From the time she entered the working world, Shru, 23, learnt that as an ethnic minority at the office, she needs to jump over extra hurdles.
It was a three-month internship then, and her first opportunity to work at a big public firm while she was in her second year of university. Her fellow interns at the workplace hailed from the other local universities: the National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University, and Singapore Management University.
She was taken aback and found it “rather ridiculous” that her fellow interns — whom she assumed to be “socially aware to a certain degree” — were speaking Mandarin so often and widely that she felt excluded.
“We would go for lunch together, and they would be speaking Mandarin all the time,” she says. “The only time they use English was when they were directly speaking to me. Because of that, I couldn’t jump in or contribute to a conversation unless I was being directly spoken to,” says Ms Shru, who declined to give her full name for fear of retaliation.
“This was one of the biggest reasons why I didn’t really make proper friends during my internship,” she adds.
While work lunches would arguably be a grey area between professional and personal work settings, this pattern of conversing purely in Mandarin had penetrated into the office space as well.
“When it came to our assignments, they would try to speak in English, but when they got really excited about the ideas, they would revert back to Mandarin. So often, we’d be sitting in a meeting room discussing our project, and there would be Chinese phrases flying around,” Ms Shru recalls.
“Many times after a Chinese phrase has been used, everyone else would just nod in agreement and then move on without any efforts to translate it for me,” she adds. “In a work setting, I feel like I deserve to know what is being discussed.”
Ms Shru believes it is not intentional. When she does speak up, her fellow interns would genuinely be caught off guard and apologise. While this oblivion is not ill-intentioned or outright racist, she can confidently say that none of her colleagues has ever been put in her position before.
“It seems second nature for them not to think twice about speaking in Mandarin,” she says.
Mind your language
“In a country where we have four [official] languages, we speak English in almost all places because it’s everyone’s first language here,” says Mr Sharvesh Leatchmanan, founder of Instagram account @minorityvoices.
Yet, it would not be uncommon for the occasional colleague or superior to suggest assimilation — for minorities to accommodate the dominant culture by picking up Mandarin — but that creates its own set of problems.
“All of us in some part of our lives have been made to assimilate forcibly and because of the lack of privilege, we do so,” shares one minority voice on Mr Sharvesh’s platform. He went through a similar experience during his time in the National Service.
“I regrettably developed a growing distrust in the majority and do not know to what extent I can trust them. I always stick to friends who are Malay or Indian or at most, those who are racially ambiguous Chinese,” he adds.
Mr Sharvesh points out that Singapore is not a “Chinese country” — rather, a first-world democratic nation. “Why is our first reaction, ‘they should learn Mandarin’, and not ‘how can I be more accommodating? It’s really quite discriminatory and insensitive,” he says.
Furthermore, Ms Shru highlights that Singapore’s business language is English for a reason.
“As someone who speaks English — the business language of this country — I should not be disadvantaged for not being able to speak a second language that I was never told would help me survive in this country,” she says.
“Your understanding and speaking English shouldn’t be harder than me understanding Chinese. At this point, it’s a numbers game. Just because there are more Chinese people that suddenly it becomes a Chinese-speaking country?” she asks.
Not a ‘soft skill’ or networking tool
For every Chinese-speaking employee integrating into workplaces with such a culture, a choice has to be made — to either capitalise on their privilege, or level the playing field.
“When I was being introduced to my workplace, one of my colleagues recommended that I speak Mandarin as regularly as possible, because that is the primary way of speaking there,” says a 25-year-old, who goes by the alias Anthony.
At present, almost all of Mr Anthony’s colleagues have spoken to him in Mandarin on their first encounter, with questions like, “Do you speak Mandarin?”, “How well do you speak Mandarin?”, and “Is it okay if I speak to you in Chinese?”
“It was implied that if I didn’t conform to this, I would struggle in terms of making friends or getting stuff done,” says Mr Anthony, who works in a government-linked institution. “It’s kind of worrying, especially because the work that we do is geared toward all Singaporeans. By making it only Chinese-speaking, we would discourage non-Chinese people from joining.”
Mr Anthony, whose work involves behavioural research, believes that these habits are where racist recruitment policies might stem from.
The numbers do not lie. In July 2019, the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) OnePeople.sg survey showed that about 3 in 5 people of minority races indicated that they felt discriminated against when applying for jobs.
When it came to job promotions, almost 14 percent of Chinese perceived discrimination, which was significantly lower than the Malays (51 percent) and Indians (45 percent), the Straits Times reported.
Separately, 34 percent of Chinese Singaporeans felt that a job applicant’s race was sometimes important when hiring them. Only 21 percent of Malays and 16 percent of Indians felt the same way.
