Standing up against racism is the easy test, Singapore government needs to show its true colours

Swiftly, the National Trades Union Congress sacked Amy Cheong. The erstwhile Assistant Director for Memberships had posted on Facebook racist remarks (see at left) about Malay weddings held at void decks.

No less than the prime minister chipped in to condemn her behaviour. Writing on Facebook, Lee Hsien Loong, currently in New Zealand avoiding reporters, said it was “an isolated case that does not reflect the strength of race relations in Singapore.”

He added: “But it sharply reminds us how easily a few thoughtless words can cause grave offence to many, and undermine our racial and religious harmony.”

This reaction follows an established course. Race and religion have always been considered highly sensitive issues in Singapore. The Sedition Act has been used against several others who have similarly made foul comments of such nature over the internet. Whether Amy Cheong will likewise be prosecuted is yet unknown.

Many others have disputed Lee’s characterisation of the incident as an isolated case. I too think that racist attitudes are common and deep-seated in Singapore. However, he might have felt that he needed to say what he said for a political purpose: to quarantine Amy Cheong’s behaviour and prevent the issue spreading out of control.

Others have said that sacking Cheong does nothing to change attitudes; all it does is perhaps to heighten a sense of persecution among those who hold similar views. Indeed that may well happen, but it is not the employer’s responsibility to change attitudes in this instance. Being racist and thinking that it is permissible to publish such rants do not meet the prequisites of the job. If this side of her had been known at the job interview, she would never have been given the job. It’s no argument now to say sacking her was excessive.

What firing her does is to make it patently clear that her attitudes are completely unacceptable. No employer like the NTUC would want to be associated with them. Society should not be accommodating of such speech.

This then brings me to some comments that I’ve seen on Facebook, asking: What about her right to free speech? To use this defence only displays a poor understanding of  the right. This right becomes contestable the moment speech is intended to injure others. In her Facebook post, Amy Cheong used a single annoyance to cast aspersion on all Malays. She should have known that such sweeping generalisations are insupportable and hurtful. She also spat curses on Malay newly-weds, an act which encourages others to do the same. What she wrote more than meets the test of intention to injure.

Even if one takes the libertarian position that she has a right to express such feelings however hurtful they are to others, others too have the right to protect themselves from the opprobrium that will result. Her employer cannot be expected to pay that price for her. Even if she has the right to express those views, she still has to bear the consequences of her own actions.

* * * * *

Bus and metro operator SBS Transit has taken unspecified  “disciplinary action” against a bus driver, according to a story in Fridae.asia. :

Leona Lo, a public relations consultant and transgender woman, reported being called an “ah kua” by a SBS Transit bus driver at the Bedok Temporary Interchange on Tuesday morning. The derogatory term in the Hokkien dialect is commonly used to taunt effeminate men or transgender women.

In a letter to the bus company, Lo said: “As I was making my way to the MRT station, a SBS bus driver yelled “Ah Kua” and his colleagues – all wearing SBS uniforms – started hooting and clapping.”

The bus company did not respond directly to Lo but when contacted by Fridae, SBS Transit spokesperson Tammy Tan said on Wednesday that they have “conducted an investigation and identified the Bus Captain in question.”

“He is deeply apologetic and we will be taking disciplinary action against him. I would like to extend my deep regret to the complainant and to assure her that this is not something we at SBS Transit condone.”

– Fridae.asia, 3 October 2012, Singapore: Bus driver to face disciplinary action for gay slur, by Sylvia Tan. Link.

A nearly identical report was also carried in the Straits Times, 4 October 2012.

I am still waiting for the prime minister to post on Facebook his disapproval of the bus driver’s actions.

Readers will know what I am getting at. Our vigilance against derogatory speech and exclusionist attitudes is highly selective. After all, the government insists on maintaining and fostering discrimination against gays, lesbians and transgenders, through both laws and administrative policies. While it is progress that an employer like SBS Transit takes action against such behaviour, this itself is undercut when the company chooses not to reveal what the disciplinary action consisted off. Perhaps it was no more than the gentlest slap on the wrist?

Why the contrast between the strong reaction of the government to racist speech and the moronically-excused continuance of discriminatory policies against gay people? Is it due to a greater risk that inflamed racial minorities are more likely to resort to violence?  In that case, is the prime minister’s and the government’s embrace of equality and respect really one of heartfelt principle, or more a craven fear of social unrest?

