The Racism Episode of the SMRT Saga

Huang Z’ming

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

It could all be so simple, if we just focused on the question of social responsibility and related ethics in our public transport system. But instead of addressing issues of accountability in the upkeep of the MRT system to ensure safety and reliability, our attention has been sidetracked by the emergence of one villain after another in the ongoing SMRT saga.

And in a most dramatic twist, on the pertinent question of hiring train officers to cater to commuters of diverse language groups, the onus suddenly rests on netizens to gag themselves on any racial issue? Singapore is indeed a strange place and running down with too much negative energy.

Just when you thought the angry flaming by netizens had reached its heights with the widely circulated image of CEO Saw Phaik Hwa on a sedan-chair aspiring to Cleopatra-style grandeur, MP Seng Han Thong stole our attention with an episode all his own, in broken English no less, claiming that Malay and Indian staff have problems with conversing in English.

And just when an apology for the racialist remark might have appeased the public, Law Minister Shanmugam is throwing his weight to turn a witch-hunting game around on The Online Citizen, saying its report on Seng’s remarks was ‘false’. One can be forgiven indeed for losing the plot here, but let’s rewind back a little for a clearer picture.

First of all, it can easily be argued that TOC was right in highlighting the incident, for any singling out of ethnic groups on employment issues by a politician of any party, in direct or indirect speech, would constitute news of public interest, especially when the man is also advisor to the National Transport Workers’ Union.

It is common news sense and no expert in journalism can dispute that. In fact it is when you have a group of broadcast journalists nodding their heads without questioning the man, that it reflects a serious lack of critical thinking in our media. The question for TOC (which is run by volunteers) is how soon it should follow up its newsflash with a more balanced report in order to maintain its image as a credible news source.

There are MPs defending Seng, saying he is not a racist. But what is a ‘racist’? Any one of us may have a friend or even a family member who may make some racialist remarks sometimes. Do they need to be exposed in public and reported to the police? Apparently not. In fact in the three cases involving racist remarks or postings on the net recently, none has been charged, instead the ‘consensus’ according to Minister in charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim was that there should just be some code of conduct on the internet.

By the same token the public can also expect that a similar code of conduct be applied to any public figure speaking on television. It does not augur well for the credibility of the government when license for an anti-racism demonstration is not granted while racialist comments seem liberated now with a new-found leeway.

The point is not to be so uptight about any comment related to race, language or religion that, to use a football analogy, we must raise a red card every time somebody makes a clumsy tackle, and throw the person out of the game altogether. But if we do not even blow the whistle on any racialist comment and question the message behind, the game may becoming more unruly and rougher at the expense of the docile, until some breaking point when all hell breaks loose, we have seen things like that before.

And if we do not take a strong stand, what message are we giving to the Singapore society, especially to the younger generation who take after their elders? Racism is not dangerous only when somebody is physically attacked and venomously insulted, it often takes the form of casual remarks and ‘innocuous’ stereotyping among people around us. If we just let it go in the public media, we are allowing people to be mentally programmed into thinking that members of certain minorities are indeed inferior or less ‘normal’.

The point in highlighting racialist comments is not to engage in a ritual of witch-hunting, whereby you set your enemy on fire out of anger and then go home feeling balance in the world is restored. Even more importantly, it is not to take the opportunity to emote your own stereotyping of any ethnic or cultural group that you think the person represents.

The fact that Seng used to be deputy editor of Lianhe Zaobao just means that he of all people should have been more sensitive in re-interpreting any ethnic-related issue, it should not mean that any Chinese Singaporean with a Chinese or bilingual education background is therefore bigoted against others.

It is an interesting coincidence that Seng’s incident took place just a couple of days after news that Chia Thye Poh, a political prisoner detained for 32 years, made his first public speech in decades, as he received the Lim Lian Geok Spirit Award in Malaysia.

In his speech, Chia, an early graduate of the Nanyang University which was eventually closed down in 1980, stated that the purpose of establishing Nantah “was to serve the society of Southeast Asia, irrespective of races”, that the university had departments for Chinese language, modern languages and Malay language, and it promoted intercultural exchanges.

Clearly any past branding of Chinese Singaporean according to race, language or education background is over-generalising if not outright prejudiced. Our history should not be seen as an endless cycle of people from different ethnic or language backgrounds taking turns to oppress one another.

It is also disturbing to hear the way PAP MPs and ministers vehemently emphasise that Seng is not a ‘racist’, for we need to be wary if the underlying implication is that there would be some other ‘genuine’ cases of racists or Chinese chauvinists out there, waiting to be hunted down.

We do not really want politicians of any party politicising the issue of racism and identifying any individual as the bogeyman for their own political gains, what we want is just to make sure there is no racial discrimination or stereotyping becoming the norm in Singapore.

It is high time for all sides to take a step back. Politicians and public intellectuals in Singapore on their parts need to stop thinking of netizens as a mob that is prone to being manipulated, stop characterising them as anti-PAP, anti-establishment and so on, for any such branding of people as being emotional and irrational is also dehumanising and not helpful.

Train officers of SMRT are clearly all working very hard during this holiday season, regardless of their language background, and surely speakers of all official languages are just as important in helping the young and old. All the assurance we need is that nobody be placed at a disadvantage due to his or her ethnic origin, among workers as with commuters.