SINGAPORE — A recent Channel News Asia poll found that a large majority of Singapore-born citizens agreed with the proposal of having an English test as a part of the country’s citizenship application process.
78% of respondents considered it important for new citizens to be able to communicate in English, with 53% advocating for the rejection of citizenship applications if the applicant cannot communicate in English.
During an exchange at the Committee of Supply debates for the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) on 27 February, Leader of the Opposition, Mr Pritam Singh asked if Singapore would consider having applicants for citizenship to take an English proficiency test.
The Workers’ Party Secretary General proposed this as he believes that it would serve to ensure better integration between new citizens and Singaporeans of all races and religions since English is Singapore’s main language of communication.
The respondents in the CNA poll also ranked the ability to communicate in English, economic contributions to Singapore, and family ties to Singapore as the top three criteria to assess new citizenship applications.
The survey, conducted by Mediacorp-owned market research agency MRC, was held over a week in March 2023 and polled Singapore-born citizens between the ages of 18 and 69.
The survey also revealed that 52% of respondents believed that new citizenship applicants should be able to converse but not read or write in English, while 41% believed they should be proficient in English, and only 7% believed they should be able to speak, read or write fluently.
However, Assistant Professor Shannon Ang from Nanyang Technological University was quoted by CNA as disapproving of such an English test, warning that it could favour people who have more resources.
He suggests creating environments where immigrants recognize the need and value of learning English. This could be achieved by preventing the formation of ethnic enclaves in private estates and providing opportunities for new citizens or permanent residents to volunteer in diverse settings.
Josephine Teo questions need for English test
When asked by Second Minister for Home Affairs Josephine Teo if he was advocating that a test should be applied for permanent residency or citizenship, Mr Singh responded affirmatively.
However, Minister Teo expressed misgivings on how much such a test could help, given that those who are not proficient in English are likely to be foreign spouses.
Mrs Teo said: “I must admit to being quite surprised by his position. “The reason being that, firstly, one can imagine that for most applicants for permanent residency and citizenship – if they have been in Singapore for a number of years, particularly if they had worked here, a facility with English is not surprising and I would think that the test need not be applied.”
She questioned the need for such a test, noting that those who are not well-versed in English are “likely to be spouses of citizens or other permanent residents” who come from the same countries.
“Unless we’re saying that we therefore do not welcome such foreign spouses, I’m not sure to what extent a test of English that could be applied to prevent them from being considered would be helpful,” Mrs Teo said.
Mrs Teo said that while the Singapore authorities also consider an applicant’s ability to integrate in Singapore, they do not use a naturalisation test or interviews because “all tests have pitfalls”.
Instead, they consider various markers of social integration such as family ties to Singaporeans, length of residency, whether the applicant studied in national schools or completed National Service, said Mrs Teo. Adding those applicants must also complete the Singapore Citizenship Journey before being granted citizenship.
Netizens stress the importance of passing an English test for working visas and citizenship applications
Commenting on CNA’s Facebook post, several netizens have stressed the importance of passing an English test for anyone applying for a working visa or citizenship.
They argue that the government should seek out genuine talents that can contribute to Singapore’s development and “embrace the Singaporean way of life”, as suggested by Pritam Singh.
Some suggested that the government should adopt a pragmatic approach to granting citizenship, and questioned why only the experts and the government would think otherwise while the majority polled agreed that this should be a basic requirement.
Agreeing with the poll, some netizens advocated that passing an English test is a must for those applying for any form of working visa and citizenship; while others believe that basic conversation skills are necessary, but reading and writing skills may not be mandatory.
English as ‘neutral language’ to cut across language barriers
Some netizens expressed agreement that English is a universal communication language, used everywhere for foreigners, and it is a fair and neutral language in Singapore.
A netizen shared his positive experience communicating with an Indian nurse who was willing to learn Mandarin to connect with her elderly Chinese patients.
“I learned some Tamil to speak with non-English speaking indians for work in Tamil Naidu even though a human translator was provided, lol!”
Although not his mother tongue, he finds English useful to cut across language barriers, and supports the idea that everyone should know and learn it for communication in Singapore.
Netizens point out disconnection of Minister Josephine Teo from ground sentiments on English test for citizenship
Several netizens have criticized Minister Josephine Teo for dismissing the Leader of Opposition’s suggestion for an English test to be applied for new citizenship, despite the majority of the polled individuals agreeing that it is a necessary requirement.
Netizens have pointed out that this shows a disconnection between the Minister and ground sentiments on the issue.
A netizen observes that it’s clear who has been actively engaging with people on the ground and who has been disconnected in her ivory tower.
‘At least “half bake but passable” would suffice’
While some netizens support the idea of English language proficiency as a requirement for working visas and citizenship, others have raised concerns about certain job requirements, such as hiring Chinese teachers.
A netizen responded that it should at least “half bake but passable”, but some believed that even a Chinese language teacher should have the ability to read English documents and communicate with non-Chinese colleagues.
‘not necessary to speak “Queen’s English”‘
Some netizens expressed concerns about potential discrimination against other languages in Singapore, and some have pointed out that elderly residents may have limited English proficiency despite being successful in the country.
“For goodness sake, we are not England or America where all their communications are in English. We a multi-language country, ” one comment wrote.
However, other comments noted that while English is important as a working language, it is not necessary to speak “Queen’s English” and there are also other mother tongues, including the national language.