* * * * *

A brief diversion:

* * * * *

Something tells me this government assumes that gay equality is a non-issue; they don’t have to think about it or address its lack. They are wrong. Not only is the rest of the world changing rapidly (see video above), for gay people, this issue is deeply personal, just as for people of racial minorities, equal rights for them is the issue that trumps everything else. Of all people, Law Minister K Shanmugam, as a member of a racial minority, should intuitively know this.

From HDB prices to meritocracy, the questions came thick and fast yesterday.

Law and Foreign Minister K.Shanmugam went from table to table, answering the questions raised by some 100 youth participants at a full-day forum organised by Chong Pang Community Club and North West Community Development Council.

Some hot-button issues raised by university students, grassroots leaders and activists of different stripes included the relevance of the Internal Security Act and whether Singapore needs a more comprehensive social safety net.

“I’ve heard a lot of talk about LGBT issues, Section 377A, our system of meritocracy and the consequences (and) should we do something about it,” said Mr Shanmugam, who added that the Government can better communicate its policies to Singaporeans. LGBT refers to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

[snip]

Participants put themselves in the shoes of minorities like LGBTs and foreign workers and had to propose and defend solutions to get an understanding of policy-making realities and trade-offs.

– Straits Times, 9 October 2012, Minister quizzed at forum on hot-button issues, by Lim Yan Liang

I am still trying to find out more about what this event at Chong Pang was about [see addendum], but it seems to me from the above report that even when Section 377A of the Penal Code is raised as a sign of  institutionalised discrimination against gay people, ministers like Shanmugam respond by trying to “better communicate” the government’s policies.

Oh purleazze. There is no explaining them away. Just as there is no way we can justify racism. Invariably we will hear the argument that there are other Singaporeans who are anti-gay and whose views must therefore be taken into account for “policy-making realities and trade-offs”. That argument is nothing more than cowardice. Perhaps the greater cowardice, for to deploy that argument may well indicate that ministers themselves are homophobic, but don’t even have the honesty of admitting it. Instead, they hide behind the “need” to appease conservatives “out there”.

If the government wants to convince us that they really believe in equality and non-discrimination, the test they need to pass is not the easy one of standing up against racism — how many people will shout and demand that you should be racist? — but the truer one of standing up against homophobia, including their own institutionalised kind.

———————-

ADDENDUM, 11 October 2012 – I am told that “The forum was a closed-door session, so it will not be appropriate to go into details on what transpired there” — though how Straits Times seemed to have a reporter freely reporting from inside was not explained.

However,  I have been assured that the questions raised at the forum were spontaneous and not engineered.  “Forum participants were given free rein to raise issues that they care about.  They brought up various issues including meritocracy, foreign talent, LGBT issues, housing, ISA and taxes. There was an active discussion on policy rationales and trade-offs.”

A straw poll was also carried out. It “showed low support for the abolishment of ISA, implementation of minimum wage and LGBT issues, amongst other matters.”

25 Responses to “Standing up against racism is the easy test, Singapore government needs to show its true colours”


  1. 1 Animal Farm 10 October 2012 at 00:26

    Even LKY and MP SHT make racist comments. Were they sacked? How about the Sun Xu incident? Did NUS expel him? Some people are more equal than others. This is PAP for you.

    • 2 james 10 October 2012 at 19:49

      It is a joke. PAP ministers and MPs have no moral authority to lecture others. They should reflect on their own attitudes and behaviour first.

  2. 3 Tsumujikaze no Soujutsu 10 October 2012 at 01:10

    The 377A has always been a done deal. Simply put, I truly doubt the Government will do away with it anytime soon. In fact in the US itself, DADT ended up being a prolonged wrangling before it was settled in favour of the LGBT camp and that really says something if we’re talking about the Land of Freedom.

    And talking about freedom, I think no country can expect it’s citizens to behave wisely literally under a case of 1st Amendment or something similiar. Likewise, a system like Singapore’s isn’t the best way to ensure accountability. That is why there’s no such thing as a perfect government. It will always be down to either the people upstairs or those from downstairs.

