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Complaints about language discrimination in job applications on downtrend: TAFEP

A recent survey by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) and had found that the proportion of Malay and Indian respondents who said they felt discriminated against when applying for jobs has increased since 2013.

Complaints about language discrimination in job applications on downtrend: TAFEP

File photo of two people shaking hands after an interview. (Photo: Unsplash/rawpixel)

SINGAPORE: When Jasmine (not her real name), went for an interview for a junior marketing role at a major tourist attraction in Singapore, she expected to answer questions about her work experience and qualifications. 

Instead, Jasmine, who speaks English and Hindi, was asked to translate an English paragraph into Mandarin. 

When she told her interviewers that she only spoke English and Hindi, but not Mandarin, they said she could just call her friends during the interview to get help. 

“I ended up copying hanyu pinyin from a friend’s text, who helped me translate it. Needless to say, I didn’t get the role,” Jasmine told CNA. 

“What I never understood was how they could invite me to this 'prestigious' interview with no mention of needing to be proficient in Mandarin,” she said, adding that it was also not indicated in the job listing or hiring processes leading up to the interview. 

While language discrimination complaints continue to exist at the workplace, the number has decreased over the years, according to the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP).

In a statement to CNA, TAFEP said complaints about alleged workplace discrimination related to language have been on a downward trend in the last five years. These complaints involved discriminatory job advertisements, interview processes, and HR practices, TAFEP said. 

It received a total of 113 complaints on the matter between 2014 and 2018, with 31 cases in 2014 and 15 in 2018, said TAFEP. 

Addressing concerns about job advertisements or interviews that may state preferred languages, TAFEP said: “The Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices require employers to hire on the basis of merit and not use language as a limiting criterion during selection or recruitment. 

“If the job requires the employee to use a specific language, the employer should justify how this criterion would apply, and affect the ability of the employee to perform the job.” 

TAFEP's statement comes after a recent a survey by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) and that revealed that the proportion of Malay and Indian respondents who said they felt discriminated against when applying for jobs has increased since 2013. 

In the survey, a large proportion of minorities - 73 per cent of Malays, 68 per cent of Indians and about half of Others, which includes Eurasians - felt that they had experienced discrimination when it came to applying for a job.

In contrast, 38 per cent of Chinese respondents felt that way, according to the research findings.

The paper also found that 80.2 per cent of Chinese respondents indicated that language was sometimes important, important most of the time or always important when hiring someone to work for them. The figures for Malay and Indian respondents were significantly lower at 71.5 per cent and 73.2 per cent respectively. 

IPS researcher Dr Mathew Mathews, a senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy told CNA that in a job environment where the majority of workers are more comfortable using a certain language, there might be an interest to hire those who speak the language. 

“There is a sense that when people speak the same language, everyone understands each other better and there will be less misunderstanding. However this can lead to a preference to only recruiting people who are similar, and excluding others who can legitimately contribute,” he added. 

Read: Survey finds rise in perception of work-related discrimination among Malays, Indians in Singapore

READ: Perils of gender and geography hamper global development, report finds


Nicole (not her real name), another recent graduate who speaks English and Tamil told CNA that while interning at one of the big four law firms, a senior lawyer said to her: “If you want to make it in the litigation practice in Singapore, learn Mandarin.” 

Nicole highlighted that the senior lawyer who advised her had good intentions, but it also made her realise she might have to learn Mandarin to do well in her field. 

“It’s not really a requirement for the job, but you realise that maybe I can’t do my job well because I’m limited by not knowing their language,” she added. 

“It’s not that I can never help Chinese clients, but 75 per cent of the Singapore population is Chinese. There are going to be times when people slip into Mandarin, so you just have to be prepared to risk that you might not be able to help the majority of your clients coming through.” 

Nicole noted that this does not mean that those who speak Mandarin at work are racially biased or racist. “Frustrations come in the mother tongue. It happens to all of us, especially the older generation.” 

