Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Foreign workers, English and the Singapore – Malaysia special relationship

Come July 1, all foreign work permit holders in the hotel, retail and food and beverage industries are required to pass a Ministry of Manpower (MOM) Service Literacy Test (SLT) in order to qualify as skilled workers. That is, unless the foreign worker is Malaysian.

First a little bit more about the test.
Essentially, the test appears to be a Singapore version of the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) customized for workers in the hospitality industry. Most likely, the SLT will be slightly simpler and require less vocabulary as the TOEFL. Successful candidates "are expected to be able to listen and understand job-related communications in routine workplace tasks in English and to respond appropriately in English."
The SLT is a step forward, especially for those of us who can't speak Mandarin and are routinely shunned by non-English speaking shop assistants. (Although I must admit I often have problems communicating with Singlish speaking locals also!)
Yet, a close reading of the MOM press release indicates that the SLT is not mandatory for working in the defined industries. Passing the SLT is required only "in order to qualify [the worker] for skilled levy status."
The government has decided to use its legislative powers softly by creating a financial incentive to hire skilled workers versus unskilled workers. The monthly work permit fee for skilled workers is SGD 160, whereas for unskilled workers it is SGD 260. A saving of SGD 100 a month can add up for both small and large businesses.
Already, an industry surrounding training for the SLT test is developing to assist companies and workers prepare July. However, unskilled (i.e. non-English speaking) workers can continue to be employed in the food, retail and hotel industries, at the company's discretion.
Over time, Singapore should broaden the scope of the SLT.
In future, all foreign workers in designated industries, without any exceptions, must pass the SLT. The criteria for selecting SLT required industries should also be expanded.
Under current rules I presume that a receptionist at a hospital may not be required to speak English – as formally measured by the SLT criteria. Similarly, driving instructors also appear to be exempted. There are many other instances of occupations where English should be made compulsory, at least until Mandarin is made compulsory for all Singaporeans!
But why exempt Malaysian workers from the rules?
Many of my Chinese friends may see Malaysia's exclusion as a sign of 'pandering' to our larger neighbour, or perhaps another example of the (allegedly) privileged position of Malays within Singapore.

I see the move reflective of the special relationship shared by the two nations. Malaysians are a part of Singapore's extended family. Hence, unless the government intends to make the SLT compulsory for Singaporeans it is right to exempt Malaysians. Under one roof, the same rules apply to all.
In the coming years, I do hope that the Singapore-Malaysia 'Special Relationship' will manifest itself in more practical ways for ordinary citizens of both sovereign nations.

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