    Which comes to Amy Cheong’s right to express herself. I truly doubt she’s a racist. When people are driven up the edge, they will be prone to do/say stupid things just like that SAJC vulgarity rant against DPM Teo Chee Hean N months ago. In fact if there’s any truth to her side of the story, it’s either she had never considered visiting a psychologist or that something ought to be done about the noise but no one bothered to. Maybe both. Ultimately, the resultant witch hunt might be the core reason behind PM Lee’s words plus that of the rest. If not for the extent of the fire gone viral, no one would give a two hoots over this. I’m pretty sure of that.

    • 4 goop 10 October 2012 at 14:40

      Not true. It is when people are driven up the edge that they are prone to do/say stupid things that reveals who they are: racists.

  3. 5 yuen 10 October 2012 at 05:34

    >I am still waiting for the prime minister to post on Facebook his disapproval of the bus driver’s actions.

    the two incidents are not in the same league; the ah kua shout was not on the web visible to the world; in fact, until the bus company investigated and confirmed it, we had just one person’s word that it actually happened

  4. 6 Regime Change 10 October 2012 at 08:11

    Why do you have to bring up the subject of Section 377A which is not germane to the matter of Amy Cheong. It gets a bit tiresome. Things will change and evolve over time. Just be patient.

    The only thing that Amy did wrong was say her prejudices in public. As an educated person holding a public position that was moronic and unforgiveable. Sacking her was the right thing to do.

    We all have have our prejudices because we are different and brought up differently, whether religion or race.

    Suppose you go to a pub with friends and over a beer tell insults about religion and race and everybody in the group laughs and nobody is offended because it is a private conversation not meant for public consumption.

    Now suppose you go to a pub alone and tell the same insults to complete strangers (of other races and religions). What do you think will happen?
    There will be blood on the floor.

    • 7 yawningbread 10 October 2012 at 11:11

      You wrote: “Why do you have to bring up the subject of Section 377A which is not germane to the matter of Amy Cheong.”

      I knew to expect this. Many Singaporeans simply refuse to see sexual orientation discrimination as discrimination. They refuse to see derogatory speech against gay people as derogatory. Prejudice against gay people is not prejudice.

      The article above was NOT about Amy Cheong, but about discrimination and derogatory speech, the response of employers and the government’s hypocrisy. But each time anyone tries to compare and contrast Singaporeans’ and the Singapore government’s behaviour, someone will respond “But it’s not the same!”.

      (It’s also another way of silencing gay people. “Don’t you dare compare being verbally and legally bashed over your sexual orientation with verbal/legal bashing over race”).

      It is precisely this denialist response that makes the matter germane. The denial is the story.

      Well, guess what sexual orientation is on par with race. See this video ‘Diversity in the Workplace':

      At 11 seconds: “… encompasses all of the traditional aspects of diversity: race, gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation …” There you go: Sexual orientation is among the key pillars of diversity, and its reverse: discrimination.

      • 8 gata omei 10 October 2012 at 13:20

        If my experience yesterday speaking to two Singaporeans is any indication, compartmentalized thinking is quite common. They deplored Amy Cheong’s racist rant, but in the next breath made remarks that were Islamophobic, the kind of thing you hear from rightwing Christianists in the US. Naturally, they didn’t like to hear me point out the parallels, and insisted that their slanted views on Islam was based on “facts”, therefore they are legitimate. Likewise, I’m sure homophobes will insist that all their stereotypical rationalisations for their homophobia are supported by “facts”.

      • 9 Regime Change 10 October 2012 at 14:04

        Alex, just for the record, I have no issues with your LBGT platform. One of my regular drinking buddies is openly gay and I treat him like a normal human being. I truly believe that as Singapore is an English-speaking (largely) Western-style democracy (albeit with serious imperfections) things will improve as the older generation dies out and is replaced with a younger hamburger-munching generation.

        The main point of my short post was that we all have our prejudices, and we should keep our prejudices private and not articulate them in the public domain where it can cause hurt. Remember, someone said, freedom of expression only extends as far as the distance between my arm and your nose.

    • 10 Chow 10 October 2012 at 23:11

      I would think that if you went to a pub (or somewhere public) and told racist jokes to your friends blood may still spill, unless you bring enough friends to intimidate those who are offended and likely to pick a fight. If you told such jokes at home among the same friends then blood is less likely to spill although I do not think you would have many friends who belong to the race/religions as the butt of your jokes.

    • 11 Ian 10 October 2012 at 23:22

      “Things will change and evolve over time. Just be patient.”

