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Can or cannot?

2 Aug 11 - 12:00AM  | General

I am gradually learning that Singapore is a country of extremes. As I write, I am in awe of an almighty rainshower drenching the city and reminding me of home. Yet just 2 hours ago, bright sunshine prevailed and gave no warning of what was to come. The rain is necessary and gives much needed respite from the heat, but I’m told can cause flash flooding and I’ve already experienced “squelchy sandal syndrome” (puddles are camoflaged on the paths here so eagle eyes are required).

These extremities go beyond just the weather. You often hear this in the Singlish favoured by the locals – “Can!” and, “Cannot,” are both used extensively to answer questions of any variation.e.g:

“Can you take me to Market Street, please, Uncle?”

“Can,” is the reply (or “Where?!”).

“Can I have just rice and vegetables please, Auntie?”

“Cannot. All meat,” has been the most common response!

It makes sense that Singaporeans and the locals have merged their English vocab words from the different languages of people who live here (Chinese, Malay, Indian) but it creates a gap of understanding between the foreigners and the locals. The references to Uncle and Auntie above are not due to a personal connection to these people who serve as taxi drivers, hawker stall vendors and the like. In fact, it is an easy way show respect for your elders (a custom I am happy to adopt) to show my appreciation for the welcome I’ve been given and the service I’m receiving. It’s those small things that people seem to notice and respond to, and of course, a smile when you haven’t got the foggiest idea what they’re talking about, always helps grease the wheels of communication.

I embarked upon a course in Singaporean Employment Law when I first arrived here, where I was told by our lecturer, Alan as he addressed the class, that as a “lady sitting in the front row with an exercise book,” I was a potential pass at first sitting of the exam, before we’d even begun.  The gentlemen at the back with PHD’s and Masters, were told they had no chance because they think they don’t need to study, and can logically deduce from the questions what the answers would be. The exam isn’t based on your understanding of the law or the application of it to everyday scenarios. In fact, trying to apply reasoning was positively discouraged. I found this highly entertaining at first but as we turned to subjects like maternity leave entitlement, wages and restdays, I wanted to know how those policies had been decided upon, and more about their practical application, much to the chagrin of Alan:

“No need for distinction – you cannot get in this exam. Just 65% right to fail. Therefore if you learn 80% of the course material, you potential pass at first sitting. 100% pass. 65% pass. Less than 65% fail. No distinctions available here – sorry, ladies”

The exam itself was just as our lecturer had predicted – a “black and white” system; mulitple choice with 80 questions, all with just 1 right answer. It was pretty tricky – they like to test your knowledge of strange things, e.g:

- How many days does an Employment Agency have to appeal against a suspension ruling?

a) 7 days

b) 7 working days

c) 14 days

d) 14 working days

The answer is c) is you’re interested, but you would only ever need to know that if you had your license revoked for breaking the terms. I would have thought they would be more concerned that you knew what the license terms were, so you avoided breaking them, rather than how long you had to appeal a decision.

We received the results an hour later once all our papers were processed, blobs read and totals calculated. I sat my exam with 4 of my fellow classmates – 2 Indian men and 2 Singaporean women. Much to my surprise, 1 of the Indian men who had joined us for lunch on the last day of the course, failed, just as Alan had predicted.

Having been invited to lunch with my fellow classmates, they made me feel accepted and included, making my first weeks here, eye-opening and full of lessons on social behaviour. Here, shades of grey thankfully exist, and I ate with Indian men, Chinese Singaporean men and Chinese Singaporean women, all of us together, for those 5 days.  That Indians refuse to eat any food that isn’t Indian is a common statement I’ve heard, yet both Indian men I ate with ordered vegeburgers when we went to a local cafe and Cantonese food elsewhere. This demonstrates that in spite of those who live here constantly pigeonholing their fellow citizens, manyof the stereotypes aren’t always the case, so although it may be tempting as a foreigner to buy into them, and even repeat them yourself in order to fit in; forming your opinions based on what you experience, and actively seeking to find the truth behind the perception, I think is a much safer bet.

Conquering Singlish, will be a more testing occupation, but I’m determined I can, la!

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