Speaking The Same Language

Migrant workers learn English through fun and interactive sessions run by Singaporean volunteers from Goducate.

The Happy Happy English programme has helped to strengthen the hand of friendship
between Singaporeans and migrant workers.




ehind the success of our cosmopolitan city is a group of men who toiled hard to build our nation’s infrastructure and laid the foundation for the industrial harmony that Singapore enjoys today.

These unsung heroes are the migrant workers who work far away from home, often for long periods of time, separated from family, friends and loved ones, and sometimes isolated from the local communities. To show appreciation for the contributions of these migrant workers, a nonprofit organisation in Singapore decided it had to do something to reach out to them.

Thus the Happy Happy English (HHE) programme was born, set up in the dormitories of migrant workers in Singapore to help them learn and improve their spoken English.

The programme is run by non-profit organisation Goducate – whose name is derived from two words, “go” and “educate” – which aims to improve lives through education. Its founder, Dr Paul Choo, 67, says that HHE’s objective goes beyond teaching functional English to migrant workers. Instead, it aims to improve their quality of life and give them the confidence to communicate with others. Volunteers befriend the workers and make them feel welcomed in Singapore, fostering greater understanding between workers and Singaporeans.

Says Dr Choo: “We needed to show that we Singaporeans appreciated their contribution by showing a little care for them and bringing some happiness into their lives.”

The programme was launched at a dormitory in Tuas in January last year. It now holds two-hour classes over 12 Saturday nights at dormitories managed by Westlite Dormitory in Tuas, Toh Guan and Mandai.

Lessons start with fun-filled, interactive “edu-tainment” sessions using videos and stage shows to demonstrate that learning English can be fun. These are followed by more conventional classes where workers practise speaking English with volunteers.


Dr Choo’s collaborative efforts have resulted in better cross-cultural understanding and friendships forged between Singaporeans and the workers. Shipyard safety supervisor, Sivasamy Sakthivel, 31, from India, has thoroughly enjoyed his HHE experience and found it useful when communicating with people from other countries.

During an HHE show, he even went up on stage, twice, to rally his friends in the audience who had not signed up for the class to join the programme.

He says: “I especially enjoyed it when we went for outings, played games and ate meals together. I feel more welcomed in Singapore and I’m proud to be part of HHE. These are all truly unforgettable moments of my life.”

So far, about 150 foreign workers have taken part in the programme. HHE has about 140 volunteers, comprising working professionals, retirees and university students, on its database. In making them feel welcomed in Singapore, HHE volunteers interact and chat with the workers.

Dr Paul Choo, Goducateʼs founder, runs various projects in other Asian countries including China, Indonesia and India.

Some have become fast friends. Singaporean volunteers Abigail Lee and Luke Yan, for instance, have been meeting up regularly with a group of 10 migrant workers over meals.

The two meet with their “friends from other lands” every Friday night, and talk about family, working life and their home countries. They also stay in touch via SMS and Facebook. Yan, 23, a programme executive and part-time student, recalls: “The most memorable moment was when we asked one of our Bangladeshi friends out for a Christmas meal and gave him a gift. He was in tears and in disbelief as it was the first gift he had ever received. His reaction showed us how much we take things for granted in life.”

On what they learned through the friendships, Lee, 21, an allied educator and part-time student, says: “We’ve realised how fortunate we are to have been given so many opportunities to succeed in Singapore, and subsequently, how we should use what we have to help those in need.”


Dr Choo hopes to bring happiness to more workers. He says that Goducate is looking at extending its network using a franchise model, sharing HHE’s programme and training methods with interested parties who can expand them to other dormitories.

He adds: “We hope to use our HHE experience and connections to start other programmes that give Singaporeans and foreign workers opportunities to mingle and to realise that everyone is the same in spite of differences in skin colour, language and background.”

For instance, his team worked with popular food blogger Dr Leslie Tay who runs the website ieatishootipost.sg and the Singapore Kindness Movement on a programme called Happy Go Round to bring cheer to the workers. They held a barbecue party complete with food from sponsors, games, and goodie bags.

As Yang Ming, a migrant worker from China and an HHE participant, says with a wide smile: “HHE allowed me to feel the warmth of a big family while learning English and living in a foreign land. This gave me new-found confidence. When I return to my hometown, I hope to keep in touch with my new friends.”




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