      In the Spring and Autumn Period, a farmer in the State of Song was one day working in the fields, when he saw a rabbit bump into a tree stump accidentally and break its neck. The farmer took the rabbit home, and cooked himself a delicious meal. That night he thought, “I needn’t work so hard. All I have to do is wait for a rabbit each day by the stump.” So from then on he gave up farming, and simply sat by the stump waiting for rabbits to come and run into it.

      Waiting won’t work.

    • 12 JC 11 October 2012 at 11:52

      @Regime Change
      For whatever reason there was no “reply” link on the comment I actually wanted to address, so I’ll just quote your second comment here: “The main point of my short post was that we all have our prejudices, and we should keep our prejudices private and not articulate them in the public domain where it can cause hurt.”

      Here’s an idea: Why do your prejudices have to be kept? Why can’t they be examined or even discarded? In TWO comments you defend prejudiced jokes as long as they are in “private conversation” and that you’ve basically adopted them due to your background/culture. Alex Au’s post incisively points out stereotypes, prejudices and discrimination are rampant along different lines, and while some of recognised as bad (racial prejudice), others still seem to be more accepted/acceptable (LGBT rights) when they’re ALL divisive, in my opinion: “My kind is more right/proper/normal than your kind”.

      So while RegimeChange’s opinion seems to actually be common (in this way I’m not picking on RC in particular), I’m just rather disappointed so far that only the public EXPRESSION of prejudices is what most people are finding fault with, not the presence and persistence of them. It’s apparent that Singapore has a long way still to go.

  5. 13 Alan 10 October 2012 at 09:56

    If she is wrong with her facts, don’t we all have a duty to educate her?Maybe it would have been just appropriate if someone could have emphasize to her that divorces are due to differences and issues faced by any divorcing couple and has little to do with race or how cheap the wedding is. Instead we have a Minister here who over reacts while some grassroots member jumps at the opportunity to get a piece of the action by making a police report.

    If our govt policy does not discriminate against any race, Maybe our Govt can enlighten us with the true facts and figures about the racial composition of our newly minted citizens and PRs to counter our wrong perception that our immigration policies may have been racially discriminatory?

    Just walk the talk to prove they have nothing to hide, no need to kill the sacrificial lamb and avoid discussing the issue in the open.

  6. 14 ricardo 10 October 2012 at 10:41

    However, the Rich and Powerful are free to vilify “venomous religions” without fear of losing their jobs or public vilification. Multi-million Dignity to our Lord LKY, the HoLee Family, their Ministers and friends.

  7. 15 ilcourtilcourt 10 October 2012 at 10:52

    Hi Alex,

    In both cases the employer firing the employee serves only two (wrong) purposes:
    – save the employer face
    – flatter our ego (having someone punished for a bad deed)

    I strongly believed that a three strikes, plus training, plus PR, plus improvement program should be the way.
    NTUC should give a warning to Amy.
    NTUC should put in place a training and send Amy to it.
    Make a PR statement about it: saving face and communicating about being an employer of choice…

    Same goes for govt: instead of arresting people as terrorists.
    Everyone wins.

    Freedom of speech stops at calling for action. Before that is is only speech.

    • 16 goop 10 October 2012 at 22:14

      I would like to add one more.

      – NTUC is already facing a crisis of confidence. Everyone knows it’s about as much use to the labour sector as a glass hammer.

      If they did not fire Amy, a foreigner might I add, this saga will further fuel the I-Hate-The-PAP-For-Being-So-Pro-Foreigners. In other words, she’s a political dynamite they kicked out just in time.

  8. 17 skponggol 10 October 2012 at 13:36

    Compared that to the Workers’ Party…

    When a former WP minority member, who stood in GE2011 under WP ticket, accused the party chairwoman of making the comment “that Indians tend to leave after getting party cadreship”, the party leadership did not immediately, forcefully and unequivocally clarify and reject that allegation.

    It gives a general perception that minorities are being discriminated within the party and have difficulty attaining cadreship.

    The WP behaviour is worse than this Amy Cheong saga. Amy Cheong had admitted and apologised her mistake while NTUC had taken swift action. Neither the WP chairwoman nor the WP leader did anything.

    • 18 goop 10 October 2012 at 22:12

      Let’s compare with the PAP. I can start with Lee Kuan Yew but his racism knows no bounds and I can write a book on how his ageing brain is infested with racist scum. Another example: MP Seng Han Thong who said, “Because they are Malay, they are Indian, they cannot communicate well in English.”

