Language Tests for Citizenship

On 27 February, the head of the Workers’ Party Pritam Singh called for an English test as part of naturalised citizenship and permanent residency applications in Singapore. Citing the finding that 48.3% of Singaporeans spoke English most frequently at home (compared to 32.3% 10 years ago), Singh claimed that the test would help to ensure better integration for new Singaporeans.

In response, Second Minister for Home Affairs Josephine Teo said that such tests could take up resources and be uneven in quality, and she expressed concern that spouses of new citizens who came from the same countries could be affected. She said that other ‘markers of social integration’ such as family ties to Singaporeans, length of residency, educational history in Singapore, and completion of National Service were considered instead.

English is one of the four official languages of Singapore, along with Singaporean Mandarin, Malay and Tamil. It is also the most commonly used language in Singapore.

We conducted a poll with 137 Singapore residents to investigate how the issue was perceived and measure the effects of the parliamentary debate on public views.

Widespread Support for English Proficiency Tests

When we asked respondents whether they agreed that applicants for citizenship and permanent residency should have to pass an English proficiency test, we found that an overwhelming majority either agreed or strongly agreed, both for citizenship (69%) and permanent residency (70%).

The similar results for citizenship and permanent residency may indicate that respondents view both forms of residency in a similar light, and therefore expect similar requirements for each. In addition, the high levels of agreement may point to a sense that the ability to speak English is viewed as core part of the Singaporean identity.

While a large proportion also felt that foreign spouses seeking citizenship (59%) should have to pass an English proficiency test, the sentiment was less widely shared in this case.

These questions were posed to respondents prior to other questions or information being provided about the parliamentary debate and citizenship practices around the world, so as to minimise bias as a result of that information.

The Debate Shifts Opinions

We then asked respondents if they were aware of the parliamentary debate on English proficiency tests, and found that over half (53%) of respondents had knowledge of the debate.

To measure the impact of the parliamentary debate on public opinion, we asked those who were aware of the debate (n=73) if they were now less or more favourable towards English proficiency tests after the parliamentary debate.

In doing so, we found that an overwhelming majority of respondents either had an unchanged opinion or were more favourable towards English proficiency tests following the debate, suggesting that the arguments for their introduction were more convincing. About 47% of respondents were more favourable towards English proficiency tests for citizenship and permanent residency applications after the debate.

A Mismatch between Local Opinions and International Practices

As part of this survey, we conducted some research into the language proficiency requirements for immigration in countries around the world. While the sample of eight countries is limited, we did find some broad trends emerging.

Many countries did require language tests as part of the naturalisation process, and few countries made distinctions between ordinary applicants for citizenship and foreign spouses seeking citizenship. Malaysia is a notable exception, as it constitutionally allows for women married to Malaysian men to apply for citizenship.

In contrast, language proficiency tests were not a firm requirement for permanent residency applicants, though the United Kingdom is an exception in this regard, requiring a speaking and listening assessment for settlement.

There were also developed countries, such as Ireland and Israel, which did not require language proficiency tests for citizenship or permanent residency. In some cases, this may reflect a conception of nationality in terms other than language. Israel, for example, gives eligibility for citizenship based on a person’s Jewish heritage.

The survey findings therefore indicate some divide between the perception of the survey respondents and both local practices and common international practices. There is strong support for a change in immigration policy in Singapore, and there is little distinction between citizenship and permanent residency applicants though these procedures are generally treated in a distinct manner.

We assessed the level of agreement/disagreement among our survey respondents while considering the examples of other countries, but found no significant changes (<5%p.p.) in the result for all categories as compared to the opening questions. This may suggest that respondents view the issue of Singapore citizenship and residency distinctly, without much comparison to external factors.

In conclusion, we found that the survey results exposed a significant mismatch between the perceptions of Singapore residents and both local laws and international customs. While the scope of the survey was not broad enough to elucidate the factors behind the overwhelming support for English proficiency tests, it appears to be an issue that should be explored further.

The survey takes place against a backdrop of economic uncertainty and competition for jobs. Issues relating to immigration and its impact on the local economy has at times emerged as a theme in Singapore’s political space, becoming an electoral concern among the populace that prompted new policy directions. Immigration remains a reality for Singapore due to the need for skilled labour and our demographic reality.

Singapore is also uniquely placed in its relation to its relationship with language, compared with many other countries. With many of our citizens descended from immigrants, the designation of English as an official language and the de-facto language of business has become deeply ingrained in our national identity. Even so, second languages play a significant role in the cultural identity of our various ethnic groups, and offer both immigrants and visitors from abroad to acclimatise quickly.

It may be too early to say if this issue will define the political space in Singapore in the future. However, with the issue being raised in Parliament and the gulf between residents’ opinions and official policy appearing to be wide, this trend may be worth monitoring as society develops further.

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