READ: TAFEP notes Nas Daily’s explanation for recruitment post, which may have given 'wrong impression'

READ: About 350 firms are on watchlist for unfair hiring policies: Manpower Minister


Sociologist Tan Ern Ser said he believes the findings of the IPS survey are statistically significant.

“Statistically speaking, there are reasons to suspect that Chinese are indeed more likely to give more weight to language and race, compared to non-Chinese.”

Associate Prof Tan noted that this may be related to how companies in Singapore today still specify Mandarin as a "good-to-have" or "recommended" skill for jobs even when it is not necessary. 

“The discrimination could be related to the extent to which they believe they can trust or communicate with non-Chinese staff, and the extent to which their majority Chinese customers would prefer to be served by a Chinese staff,” he said. 

“Such practices are harmful as they violate our core values of meritocracy and multiracialism, which means that minorities could be deprived of a job, despite having the right credentials.”


Ms Eugenia Ng, associate director of Michael Page Singapore said the recruitment agency has seen instances of clients requesting for Mandarin as a recommended or required skill due to company culture or preference.

“This is often seen in the growing SMEs (small and medium enterprises) looking to expand their regional presence,” she added. 

However, she noted that in a more global economy, more organisations are also evolving to encourage leaders and employees to adopt the universal business language - English. 

“In fact, while there was a strong push for Mandarin speakers five years back, many organisations are now more focused on candidates with the necessary technical skills and diverse cultural awareness,” added Ms Ng. 

Unless the role requires for an employee to be proficient in Mandarin, job advertisements should only focus on technical skills and qualifications, said Ms Lim Chai Leng, director of banking and financial services at recruitment agency Randstad Singapore. 

“This need only arises when the candidate is required to collaborate with clients or customers, suppliers and co-workers based in markets such as China or Taiwan, where Mandarin is used as the predominant language,” she added. 

However, Randstad Singapore has also observed that candidates who are bilingual or multilingual tend to have a “slight advantage” as there could be more career progression available within the organisation said Ms Lim. This includes portfolio expansion to different countries in the region. 

People walking along Singapore's Central Business District area. (File photo: Ngau Kai Yan) People crossing a street in Singapore's Central Business District. (File photo: Ngau Kai Yan)

Experts also noted that Singapore often serves as the regional headquarters of many multinational companies with fewer operations based locally. 

“Many of these organisations have a large percentage of the management team or decision-making stakeholders based in mainland China,” said Ms Ng. 

“Therefore, they seek candidates with Mandarin-speaking abilities to communicate effectively with their North Asian counterparts. China still accounts for a large revenue size within APAC (Asia Pacific) for many multinationals,” she added. 

Outlining some examples of workplace discrimination, Dr Tan said: “If the ability to speak Mandarin is not essential, and non-Chinese applicants with the right credentials are rejected, then it is definitely discrimination.

“If it is essential, and Mandarin-speaking non-Chinese applicants, with the right credentials, are rejected because of their race, then here again is discrimination.”

Employees who encounter discrimination in the workplace are encouraged to approach TAFEP for advice and assistance. 

“For TAFEP to better assist these employees, they should identify themselves, provide their contact details and specific details of the discriminatory practices that they have encountered,” said the statement.  

“This information is necessary for TAFEP to assess the case, and ensure accountability, fairness and transparency in handling the complaint, towards all parties. Where requested, TAFEP will protect the confidentiality of all who come forward.”

As for Nicole, she is looking to learn Mandarin to be better prepared for her career. 

“For a person like me who’s in her mid-20s and wants to learn Mandarin, it’s expensive. I’ve been looking for Mandarin lessons, and it comes to a ballpark figure of S$300 to S$500 per month. I’m one of the newer graduates, so that’s a lot of money to put in immediately. 

“Law graduates like me also work long hours, so it counts as extra time (non-Mandarin speakers) have to put in that maybe the majority race doesn’t have to think about, because we have to better ourselves.”

Source: CNA/hw