SINGAPORE: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s wife, Ho Ching, has condemned the behaviour of a woman who criticised a supermarket worker for not being able to speak in English in a lengthy social media post. Mdm Ho said that she herself is linguistically challenged, as she defended the NTUC Fairprice worker.

Suggesting that the customer’s words and actions were a form of bullying, the Temasek Trust chairperson said: “Being Singaporean is more than just a birthright or a passport. Being Singaporean is to know that we must make a living through making friends all over the world. Being Singaporean means to carry ourselves with discipline, respect and humility. Brash bravado, and boastful bullying, have no place in the Singapore soul.”

While many welcomed her views, others expressed frustration, asking, “Why should I struggle to converse in my own country?”

The PM’s wife was reacting to a viral video, which captured TikTok influencer Datin Amy Tashiana confronting an employee at the FairPrice outlet at City Square Mall for butchering her fish order due to an alleged inability to understand English.

Amy said that the incident took place last Tuesday (21 Mar) when she wanted to buy some fresh seafood and encountered a Chinese employee who was unable to comprehend what she was ordering. The employee, whom Amy claims is a Chinese national, only spoke Mandarin.

Amy had instructed the employee to descale and clean the fish and also remove the fins. However, due to the language barrier, the staff cut the fish in a manner that displeased Amy.

In the almost nine-minute video entitled “Foreign worker (China) NTUC City Square,” Amy was arguing with the fish cutter in Mandarin about how she could not know English. The supermarket worker said she was learning English, but Amy was insistent about reporting her to the management.

Amy then approached a team leader and asked how customers can be expected to deal with staff that do not know how to communicate in English at all. The team leader said the staff could understand “simple” terms in English and suggested the issue might be due to miscommunication.

Amy remained upset with how the fish she ordered was cut, but the team leader resolved the issue by offering a new set of fish cut according to her preferences at no extra charge.

As the team leader accompanied her to the seafood booth, Amy could be heard referring to Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh’s suggestion in Parliament that English tests could be made mandatory for new citizens.

She said, “Pritam Singh, you are right, man. You are absolutely right. They need to go and learn English first before they come to work here, OK. Already the payment, the pay S-Pass S$4,500 and they cannot talk English.”

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At one point, Amy told the team leader: “You want to employ me, or not? I can cut the fish better than her…Ah, nevermind, I talk to the government tomorrow. Employ me, put me there, the same salary and take her out, I cut the fish like a flower.”

Amy told The Independent Singapore: “With all prices increased everywhere and got such service, especially in NTUC, so I had decided to publish the video.”

The video quickly went viral online, with Fairprice later promising to conduct an investigation into the issue and send the employee for training.

While the labour movement-linked supermarket chain acknowledged that Amy could have had a better shopping experience, it also urged customers to treat their employees with respect and courtesy.”

The video, which has since been removed from TikTok and YouTube, has divided public opinion.

Some have asserted that Amy was right to say that customer-facing staff should have a basic understanding of English as Singapore is a proudly multi-racial society, and minorities could feel discriminated against if they cannot be understood in a common language.

Others have said that how Amy handled the issue could have been better.

The PM’s wife firmly falls into the latter group. Amy’s handling of the situation has not sat well with Mdm Ho, who made her displeasure known loud and clear on her Facebook page this week.

Mdm Ho initially shared an article covering the video on Sunday morning (27 Mar), with just two words: “Disgraceful behaviour.” She was most likely referring to Amy.

It soon became clear that the incident riled the PM’s wife more than she initially let on. She edited her post almost 24 hours later with a lengthier statement on why Amy was wrong to respond to the supermarket worker in the way she did.

Removing the words “disgraceful behaviour,” Mdm Ho asserted that those who do not speak the language we share should not be shamed. She said: “The strength of a Singaporean is our open-mindedness to accept all creeds, colours and cultures as equals.

“We don’t throw away our history just bcos we didn’t like parts of it. We don’t destroy statues in a fit of political correctedness. We accept we are not a perfect people, and we recognise that we have much to learn from others from all over the world.

