By Kow Song Tong
I have always been proud of my country Singapore. After all, it is a little red dot which has worked very hard to align itself with First World countries. It is lauded for its world class airport and I had little doubt that our Changi Airport is truly one of the best.
An expected turn of events had unfortunately challenged my unwavering pride and faith. I was returning from Hainan Island, China to Changi Airport Terminal 2 on 5 November 2014. My brother-in-law, age 80, went missing after we visited the restroom and was nowhere to be found despite some frantic search and a good ten minutes’ wait. I had no choice but to approach the information counter and asked the staff if they could help to make an announcement in Mandarin to help locate my missing brother-in-law, who does not understand a word of English.
The counter staff replied that they were not able to do so as they are only allowed to make announcements in English. I was flabbergasted and I asked the staff why, since Chinese is an official language of Singapore as well. Her reply came swift and matter-of-fact: “No, English is THE official language of Singapore.” And she reiterated it more than once.
As one can expect, I blew my top.
Firstly, one can imagine the worry and frustration of not being to locate one’s elderly relative.
Secondly, help is refused on the grounds that Chinese is not an official language of Singapore, which is horrendously erroneous.
Thirdly, there is practically zero existence of customer service extended to a passenger desperate for help – no empathy, no flexibility, no alternative solutions. Nothing, except to argue about the official languages of Singapore.
The only good that came out of the outburst was that it attracted attention, including my lost brother-in-law’s, which solved our problem of the missing person.
However, the issue of customer service at the Changi Airport, or the lack of, was far from being resolved.
Firstly, Chinese, along with Malay and Tamil, is as official as English is in Singapore. Is it really low-class or embarrassing when announcements are made in languages other than English? (On the side note, the information counter staff were Chinese and had been conversing with me in Mandarin, hence the ability to make announcements in the language was not an issue.)
Secondly, even if the rule is set in stone by some higher authorities or management, shouldn’t some degree of flexibility be exercised in cases of emergency? In my case, it is a case of missing person. What if the situation is a matter of life and death or something more urgent? Shouldn’t the staff be empowered to act swiftly in the best interest of the issue? The inflexibility displayed by the counter staff is more than appalling.
Lastly, communication is of utmost importance for any effective business to run. An airport is an international transportation hub with confluence of people from all over the world. Although English is the lingua franca, one cannot assume that every passenger who descends at our airport understands English. Given the fact that the Chinese makes up the bulk of tourists arrivals at the Changi Airport in recent years, the rigid decision to adopt English as the only language for announcements is indeed baffling.
Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” Changi Airport needs to understand that to be one of the best airports in the world, the skilfulness of managing human relations is many times more important than the hardware.
Even in Singapore, the number of people who do not understand English can be substantial. For my brother-in-law and many of the elderly above 65 who may not have been educated, or educated in the English medium, comprehending announcements in English pose great difficulty. We have had rigorous national discourse about respecting our old, recognizing our pioneer generation, yet when it comes to something as simple as communicating to them at the airport, we fail miserably.
Although the incident left a bad aftertaste, I write here not to demand an apology or see that the staff involved in this saga be admonished. More importantly, I wish to highlight and seek redress the way policies are crafted in Changi Airport with regards to making announcements, which I believe could have practised more compassion and flexibility.
By Kow Song Tong