatoes and left to tell everyone very loudly that I said I ate potatoes like it was the funniest thing in the world.

It wasn't until later when I found out that to say a Chinese Singaporean "eats potatoes" is to mock him for being so Westernised that he speaks English rather than Mandarin or other Chinese dialects.

I guess the assumption here is that the potato represents Western food, like the fries in a McDonald's meal.

Ironically, when I was asked the potato question, the first thing I thought of was the potatoes in my mother's curry - not a very Western dish.

So it never occurred to me that "eating potatoes" had anything to do with my language preference.

That was when I realised that being an English-speaking Chinese Singaporean, I was in the minority.

"Big" minority

But we are a big enough minority - or big enough spenders - that last week, the Government announced a new rule that will hopefully reverse the trend of a growing number of service workers recruited from abroad who can't speak English to customers like me.

From the third quarter of next year, new foreign workers have to pass an English test before they can get a work permit as a skilled worker.

We felt vindicated when Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew admitted that Chinese language has been wrongly taught in our schools for 40 years, turning Chinese Singaporeans like me off our own mother tongue.

Many potato-eating Singaporeans have treated MM Lee's mea culpa as licence to openly condemn the Government's bilingual education policy for messing with our lives and the lives of our children.

Some complain about how they were forced to emigrate because of the policy. Hey, at least they had the option to emigrate. No other country would take me.

So it's almost fitting that foreigners now have to learn English to work in our country. Why should we be the only ones to suffer?

For that, I do not mind being called a "potato eater". Suddenly, I feel like curry.

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