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"A cultural regression in our society." By Patrick Loh.

What happened to 30 years of nation building?

Patrick Loh / Guest Writer

I would like to share some discomforting experiences I encountered with service staff here, which is a symptom of a larger social issue.

I want to point out what Singaporeans have to put up with.

It seems that wherever we go these days, people don't speak English anymore. You can hear office cliques conversing in Chinese over lunch tables, people in buses and MRT speaking Chinese. If you walk into almost any retail shop or restaurant, you will be greeted by a Chinese-speaking person, many of whom are handicapped in English. When you call a company these days, expect the operator to speak to you in Chinese. Now and then I get a phone call from survey companies speaking in Chinese. Of course, I quickly slam down the phone. And you see an English channel touting a Chinese show! Isn't that the ultimate disregard for your audience? Talk about CRM!

Today I went to SingPost to buy a bankdraft and to send it in a registered mail to a school in the UK. What was to be a smooth transaction, requiring little intelligence, turned out to be a half hour of irritation - simply because of a service staff who does not understand how things are done in a civilized society. All because someone does not know the professional, correct, English-speaking way of carrying out a simple task. She spoke a strange form of English (but only very few words) during my 30 minutes’ encounter with her.

The bank draft was to be paid to the UK school. I gave her the envelope, into which I intended to put my bank draft, and indicated to her that the addressee of the bank draft is the school whose name appears on the envelope and ask her to copy down that same name for the bank draft. Instead, she copied down not only the institute's name but also the words, "The Registrar", which was also on the envelope, as the addressee of the bank draft.

I interrupted her and said, "The Registrar is not the addressee. The school is the addressee." She retorted with some frustration, "WHO IS THE ADDRESSEE?" I replied, "The school, not the registrar. Do you address a cheque to a manager or to the company?". Confusion*@# ensued.

I added, "Just write the school name without the registrar." On the envelope, the school's name was written in full together with its abbreviated name in parenthesis. So, I said to her, "Just use the long name and not the abbreviations." More confusion. Argument ensued.

This is so silly and so unnecessary and it reinforces my personal frustration about what's going on around us here in Singapore. We were an educated society. Where did all the sophistication and refinement, which Singapore has managed to nurture over the past 30 years, go? Take a walk down town and you can see that it's all gone. If we had intended to trade our privileges, we certainly traded them for the wrong goods!

What I encountered this morning, is one of the many manifestations of what I would call a cultural regression in our society. Imagine impressionable Singaporean school leavers working side by side with colleagues like these day-in day-out!

What is equally worrisome is that a condescending attitude has already developed among the Chinese-speaking majority. Such speakers usually react with a hint of displeasure and irritation in their voices when the English speaker respond in English. And I am talking about service staff! Something is terribly wrong!

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to hold a conversation with a group of 10 bilingual Singaporeans, who were attending a diploma course in business at a local institute. These are employed and working adults between 20 and 35 years old. I asked all of them if they had heard of the following:

1. Phillip Kotler

2. Edward De Bono

3. Bill Gates

4. Anthony Robbins

5. Star Trek

6. Steve Jobs

7. Michael Porter

8. Tony Buzan

Only 3 of the 10 had heard of Bill Gates. Apart from this, no one else knew these names!

I believe we are losing a great deal more than our competitiveness. And real fast.

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Read also: Singapore moving towards better service standards (Channel NewsAsia).

And: GEMS.

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