Wednesday, 28 December 2011

The fiasco that distracted us from the bigger SMRT fiasco

I was away for most of December, so I missed the two big recent news stories, namely the SMRT fiasco and Seng Han Thong’s appearance on BlogTV. I’ve been in two minds about writing on the latter incident, but finally decided to do so thanks to the remarks by Law and Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam and the TNP article on Boxing Day. I was away at the time and so feel that I am quite distanced from this entire affair, even given my affiliation with TOC.

[disclaimer: I am a member of the core team behind The Online Citizen, but I do not have editorial duties and pretty much see my role as doing what it takes to let the editors get on with their jobs. I weigh in on articles only when asked, and primarily from a legal perspective, although I do tend to give my two cents worth when asked.]

Alex Au does a good job at a quick recap, so I won’t reinvent the wheel. A lot has already been said, so I will only make three points in this posting.

Firstly, nobody can dispute that whatever Seng said on TV, it was incredibly garbled. This is his transcript:

“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 that also deters them, from but I think we accept broken English.”

As I said, I was away when it all happened, and so I had no idea what was going on when I started being copied on emails within the TOC core team about this incident. I must confess that when I finally read the TOC article that broke the story (which by then had the 2 updates and the editor’s note), I was quite confused.

Even when I read the transcript of Seng’s remarks (reproduced in the editor’s note), I couldn’t precisely figure out what he was trying to get at. I had to re-read Seng’s statement of apology (in update 1 in the article), which explained the point he was trying to make, before I stopped feeling like the ADSL guy in that StarHub ad.

So my first point is: putting aside all this stuff about whether or not the remarks were racist in nature, the sheer irony of a politician speaking in broken English on national TV about broken English was striking (and fodder for satire, as Mr Brown has shown us in his inimitable way).

My second point is about the failure in the article to attribute Seng’s comment about Malays and Indians to SMRT PR, which some seem to be trying to make hay from. Yes, the TOC article could’ve made that attribution, in which case I wouldn’t be writing this particular post.

But frankly, Seng’s words were so garbled, it’s not so easy to tell where the SMRT portion ended and where Seng’s own thoughts began. After Seng posted his explanations, we now know what he was trying to say and why he said what he did. But it was a little difficult before Seng explained. Hindsight is perfect, but there’s no hindsight when you break a story.

Having said that, my third point is that my second point is actually quite beside the point. That’s because even though Seng was quoting a SMRT spokesperson, he seemed to have adopted the SMRT spokesperson’s point (or rather, what he thought the point was); in any case, he did not contradict it. I personally think this is critical.

If you read Seng’s words carefully, you’ll see that he basically said:
  1. SMRT person said some staff, being Malay and Indian, can’t speak English well, and hence this deters them from … (I suppose Seng meant to say “making announcements” here, or maybe “making announcements without scripts”)
  2. We can accept broken English in announcements. (Presumably, Seng’s point was that staff with broken English should have made the necessary announcements anyway.)
Seng could only have gotten from (1) to (2), if he had agreed with and adopted (1). That’s because if there is no question of broken English, then there is no question of announcements in broken English. And Seng at no time indicated any disagreement or any hesitation about the reference to Malay and Indian drivers only, so (2) must surely only relate to them.

In other words, Seng must have, in his mind when he made the statements, been thinking only of Malay and Indian drivers who cannot speak English well. And he displayed no reluctance to make, or problems with making, those statements on that basis.

Minister Shanmugam did acknowledge that Seng did not contradict what he thought he heard the SMRT spokesperson say, but the Minister still seemed (based on news reports at least) to have focused his attention on the TOC article instead of the comments themselves. I would disagree with the Minister that the failure in the TOC article to mention the SMRT spokesperson made the article “false”, because it’s clear that Seng had adopted the SMRT spokesperson’s words (or what Seng thought those words were) for himself.

I do wish that the TOC article had mentioned the reference to “SMRT PR”, so that there wouldn’t be all this brouhaha. But that does not detract from the substance of the article. And I think the fact that other PAP MPs came out to criticize Seng, even after reading his explanations, speaks volumes about Seng’s comments. Kudos to the likes of Madam Halimah Yacob and Inderjit Singh.

I have no reason to think that Seng is a racist at heart, and it’s good that Seng explained things quickly and apologized to Singaporeans. I had been a little reluctant to post on this because of that. But I wanted to give the perspective of someone who was distanced from the events as they unfolded, and to do some justice to the hardworking editorial team at TOC. After all, nobody seems to disagree that this was an important story that TOC broke.


Alan Wan said...

I think the issue at hand was that the train officers were made the scapegoat of the whole MRT breakdown, whether consciously or unconsciously by their PR or the MP SHT himself.

