English tests for new citizens? Certainly. But first, let me tell a little story.
It was 40 years ago in 1983. I was serving my NS at Amoy Quee Camp. I was with an infantry unit where the majority of the soldiers were Hokkien peng with an average educational level of P4. After the commanders were all settled in, the men were enlisted and nothing prepared me for the surprise. Having gone through the school environment and the A Level route thus far, I realised that I had been completely cloistered from Singapore’s colourful diversity. Though most of them could understand some English, we had to choose our words carefully and throw in some Malay and Hokkien words in order not to confuse them. We often had to demonstrate with actions but on the whole, those who grew up in Singapore, Malaysia or Indonesia had no problems following our instructions.
But there was one recruit who presented a unique challenge. His name was Elangovan and though he was born in Singapore, he grew up in India. He didn’t understand a word we were saying and I’m not exaggerating. There was only one NCO (Corporal D) who spoke his Indian dialect and as Corporal D was not always available, Elangovan had a very hard time.
One day, the company moved out for a live firing session. The men were trained to fire from the hip and had to move up to the targets at close range. There was no shelter and no fixed firing positions. In an open area, the shooters just formed a line facing the row of targets. The commanders were standing just behind them. When the conducting officer gave the order to fire, they were supposed to fire rapidly without aiming. When told to stop, they would have to stop.
It was Elangovan’s detail to move in. Before giving orders to fire, the conducting officer told everyone to get ready. Elangovan fired his weapon. Instinctively, our CSM yelled at him.
“Huh?” said Elangovan as he turned around with his rifle pointing at the commanders.
It was scary, but the sight of my burly CSM diving for cover was priceless. From then on, we smiled every time our CSM appeared.
For everyone’s safety, we decided to excuse Elangovan from live firing until further notice. After the report was submitted, they posted him out to a unit that needed a cook. I didn’t hear about him ever since. I hope he didn’t create a cookhouse incident, even though that would have been highly possible.
Thinking about my CSM’s reaction that day still makes me smile today, but shooting against orders is no laughing matter. Someone could have been killed that day. Although this happened 40 years ago, it brings forth two questions. First, should we not only recruit men with some level of competency in our local lingo for combat vocations? Secondly, is it really that important that we include people like Elangovan in our fighting force? Fortunately, the folks up there made the prudent decision to take him out of the battlefield. I’m not sure if Elangovan had moved to Singapore after his NS or whether he had gone back to India. If it’s the former, I certainly hope that he had acquired some basic competency in English by now.
Some people have been laughing at Pritam’s suggestion, but I don’t find it funny at all. No, he’s not referring to the elderly folks who have already settled in nicely on our little island for decades without speaking English. He is referring to foreigners who grew up elsewhere and decide to make our country their home while still tuned in to their “motherland” media 24/7. Sure, the kind of drama in Elangovan’s case may be rare, but a growing population of citizens and PRs who can’t communicate in our official language will definitely present a problem of social integration going forward. There are already 4 Chinatowns in Singapore 1. Kreta Ayer, 2. Geylang, 3. NTU, 4. NUS.
When some of these “scholars” in the last 2 Chinatowns have difficulty filling up a simple form, I would tell them “你们知道新加坡人英文不及格是考不进大学的吗？“
It’s a slap on the face for parents who need to spend a bomb sending their children overseas for a university education because our local universities need to “maintain standards” and take in people not conversant in English.
Not worrying enough? What about the Chinese person who told me that we ought to follow China and make the minorities use Mandarin? It doesn’t take a genius to predict the position that these cohesive and insular new immigrants will take.
Then, someone pointed out that many immigrants in America can’t speak English as well. I find the comparison with Americans who don’t speak English ludicrous. America allowed terrorism to breed in their backyard while they fight it overseas. America has new citizens shipping N95 masks out of the country to their “motherland” during Covid, laughing at the empty shelves. They trusted scientists who stole their military technology. We learn from their mistakes; not follow them.
Talking about mistakes, anyone watching our parliamentary debates would be impressed that our government has an answer to every single criticism. There’s always a reason they haven’t thought about something that others had thought about. Apparently they are incapable of mistakes and oversight. Not so for mere mortals like us; Olympic champions included.
On 1 Mar 2023, Joseph Schooling, Singapore’s only Olympic gold medalist, announced his withdrawal from the upcoming Southeast Asian Games, saying he was “not at the level” at which he expects to compete at the event.
“After careful consideration with my team, I have decided to pull out of the SEA Games,” the 27-year-old swimmer said in a statement.
Isn’t it sad? How did we end up here? Remember that after Schooling confessed to taking marijuana in Vietnam in May last year, Mindef had placed him on an SAF-supervised urine test regime as part of the treatment and rehabilitation process. He was also issued a formal letter of warning.
In a separate statement, Mindef noted that “given his abuse of disruption privileges”, Schooling would no longer be eligible for leave or disruption to train or compete while in NS. It was an ominous sign that his sports career might be over. True enough, his punishment would take a toll on his fitness to compete.
Schooling was careful with his words but there is a not so well-hidden message. Yes, he’s giving up on the competition to focus on his navy duties. Are you cringing? I know I am. Schooling is no Elangovan. Are we to believe that he can serve the nation better and redeem himself better by scrubbing the decks of ships than swimming? Come to think of it, Elangovan might have represented Singapore in athletics instead of serving as a rifleman. Did we bother to uncover his hidden talents?
But this is Singapore. Never mind the competition. We have to live up to our “zero tolerance” reputation. What if our children follow his example and think that marijuana is good for them? People who have failed as parents are going to blame the government for not smothering bad role models.
Perhaps Joseph was naive. Perhaps he’s unfamiliar with how the politically apathetic, morally vocal people in Singapore think. There was no evidence for his drug consumption. He chose to confess and his honesty would do him in, making him lose all his privileges.
Sometimes, I wonder if the moralists are just jealous of his courage to do what they wouldn’t dare to do (even though they would have loved to) and gloat over his downfall. Then, there were the fair weather friends who rushed to take selfies with him after his glorious victory only to stand clear and condemn him without any reservations when his misdeed was uncovered. Can we blame them? Perhaps not, remembering how George Yeo was vilified for speaking out for Jack Neo after the latter’s extramarital affair came to light. Singaporeans are not saints, but many of us are “moralists” who enjoy baying for blood the moment they catch a whiff of someone’s indiscretion and declare “zero tolerance”. It’s not that I encourage drug abuse, but I know without a doubt that if Joseph Schooling were not punished the way he has been punished, he would swim his best to redeem himself and do us proud.
Frankly, I hope Joseph gets out of this sanitary, unforgiving environment and make a splash elsewhere. A pai kia who has fought, smoked or even taken drugs in his teens may grow up to be a successful professional or businessman – provided his future is not nipped in the bud by the zero tolerance of the moralists. Joseph Schooling’s Olympic gold medal is his own personal achievement. He never asked to be a role model even though our media had tried its best to censor his tattoos. What he inks on his skin is none of our business and it’s also not his responsibility to prevent people from copying his tattoos or consuming marijuana.