Singaporean workers: How poor is their English?

SINGAPORE - Singaporean workers have been on the receiving end of some bad press lately, with critics accusing them of having sub-par English skills and poor analytical ability.

A recent Straits Times article cited feedback from a reader who had criticised local graduates for speaking poor English and adding for good measure that Singaporeans had weak "reasoning and critical thinking skills".

"Unlike in Australia or the United States... here, even someone who has trouble stringing together two sentences sees himself as a marketing manager in a multinational corporation," the reader had said.

Based on my experience, there is a bit of truth to this. Some Singaporean colleagues I've had, whether they studied locally or abroad, have not always been able to compose an impeccably grammatical e-mail.

While most of them are technically proficient in their chosen fields, they also occasionally look blank when asked for the "big-picture view" or to come up with alternative solutions to a problem.

However, I have yet to come across any Singaporean professional who is significantly less competent at communication and analysis than a counterpart of similar age and working experience from around the world.

Having worked closely with colleagues and bosses from all over the Asia-Pacific region - including Malaysia, China, the Philippines, India, Thailand, Indonesia, and Australia - I can say with a fair bit of certainty that Singaporeans seldom compare poorly with workers of other nationalities.

Of course, the colleagues I encountered had already passed the hiring test; perhaps there are other job-seekers who would not have scraped through? With that question in mind, I sought out recruitment agencies and human resource experts for their views.

In general, most spoke favourably of workers here and said they seldom come across inarticulate applicants to the extent of those described in the article.

"Like in all English-speaking countries, there are varying levels of language ability," said Ms Stella Tang, director of Robert Half Singapore.

She said Singaporean professionals generally have a "very high standard" of English, which has led the firm to place them in public relations and marketing roles in large international banks.

"We have also seen Europeans struggle to adjust to working in similar roles, as English is not their first language," she added.

Ms Tang also noted that when making comparisons of communications skills across countries, "fair comparisons" must be made.

"You cannot compare a Singapore manufacturing supervisor's English with that of an American journalist," she said.

"But if you speak to an American manufacturing supervisor, then his English would probably be similar in standard to that of his Singaporean counterpart."

Ms Cheryl Ann Szetoh, manager for senior commerce finance at Robert Walters Singapore, said analytical skills depend greatly on position and job exposure.

"Accountants may not be as analytical compared to financial or business analysts," she said.

But Ms Tang believes Singaporeans "are generally better at analytical roles than candidates from many other countries".

"That's why a lot of financial planning and analysis functions are based in Singapore instead of other places in Asia," she said.

As for job-seekers who have "trouble stringing together two sentences", they exist but are few and far between, said Mr Alvin Ang, managing director of Quantum Leap Career Consultancy.

"While I have to admit that Singaporeans' level of English is not up to native standards, for example, compared with the British or Americans, I would find it hard to comprehend that they have poor English language skills," he said.

Mr Mark Hall, vice-president and country general manager for Kelly Services, said the interchangeable use of various languages here has resulted in an "informal, colloquial style" of English.

But in a corporate setting, "most Singaporean professionals are able to switch easily between a colloquial style and a more business-style language", he said.

In fact, he added that one advantage Singaporean candidates have is that they are usually able to speak more than one language.

However, bilingualism can also be a double-edged sword.

"For a lot of Singaporeans, English is a second language and this can manifest itself in mistakes with tenses, spelling and sentence structure," said Ms Charlotte Ashton, business development manager of Ice Professionals.

"Another important factor is that here in Singapore, language skills and the arts haven't been valued as highly as mathematical and scientific capability," she added.

A human resources director of a retail firm said that while foreign workers have attractive qualities such as demanding lower pay and working harder, they are less "international" than the locals.

"In general, Singaporeans have better English than, say, Malaysians," said the director, who asked not to be named.

"They are also more globalised and can communicate better, so I can trust them to liaise directly with foreign clients or suppliers."

But most consultants also agreed there is always room for improvement.

"Knowing English is one thing - being able to communicate persuasively in English is another thing entirely," said Ms Tang.

"One area where some Singaporean job-seekers could improve is in their ability to communicate ideas and opinions."

fiochan@sph.com.sg

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