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.
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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?
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A brief diversion:
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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.
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.”