Singaporeans 'more doers than talkers', say experts

Reluctance to speak up more likely due to cultural trait: Experts

Singaporeans may not always be keen to speak up or like to air their views openly.

But the reluctance to do so is more likely due to a cultural trait than an inability to express themselves well.

That is the view of experts who were responding to a Member of Parliament who said people here fare poorly in spoken English and lack confidence in articulating their views.

"It is probably a habit for Singaporeans to do more and talk less, but we are surely in the know," said Mr David Leong, managing director of recruitment firm PeopleWorldwide.

Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC MP Hri Kumar Nair said in a Facebook post on Thursday that while teenagers here do well in problem solving, he has met many Singaporeans who are "often let down by their standard of spoken English and a lack of confidence to persuade or articulate their views on their feet". That, he added, is an important aspect of education which the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) does not test, "and we should be mindful of".

His comments came after Tuesday's release of the Pisa results, which showed that teens here scored well in problem-solving tests.

The lawyer also said Singaporeans would be at a disadvantage and are unlikely to "make a strong impression in the business world" if they cannot express themselves effectively.

Human resource experts like Mr Leong, however, disagree.

He said that while Singaporeans generally shy away from speaking up, it does not reflect "a lack of knowledge or ignorance".

Managing consultant Simon Ranahan from recruitment firm Chandler Macleod agreed.

"Singaporeans express themselves through actions, not words. They are doers, not talkers," said Mr Ranahan.

But he added that Singaporeans do tend to be non-confrontational - not because they are unable to express themselves, but due to cultural influences.

"Saving face is a big thing here, and maybe Singaporeans avoid saying something because they feel it might lead to a confrontational discussion," said the recruiter who has been in the business for 18 years.

However, students like 18-year-old Nisha Baskar said they generally keep their views to themselves "especially if the setting or the discussion topic is an unfamiliar one".

There is also a lack of initiative to speak up in a discussion as most students need time to warm up, said Nisha, who will read chemistry at the National University of Singapore in August.

"In class, when teachers asked us for our opinions, there was always a lag time where everyone waited for someone else to speak up first," said the former student of Victoria Junior College. "I think there is a fear that people might judge you and your views."

That phobia, said a veteran English teacher who did not want to be named, is very real among some of his students.

To prepare his Secondary 4 students for the O-level oral exams, he said he would get them to speak up in class about different topics ranging from caring for the elderly to recycling.

"But when I asked the students if they enjoyed it, they said 'no'. They have the knowledge and the ideas, but not the confidence and conviction to argue their ideas convincingly," said," said the 67-year-old, who has been teaching for 49 years.

"They also seem to have problems elaborating a point or giving examples to back it up. The students also tend to repeat the same point in different ways," he added.

But other observers like Ang Mo Kio Secondary School principal Abdul Mannan told The Straits Times he has noticed that students, particularly those in the lower secondary levels, are more outspoken now than those from a decade ago.

He credited this change to initiatives such as the Strategies for English Language Learning and Reading programme that was implemented in all primary schools in 2009.

"I have received feedback from my teachers that the (Secondary 1) students who join us are increasingly vocal, speaking up to ask questions more often," he said. "There is definitely improvement in this area."

leepearl@sph.com.sg

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