Seng Han Thong: When an Apology Is Not One

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, 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.

Yours meekly,


Transport Woes: Manifestations of the Singaporean Rot

We should not be surprised if we start to miss the days when we could actually make jokes about transport operators taking us for a ride, given that bus drivers are now literally doing so and trains are refusing to do so. Nothing is more effective in stopping us from complaining about bad service than no service. No one will complain that five people have to share a square feet of standing space when everyone has to worry about crawling into the tunnel with no light at the end—or anywhere else save for our mobile phones. Maybe Lui Tuck Yew, who has been so coincidentally photographed taking a bus and a train, should be photographed walking in a railway tunnel next.

If we wish to take the train, we might have to bring along oxygen tank, or at least a fire extinguisher, for the sake of ventilation. If we decide to take a bus instead, we might, for once, get more than we pay for under the distance-based fare system. Of course, there is always the possibility of taking a cab (since dismal bus and train services are income opportunities for cabbies and those who do nothing but buy cabs and collect rent). The small price to pay lies in the numerous surcharges and the days with 32 peak hours. Admittedly, the last claim is erroneous. The fact is that, these days, taking a cab is an impossibility rather than a possibility because we cannot even get a cab when we need one. The only solution left is to walk. Just make sure that the walkways are not flooded or else we would have to swim instead. Swim while praying hard that we will not bump into a floating corpse. I cannot decide whether Singapore is a comic dystopia or a dystopian comedy.

Once upon a bygone era, we could board the train when it arrived after minutes of waiting. Then the government’s boundless love for foreign talents and the transport operators’ insatiable love for profits conspired to make us wait for two trains, then three or more, before we get so fed up that we willingly perform vertical planking on the doors while waiting for the next train just so that we can board the train. Then we board the train and unwillingly perform the same act facing the opposite direction because we cannot elbow ourselves any further into the train. The societal engineers of Singapore tell us we should be gracious. Be kind and give up your seat—even if there is a 200-human buffer between you and the pregnant woman whose belly is protruding precariously over the borders marked by the closing train doors. We are told we should not complain about overcrowding when public transport companies are already doing their best to meet the demand. The authorities have failed to understand that there can be no graciousness without spaciousness, and no grace without space.

Once upon a bygone era, we could flag down a cab quite easily. Then we began to have to flag for one desperately. Then we had to call to make bookings before we could get one. Then we had to make multiple calls before we could make a booking. Then we could hardly get through the line. More than once, a pre-recorded voice informed me, the moment I got through the line, that there were no cabs available in my area. Comfort Delgro’s computerized booking system now forces you to wait for an SMS to get the cab number when you call to book a cab. The wait for the SMS could range from 3 seconds to 3 days. (No, of course not. After a good number of minutes, you simply get an SMS telling you to try again later.) Comfort Delgro probably the most sophisticated phone booking system in the world and this is simply because there is no way it can handle the number of callers (and it still can’t). Yet, we still have to pay a booking fee. The harder it is to get through the line, the more we pay. They call it peak hour. Corporate incompetence has never been more profitable. The same company which operates buses, trains and cabs can have ridiculously long peak hours for cabs and unrealistically short peak hours for buses and trains. Because the same company can collect peak hour charges for cabs but has to increase bus and train frequencies during peak hours in order to make frequencies look less disgraceful.

In Singapore, when there are not enough cabs to meet the demand, you do not increase the number of cabs. You increase the fares. Force the demand down for a while using high charges, although it will expectedly increase again and that would be the time to increase the fares yet again. The taxi companies are aware of this. They tell cabbies not to worry that fare hikes will cause the number of passengers to be reduced because it will be temporary. In the spirit of fairness, taxi companies do not have the liberty to just increase the cabs as and when they wish to. The government has to allow them to do it, but it may not do so because they roads are also crowded. Squeeze your way out of your tin and you find that you are in an equally packed can of sardine cans. There can be no salvation without space.

We have been assured that trains now come more regularly during peak hours, never mind that we have to wait longer. A hyper-rationalized society like Singapore works this way. Experience does not matter. Neither does reality. Only codes matter. According to the codes, peak-hour trains come at a two-minute interval and the current infrastructure does not allow for higher frequencies. Therefore the service is excellent. Now, after all the disruptions last week, trains now move more slowly and the frequency is lower. A rational and necessary measure. I have not heard anything that assures me that this wonderful measure will be temporary. Is Singapore a comic dystopia?

The problems manifested by the train disruptions are merely the problems that can be seen and isolated. The underlying problem is greater and it has to do with the usual unchanging and unchangeable mindset of practically everyone who matters in decision-making in this country. At every MRT station, the station name is announced, usually only in English. But we can afford to have useless announcements about what to do when you see suspicious articles or inane reminders that we are not allowed to eat or drink in four different languages. Rumor has it that they will add another Mandarin version in Beijing accent and several more in various Indian languages. (They will even fuss about the grammar to experiment with different versions—“in stations or trains,” “in stations or on trains”—and choose the one they happen to think is right. The train services, with all the announcements, like most things in Singapore, do not exist for the people. It is always the other way round. People exist as administrative units to be managed for fat-cat institutions, including the government. Everything is centered on regulating behaviors. I believe the instinctive reaction of those in charge when passengers were trapped in a train last week was to quickly fix the technical problems (and hopefully the matter would not be blown up), and not to take care of those who were trapped or to get them out as soon as possible.

