PAP MP Seng Han Thong courted controversy when, in an interview with blogtv, he said, “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 . . .”
Over at Seng’s Facebook page, he has a Statement of Apology for what has been seen as a racist remark. It is his apology, not his original remarks, that I take issue with here.
This is his Statement of Apology:
In my interview with blogtv.sg, I made a regrettable mistake in my language, which may be misconstrued as me saying that people speak bad English because of their ethnicity. I sincerely apologise to all Singaporeans, who have been offended by this error.
Singaporeans of all ethnicities and backgrounds speak varying standards of English. My own Chinese-educated background gives me a special empathy for the non-English-speaking sections of our society. We should all be tolerant of people of different standards of linguistic ability.
The point I was trying to make is that this should not prevent people from trying to communicate, especially in times of emergency.
The remark was made in the context of a larger discussion about how we could better and faster improve the current problems we’re facing with our mass rapid transport system. Let us once again focus our minds and our public discussion on this issue.
Below is how I would like to reply, though I have not commented on his Facebook page or sent the message to him through any other means.
Dear Mr. Seng,
With all lost respect, I note that you are neither apologizing for making the assumption (if indeed you did) that Malays and Indians do not speak good English nor for what your words, as you have phrased them, could imply about Malays and Indians. Instead, you are apologizing for what you call a “mistake in … language”. When you reduce the issue to a linguistic error, your apology is actually tantamount to a denial and does not indicate that you are sorry.
I do respect your right to deny that you were being discriminatory if you had indeed been maligned, but I think it reeks of insincerity when you decide to call your denial an apology. (I assume that your educational background had not disadvantaged you when it comes to understanding the meaning of the English word, “apology”.) This, I think, highlights one of the problems that plague the members of your political party. To you, you are never really wrong—you are misquoted, misread and misunderstood, but you are never miscreants. Your apologies will never show that you are wrong for they are meant to show that you are wronged. And, with an air of finality, you will tell people to move on and focus on what you deem to be the important issue.
I sense no sincerity in your so-called apology because, while you claim to be apologizing, you are clearly not doing so. You are simply making a statement that serves to absolve yourself from bearing true responsibility for your words. Furthermore, it is clearly not an apology when you are actually accusing the public of misconstruing your words. If your words had been misconstrued, what do you truly have to apologize for? Perhaps those who have misconstrued your words should apologize instead.
As if to prove that your remarks were not discriminatory in nature, you resort to highlighting your background as a Chinese-educated person. This would have been credible if you had cited Chinese people (or more accurately, Chinese-educated people) as an example of those who do not speak good English. Instead, you specifically highlighted only Malays and Indians in your original speech. If your educational background had made you empathetic towards those who are not proficient in English, you should simply have talked about those who do not speak the language well. The example closest to your heart should also those who are Chinese-educated, and these people tend to be Chinese, not Malay or Indian.
No doubt, your point was that even people with poor English should not allow their level of linguistic proficiency deter them from communicating in English. Nevertheless, your statement sounded discriminatory because you had singled out Malays and Indians.
While you had indeed made several linguistic errors in your speech, they were clearly not the main problem. Your words had suggested that the members of the SMRT staff who were not conversant in English were Malay and Indians. Whether you are racist at heart is secondary here. When you singled out two races, your words suggested that Malays and Indians do not speak English well regardless of whether you really think so, and the fact that you left Chinese people out is clearly not a linguistic error. Thanks to your position of authority in the country, the implied meanings of your words could spread misunderstandings about Malays and Indians if people actually take them to be true. They could also cause unhappiness amongst Malays and Indians. You should have acknowledged all these points and apologized for them.
Additionally, you mentioned in your original speech that the SMRT PR had cited the examples of Malays and Indians, but you seem to have misconstrued the words. If you were aware of this, you should have apologized for it too. Even if you did not know that you have paraphrased someone erroneously, the fact that you had not bothered to correct what were obviously discriminatory assumptions in your original speech is also something that you could have apologized to the public for.
Your apology could have been straightforward and sincere, but you chose to be evasive and defensive instead. This would have been tolerable if you had not claimed to be apologizing. Unfortunately for you, it is your apology, and not your original remarks, that makes me inclined to judge you negatively because you can at least be given the benefit of doubt regarding your remarks involving Malays and Indians.
Much to my amusement, your party has been repeatedly promising to change since the election in May. This episode has convinced me that change will come—when the people decide to change the dominant party in the next election.