Just ask SMRT whether it was ever part of the SOP for any train officer to make a public announcement in case of any breakdown? If yes, what is allowed and if it wasn't, then how can their standard of English be an issue for the lack of communication to public commuters now ?

Gary said...

Perhaps Sham thought TOC was being political or he was trying to rein in what the govt saw as even more potentially very damaging adverse publicity for a PAP member who already has had more than his fair share of controversy.

The choice of Sham, the law minister, making the point on behalf of the govt is of course not coincidental bearing in mind that TOC had been compulsorily made to registered as a political entity by the govt.

This is the sort of 'back alley, I meet you with knuckle dusters' tacit threat philosophy so famously enunciated by a founding father!

Yeeloong said...

ummm , why is this article still focused on what SHT said or didn’t say, mean or didn’t mean , or whether racism matters here or not; from the headline i would think this article was going to talk about what i been saying for the past week – SMRT has a much bigger problem in its lousy maintenance record than whether SHT is racist or not

Siew Kum Hong said...

@yeelong Because I'm late to the game, having just come back. I wasn't going to post on this until Minister Shanmugam made his remarks.

@alan wan That's possible. But I think more than just SOPs, SMRT drivers need to be empowered (and trained) to think and act independently, since SOPs can never be all-encompassing. Same goes for singapore and singaporeans more broadly.

The Pariah said...

Great posting, Mr Siew Kum Hong.

Law Minister Shanmugam's "defence" of Seng Hang Thong exposes the perturbing and continuing penchant for Form Over Substance in PAP's ministerial cadre.

Post-GE 2011, PAP remains transfixed, rather than transformed!

Shanmugam and the PAP once again has missed the forest for the trees. Ditto for Cherian George.

It's NOT about Mr Seng being racist or speaking broken English himself.

It's also NOT about the pin-point accuracy of TOC editorial.

It's about the LACK OF POLITICAL SENSITIVITY of (1)a seasoned grassroot MP who singled-out (2)Malay and Indian minority races and attributing their (3)poor command of English as one of the contributory causes of the failed SMRT crisis management.

3 HITS = OUT. But not so to Minister Shanmugam and NTU Assoc Prof Cherian George, eh?

The Pariah said...

SMRT crisis management failed because:

(i) SMRT management failed in its Contingency and Evacuation Planning and values in its Corporate Culture,

(ii) LTA failed to regulate rigorously in testing the rigour and comprehensiveness of SMRT plans, and

(iii) Transport Ministry failed in its oversight authority over LTA.

lobo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
lobo said...

Hi, just wanted your opinion on TOC's selected headline "MP Seng Han Thong: SMRT’s unpreparedness also due to ... staffs English language inefficiency" and what do you understand from it?

I removed the part on race, because that conclusion on that part is obvious and I don't want you to be distracted.

To me, the headline says SHT says bad english IS a problem. SHT evidently didn't, since he says 'we accept broken english'. This is regardless it was to be for annoucements or whatnot as mentioned in your post.

Siew Kum Hong said...

@lobo Thanks for pointing this out. I'm not sure that "SMRT’s unpreparedness also due to ... staffs English language inefficiency" = "bad English is a problem", because this headline would have 2 parts (viz. SMRT's unpreparedness, and SMRT staff's poor English). Your suggested interpretation focuses only on the latter part, and ignores the former.

FeedMeToTheFish said...

Hi Kum Hong,

Good of you to write about it after what Sham said. I'm glad that your piece makes sense to me.

If only PAPies are sensitive to the sensitivities of others (instead of walking all over the less endowed), this hullabaloo would not have come this far.

Pardon my crazy fetish over the French Football Duo of Barthez and Laurent Blanc but I'm grateful to have rubbed your Botak head!


Keep keeping it up!

Happy New Year!

lobo said...

HI Kum Hong,

I did ignore the part on "SMRT's unpreparedness" as it is a given because reality has shown us the answer. The question then was "what is the reason?", and TOC's headline suggests that SHT say that it is due to language issues (regardless of what he referred to, as he did mumbled off just before he said "I think we can accept broken English".

Point was SHT did NOT say that. However, it captured the imagination of the public, and the story went on from there.

... and so you talked about my interpretation focusing only on certain part, ignoring the rest. I have explained why I ignored the rest. Can you explain the part which I chose to focus on?

p.s TOC's selection of headline is right on some parts and wrong (from my perspective) on others. I say this to show I am not trying to nitpick but want the 'whole picture' perspective as it were.

p.s I am not sure what kind of pull you have, but wondering if you can get me off TOC's blacklist. (I have conclusively tested this, posting identical messages using diff nick/ip/email)