“Walk around Marina Bay to enjoy the breeze and hear the laughter and chatter of friends and families in all languages. And imagine that would be how Singapore sounded in the old days, with all manners of Chinese, Indian Persian, Arabic, as well as regional traders from around us, and Europeans from afar, all doing business, making a living, and some making a home here over time.”

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Some welcomed the establishment figure’s views, while others disagreed. In a comment liked by 85 others, Facebook user Faisal Abdul Aziz asked:

“Madam this is a real problem for many of us who don’t speak mandarin and are forced to struggle conversing with frontline staff who can’t speak English or our National language at the very least. Why should native Singaporeans feel like outsiders?”

In a lengthy response, Mdm Ho said that she understood the Singaporean’s frustrations but believed such communication issues might stem from a lack of linguistic talent. She added that issues could be bridged if people are kind enough to embrace diversity instead of descending into xenophobia. She said:

“Most of us are not linguistically talented. I am one of the linguistically challenged people myself.

“There remains many old Singaporeans who don’t speak Mandarin, Malay, Tamil or English – they speak their own mother tongue, whether Chinese dialect or other Indian languages. There are also older folks who speak only Malay, Tamil, or their own mother dialect. And all of us are minorities in many ways.

“The Hakka grandmother, or the Punjabi grandfather who are monolingual are minorities, sometimes unable to converse with their grandchildren or great grandchildren who lost their mother tongue.

“I have seen women talk to reach other in their respective dialect – one talking in Cantonese and the other in Hokkien. And they couldn’t speak the other’s language but with help of hand gestures and similar sounding words here and there, they got by.

“The main thing is whether we can be kind and give room to others who are just trying to earn a living, no different from us.

“We are luckier than many others around the world. We have many threads of languages, cuisines, cultures, and customs among us, not just today, but long before independence.

“I walk along Orchard Road and hear all sorts of languages as families and couples walk by, and feel like I am walking through the streets of old old Singapore. That diversity and acceptance of diversity is one of our core strengths, bcos Singapore can find a good living by being connected with abd being part of a bigger wider world.

“Learning a new language has been shown to reduce the risk of dementia and other neurological degeneration. Likewise, if we learn to play a musical instrument. So why not pick up a new language or musical instrument to make friends? People like to do business with friends, and people they like.

“We mustn’t lose our own self confidence, and descend into xenophobia like we see in many other places in the world.”

In another comment directed at Faisal, the former longtime chief of Singapore sovereign wealth fund Temasek said that Singaporeans could deal with language barriers like how they handle conversing with employees at eateries that employ staff with special needs. She said:

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“Understand your occasional frustrations. On the other hand, we have special needs cafes – where the frontline staff may be deaf, or mute, or physically disabled in other ways through troubles like muscular atrophy, or who may have invisible challenges, including autism.

“So we try to either point to the pictures for our orders, or learn sign language to order black coffee or milk tea. In places like Japan, they go further, and have cafes where the frontline staff are seniors who could have dementia, and so customers are prepped to expect mistakes and forgotten orders.

“It’s a way for us to try to make the world a friendlier and more welcoming place esp for those who are disadvantaged in different ways, and try to give others a chance. It helps if we can also take setbacks with patience and give ourselves a little lift in life with some humour.”

Faisal remained unconvinced. He said, a few minutes later: “if you are a frontline staff and you can’t converse in the working language surely it means you are not qualified for the job. I can tell you it’s very difficult for us who don’t speak mandarin to be faced with this on and almost daily basis over and over again very frustrating.”

He asked, “Why should I struggle to converse in my own country?”

Another commenter, Edmund Tan, added: “Although how the customer handle is disgraceful, it does not resolve the root cause of the problem when locals are increasingly feeling marginalised in the country.

“They need an outlet to vent their frustration and no choice they need to do such things. There are been boiling frustration underneath such behaviour. Rmb it is the angry voters that vote populist Govt into power.”

NTUC Fairprice promises to investigate after staff is criticised for not being able to understand English