Seng Han Thong’s mis-speech has provided all the justification the People’s Action Party government ever needed for a cooling-off day prior to polling day. It demonstrated how fast a particular interpretation of a careless remark can spread. Fortunately, with online media, corrections can be made quickly too. Still, they need about 12 to 24 hours to work.
It may seem redundant now, but for future readers of this article several years hence, it may be useful to recapitulate a little of the background. Following the massive metro breakdowns of last week, there were many complaints (including from Yawning Bread) about poor communication between SMRT Corp staff and commuters stuck in the stricken system. SMRT’s frontline staff dripfed increasingly upset customers with infrequent updates that were largely meaningless, sometimes delivered with such bad diction, they were unintelligible.
BlogTV had a talk show in which the deputy chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Transport, Seng Han Thong (member of parliament for Ang Mo Kio) appeared, among other guests. At one point, Seng referred to something he had heard from the “PR” (public relations) — you’ll hear him say it at 2 min 1 sec: “I notice that the PR mention that some of the staff, because they are Malay, they are Indian, they can’t converse in English good, well enough, so [unclear] I think we accept broken English . . .”
Outrage filled social media over his “racism”. More interestingly, Cherian George, writing on Journalism.sg criticised The Online Citizen for fanning it by mis-reading Seng’s remarks (There’s enough real racism in Singapore — TOC needn’t cry wolf).
Seng quickly put out a message that he had been misinterpreted and that he was sorry if people were offended as a result.
“In my interview with blogtv.sg, I made a regrettable mistake in my language, which may be misconstrued as me saying that people speak bad English because of their ethnicity. I sincerely apologise to all Singaporeans, who have been offended by this error.”
— Straits Times, The Big Story, 22 Dec 2011, MP Seng Han Thong apologises for SMRT staff comment, by Royston Sim
SMRT Corp then issued a statement to The Online Citizen, saying:
“Regarding Mr Seng Han Thong’s Facebook post which contains the transcript from his comments made on BlogTV, we wish to clarify that Mr Seng may have misunderstood comments made at our media conference last Friday.
When asked by the media about the lack of information given to passengers and feedback from some that they could not understand the English announcements that were made, SMRT’s Executive Vice President Mr Goh Chee Kong had explained that the company faces a challenge in trying to train its drivers to make announcements, as not all of them are comfortable speaking in English.
At no point did Mr Goh highlight any particular race in his remarks.
Our train officers are encouraged to make announcements as appropriate. However we have provided them with pre-recorded messages to assist them. These are the areas we are working to improve. We are now working to beef up our announcement to include pre-recorded messages in the four official languages, and training for our train officers and staff so they can communicate better with passengers when a situation arises.”
BlogTV also put out a statement on its Facebook page. Digging up the relevant quote from a radio program, it said:
Mr Seng explained that he had heard the comment by the SMRT spokesperson, on the news. And he was expressing on BlogTV, what he had heard.
The comment was made by SMRT’s Senior Vice President for Communication and Services Goh Chee Kong in response to a question on how SMRT planned to improve its communication with passengers. This was broadcast over the radio.
“What we’re mindful of is that our people, our staff at the stations and in the trains may not be making sufficient announcements and also good enough announcements. And that’s because our staff of different races, it could be Malay, Chinese, or Indians or any other race, they sometimes find it difficult to speak in English. However we’ve encouraged them to make the announcements and not to worry about that. At the same time, from our ops control centre, we’re making more announcements and I put someone there from the communications department to make the announcements so it becomes more regular.”
— Blogtv.sg Facebook page, 22 December 2011.
As you can see, Goh evidently did mention “Malay, Chinese or Indians”, though it would also be correct to say that he did not “highlight any particular race”.
If one is inclined to be critical, one might attach significance to the way Seng processed Goh’s mention of three races down to two — and the very two that happen to be the butt of much racism in Singapore. One might say, in reformulating, even if unconsciously, Goh’s remarks the way Seng did, Seng revealed his thought patterns.
Then again, it is just as possible that it was an innocent slip of the tongue, or that Seng recalled Goh’s remarks incorrectly.
Given the fact that they were impromptu remarks and that various interpretations are possible, it is difficult to make too much of those words.
* * * * *
What I found gratifying was the way it became resoundingly clear that Singaporeans — at least those on social media — were dismayed by Seng’s words, even if they had initially read more into them than warranted. It shows how Singaporeans believe in being above racism.
Sometimes we take such credo for granted, but a quick look across the Causeway over to Malaysian politics will show that it is not always so everywhere. There, leading figures of UMNO, the major component of the ruling Barisan Nasional, regularly appeal to race in its bid to win votes. They do so secure in the belief that large numbers of their constituents want to hear such sentiments.
So perhaps we should calm down and appreciate the silver lining.
But only for a moment. For the headline in Journalism.sg is also correct: There is plenty of real racism in Singapore. At one level, we deplore it, but in our daily lives, many of us practise it. I sometimes wonder whether our ardent denunciations also serve as excuses for not looking into ourselves.
In fact, in thinking through the draft of this piece, I considered including an account of an incident just earlier this month that shocked me. In that incident, the racism came from a young Singaporean, brought up in a Christian environment. And then I decided that to balance such a tale, I should include another story from only a few months earlier and still quite fresh in my mind, so it would not look as if I was singling out Christians, which in turn led me to consider including a third story, this time of a person of minority ethnicity behaving as racist as those from the majority — for a broader, more balanced picture.
I have so many stories about racism in Singapore, I feared it would mean 10,000 extra words to this article. Finally, I decided that, going by the experience of Seng Han Thong, frugality in words might be the better virtue.