[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:
- 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”)
- We can accept broken English in announcements. (Presumably, Seng’s point was that staff with broken English should have made the necessary announcements anyway.)
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.