The line when this truly applies is blur. “China is a rising economy, and there are a lot of China-based companies in Singapore with largely Chinese clientele,” says Ms Shru. “But I do feel that while certain firms are justified in hiring Chinese-speaking employees, other firms try to pass off under the same category just to stay in their comfort zones of speaking Mandarin with their colleagues.”
“I’ve applied to firms in which I’ve read the job description and done my due research on the company,” she adds. “There is absolutely no need for me to speak Mandarin, yet I still get a call from HR saying that they’re looking for Chinese-speaking employees only.”
Experiences like these have unfortunately become such an anecdotal experience among minority races at this point that banning racial preferences from official job descriptions have evolved into the government’s tenuous attempt at meritocracy.
How to be a good ally
As a minority, Ms Shru would not consider Singapore to be a meritocratic society. She feels the pressure to cultivate her other skill sets such that “it never comes down to language”. “If I had a Chinese person in my department who has the same experience and skill sets as me, being Chinese-speaking might just be the extra bonus that pushes her over the finish line.”
Not every Chinese person is comfortable with capitalising on his or her privilege. “It definitely ran through my mind that I might lose out on workplaces opportunities and relationships because I choose not to speak Mandarin. But at the same time, I wouldn’t want to progress in my career this way, just because I can,” says Mr Anthony.
“If you think about it, it’s added work for minorities as well, whether it be picking up Mandarin, or finding other ways to connect with their colleagues,” he adds. It is for these reasons that he still opts out of speaking Mandarin, even when everyone there is Chinese.
Mr Sharvesh also highlights that it is not always easy for minorities to speak up for themselves during such situations. It would not be uncommon to receive responses like, “but I’m not directly talking to you,” when in a group setting, he says.
Additionally, he points out that it depends on the nature of one’s work, and position in one’s company. “My mum would simply walk away from these lunches or meetings, but she has the agency to because she’s in a higher-up position,” he explains. “My sister, on the other hand, was doing client-facing service work, and she didn’t feel like she had the power to just walk away.”
As a blanket rule, Mr Sharvesh wouldn’t take it upon himself to remind someone past the first interaction to speak in English. “I don’t think it’s on me to do it,” he says, emphasising that the onus should not fall on minorities to constantly ask that basic courtesy be extended.
Channels should also be in place for minorities to voice their concerns in the workplace, Mr Anthony adds.
“I think the easy excuse people might give is that this is an issue some Chinese people are just imagining or exaggerating, and that minorities themselves are not actually complaining about it. So there needs to be an awareness of hierarchy in the workplace — getting buy-in from leadership is very important for minorities to feel comfortable enough to voice these concerns,” he says.
Communication: A two-way street
Having said all this, it is important to acknowledge the reasons why the inertia still exists.
“I completely understand that speaking in one’s mother tongue or dialect gives rise to a certain sense of camaraderie. Some things are just easier expressed in our native languages,” says Mr Sharvesh.
Agreeing, Mr Anthony says, “Bilingualism is one of the main values that Singapore puts forward, and being able to speak in one’s mother tongue is supposed to help you know your culture better.”
In an era where globalisation threatens the loss of heritage, culture, and native languages, it can sometimes be hard to discern when and how much one should be speaking in one’s mother tongue, he says. “But I think at the workplace, it’s pretty clear, because by reinforcing your own personal culture, you’re forming an in-group purely based on that.”
For Ms Shru, this extends to companies run by minority leaders as well. She has sparked conversations with her own father, who runs a small company and has the tendency to hire Indian nationals in particular.
“India’s business language is actually English as well, so I’ve pointed out to him that there’s absolutely nothing stopping him from hiring regardless of race,” she says.
But since it is a relatively small firm, her father’s reason is that he wants to “retain the culture of the company”. Everyone speaks comfortably and jokes around in Tamil. Everyone continues working over Chinese New Year, but takes breaks together during Deepavali.
In the face of these perks, she maintains that it is a crutch. “There is so much talk about Singapore not having a ‘Singaporean culture’,” she says. “I feel like if we make it a point to have more diverse workspaces, we might start to have some.”
Emphasising the other commonalities we have with other people besides the language we speak might be painful at first, but not as hard as many of us might think.
“Regardless of where we are, somehow, we’ll find a way to bond with other people. It might be hard at first if we’re so used to bonding through a common native tongue, but we’ll eventually find something else. If you both grew up in Singapore, then your shared childhood experiences could be a bonding mechanism,” she says.
“Sometimes it feels like Singaporeans have forgotten that they’re Singaporean, and racial identity comes before our national identity. That is quite sad to me,” she adds.