      I don’t see him getting fired.

  9. 19 lobo76 10 October 2012 at 16:16

    In July 2012, 2 teens (17yrs old) were arrested for the same ‘crime’. It’d be interested to see how both cases panned out.

  10. 20 marytan 10 October 2012 at 16:43

    To the previous post: The employer has the right to fire her. She is not some junior staff who NTUC has to spend more money to train her to be professional and not racist. Taxpayers money better be more well-spent than hiring a well-paid senior staff who is totally not suitable and some more spend more taxpayers money to train this foreign talent to be mature and inclusive etc etc. This woman is close to 40 years old and a senior employee – you think you can suddenly change her mindset and use taxpayers money to do that? And she has the audacity to come to our country and say our customs is not proper and cheap? It is good that NTUC finds out there is such a black sheep amongst them sooner than later. I’m sure NTUC can find a better candidate than that.

  11. 21 Kai 10 October 2012 at 20:21

    Alex, thank you for comparing racism and racial discrimination to discrimination based on SOGI, and highlighting the glaringly unequal treatments given to them in Singapore. You are not alone in seeing the parallel between the responses to this affair and LGBT equality. I’d like to draw the readers’ attention to a very timely essay I just came across on “Why do we not embrace other forms of diversity?” written by Andrew Loh here:

    http://andrewlohhp.wordpress.com/2012/10/08/why-do-we-not-embrace-other-forms-of-diversity/

    Any reasonable person would agree that sexual orientation, being an integral part of a person’s most basic identity, is on par with race in the intrinsic meaning of diversity. It’d be simply irrational and illogical to disregard a “not insignificant” segment of our community, namely the LGBT segment, when we talk about diversity and equality and inclusiveness in Singapore!

  12. 22 Robox 11 October 2012 at 01:44

    I have an explanation for the selectiveness you talk about that I believe to be absolutely true; indeed I am actually concurring with the same point that you made

    While I suppport the NTUC’s actions, I have always observed the firmest of reactions is taken only when derogatory language is used against Muslims.

    Reason: The PAP government absolutely does believe that all Muslims (and perhaps only Muslims) are prone to violent reaction such as terrorism when even the faintest of whispers against them are used. Thus we have to tip toe around Muslims.

    All other vulnerable groups are fair game for the national sport of verbal abuse.

    That also means that the NTUC’s actions and the PAP’s reactions are actually themselves rooted in racism. (Further, K Shanmugam’s reaction echoed another old line: Fault lines in Singapore are deeper than he thought. Perhaps, the precursor to more of the same justifications for the denial of free speech on any number of non-race topics.)

    Indeed, the man who made the police report, PAP member Lionel De Souza – who has aired his homophobic views in public before – must similarly harbour such views towards Muslims, as does the NTUC.. (If I were Muslim, I would be deeply disconcerted by this aspect of the episode).

    This in turn is rooted in the economic imperative. (Could it be any other way with the PAP?) Haven’t Singaporeans always drummed with the fear of fleeing investors at the first sign of unrest?

    Indeed you couldn’t have said it better: This is an easier test for the PAP government than the test of equal treatment.

  13. 23 Chanel 11 October 2012 at 17:40

    The ministers (PM included) are kicking up a fuss over nothing. I know why. It serves as a red herring for the anti-foreign sentiments that arose due to the mindless import of foreigners into S’pore. The ministers are probably using this incident to craftily direct public attention towards domestic racial “issue” when the elephant in the room during the past several years has been locals versus foreigners.

    Where were all these ministers when derogatory speeches were made by foreigners (base in S’pore) against all S’poreans?? Recall the NUS student from China who called all S’poreans dogs?? Did the ministers and their mainstream media come down hard on him??

    • 24 The 12 October 2012 at 10:54

      Instead of being a red herring, this Amy thingy may be the red flag – which is why they had to terminate her. She is Australian, an FT (fallen talent) and she does not gel with Singaporeans. She is not in tune with the local culture (though a banana herself), and more of an in-your-face Ozzie. Though a PR – she is for all intent and purposes a foreigner.

  14. 25 radiance 16 January 2013 at 16:23

    Speaking of 377A, notice how it only criminalises homosexual men… gender policing at work


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