There’s enough real racism in Singapore – TOC needn’t cry wolf

Cherian George

Seng Han THong, MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC, speaks on (2nd from Left)

Reading The Online Citizen’s sensational report on what a PAP MP said about Malay and Indian MRT drivers and then watching the video itself, I wondered how the website’s reporters might have covered Barack Obama’s landmark speech after winning the Democratic Party nomination in 2008.

TOC might have said something like this:

Barack Obama has told Americans that “our sights were set too high” and that “this country was too divided; too disillusioned to ever come together around a common purpose”.

If you think this pessimistic prognosis from a president famous for giving people hope sounds suspect, you’re right. Obama did say the words above, but they are taken slightly out of context. He actually said, “They said our sights were set too high. They said this country was too divided; too disillusioned to ever come together around a common purpose.”

Omitting to mention that the speaker you’re quoting is quoting someone else can be a little misleading. That didn’t stop TOC, whose report on a TV forum is headlined, “MP Seng Han Thong: SMRT’s unpreparedness also due to Malay and Indian staffs English language inefficiency”.

TOC’s reporter goes on to say, “He said that because some staffs are “Malay(s), they are Indians, they cannot converse in English good, well enough”.”

In the 13-odd hours since the article went up, more than 200 readers have posted comments, practically all of them outraged by the MP’s remarks as reported by TOC.

But what Seng actually said was, “And I notice that the PR mentioned that some of the staff, because they are Malay they are Indian, they cannot converse in English good, well enough, so that also we can learn from. I think we accept broken English.”

As he spoke, he waved at the laptop screen facing the panelists, which presumably displayed comments from viewers. Seen in context, Seng was quoting the comment as part of a larger point he was making, that SMRT should have proper SOPs in place, and that in an emergency the drivers’ standard of English is no excuse for silence.

As an MP (and NTUC leader representing workers), Seng can certainly be faulted for not distancing himself explicitly from the view he was citing. (Although he may have made a point of saying that the view came from a permanent resident as a hint that no true Singaporean would say this. Or did “PR” refer to SMRT’s public relations team? I don’t know.).

His slip could have been due to political naivety rather than racism. Surely, he should know better.

But so should the editors of what, by default, is Singapore’s leading citizen journalism website. There is enough genuine racism in the country; TOC doesn’t help by crying wolf.

TOC did the right thing by highlighting this gaffe. But it would have lost nothing by reporting it accurately. It could have said something like:

PAP MP Seng Han Thong quoted a view that Malay and Indian drivers’ poor English was to blame for SMRT’s poor response to the emergency. He did not contradict this view.

The facts are bad enough. They didn’t need to be misrepresented.

Update: Seng Han Thong has apologised.

This article was first published on on 22 December 2011.