The trapped passengers had a moral obligation to trust the system, trust that whatever is being done is right. A man broke a train window with a fire extinguisher during December 15’s MRT service disruption and SMRT has taken to it with unprecedented kindness, telling the media that it is not going to press charges against him. In other words, it actually has the right press charges against the man. (Of course it has the right, but there is no need to make a statement that emphasizes the right.) If you are trapped in the train and you are a man, you would have to choose between “Save my life and sacrifice my butt” and “Sacrifice my life and save my butt”. For when you are charged with vandalism, you will be caned. (Tip: get a woman to do it instead.) We are now advised to never break windows but instead wait for help and, presumably, for instructions to follow. SMRT will work with schools to “educate” people on how to handle emergencies. Only Singapore can be this obsessive compulsive about getting people to behave in the way The Greats think they should. Is Singapore a dystopian comedy?

Singapore is a place with lots of laughter if you have the right sense of humor and are appropriately distanced. Corpses, floods, price hikes, disruptions: blame the PAP. Corpses, floods, price hikes, disruptions: vote for the PAP. I lack the expertise to tell whether Singaporeans are being screwed over and over again or if they are screwing themselves over and again in a historically unprecedented bout of masochism. The latest statistics suggest that about 60% of Singaporeans are hardcore masochists.

Despite all the problems with SMRT’s train services, CEO Saw Phaik Hwa is not resigning. Those who can sack her are unlikely to do so. She is an excellent CEO. Just look at how much profits the company has made since she became the CEO. That is also the problem with Singapore culture. We have fixed criteria and they must be enforced even when they defy common sense and logic. Students are graded with rubrics. Workers are evaluated with fixed criteria. It does not matter if you are hollow as long as you fit certain dumb criteria of having substance. Criticize the criteria and you have new criteria, but you are never quite free from criteria culture, which is a malignant tumor threatening to kill all truth in this society.

I do not quite care whether Saw Phaik Hwa steps down. It does not matter who is the CEO if the basic task of the CEO is to exponentially increase profits endlessly. Nevertheless, I find her justification for not resigning is irritating and hilarious at the same time: “No good leader will leave the field when the battle is on. I am staying put now to do my work, and put everything right.” The pure comic energy of her justification comes from the uncanny refrain every time some leader in Singapore is asked to resign. Call for any PAP minister to resign and you get the essentially the same justification. I’m refusing to let go of my high-paying position of power because I’m a responsible leader. Since Saw is such a great, responsible leader, allow me to suggest that she should stay on, implement measures to solve all the problems, and resign. Within one year. It is ironic, though, that if she does decide to resign, she might prove to be more deserving of the position than most other people we can find. But this will never happen because self-righteous shamelessness and good leadership are two sides of the Great Singaporean Equation.

We therefore cannot expect any PAP minister to resign either because they are good leaders, though we can certainly turn them into second-generation George Yeos. Not unexpectedly, the direct or indirect messages we are getting from the party voted into power by 60% of Singaporeans are the usual PAP clichés, which can be paraphrased as:

  1. It is not the fault of the PAP government or the system they have created. We will look into the(ir) problems and help everyone solve them.
  2. You can’t expect things to be perfect. We try to fix the problem and move on.
  3. Any solution put forward by the opposition is wrong/whatever we have done is correct.

One learns to appreciate comic refrains after a while. The Prime Minister announced that there would be a public inquiry to investigate the service disruptions. The PAP is not the SMRT. The problems lie with SMRT and the PAP will find out the problems. The PAP will solve help to solve the problems. It is in no way responsible for creating the circumstances that allow the problems to fester in the first place. Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean reminds us that we can never attain perfection: “No matter how careful we are, there will always be instances when things go awry, and we must be prepared for that.” We look forward and move on. After all, looking backwards might reveal some hard truths.

Transport Minister  Lui Tuck Yew feels compelled to tell us once again about the fact (i.e. the PAP’s stand) that nationalizing public transport will not work because the Workers’ Party is asking for it to be nationalized. Yes, the last sentence is ambiguously phrased. Nationalizing public transport will not work because the Workers’ Party thinks it should be done? Or Lui was saying what he did because it was the Workers’ Party that gave the suggestion? The ambiguity is deliberate—it reflects reality. We have been told time and again that we should not have anything else but the PAP in the Parliament because opposition presence or a coalition government will lead to constant bickering and policies will not be implemented. The actual circumstances show that, even with the weakest opposition in the democratic world, the PAP stubbornly sticks to its opinions; and due to the weakness of the opposition, alternative (and better) policies do not even have a chance of being implemented.

In Singapore, the first, and usually only, impulse when a problem that is significant enough is uncovered in Singapore is to make sure that it does not happen again. For the sake of The Greats. There is a rule that The Greats must never lose face. The greater you are, the less your face can be compromised. SMRT is now told that it must make things right. But what if SMRT only operates under a system that the PAP has made wrongly? Even if problems are systemic, we address them as though they are not. We are then pressured never to let manifestations of systemic inadequacies arise again although the same problematic system does not change. The lowest life forms thus get the most stress, and we are generally an unhappy and fearful population. What? SMRT did not inform stranded passengers about the situation? We must never let it happen again and the guy making announcements must be given more instructions, more duties, and be held accountable. The fault cannot possibly be with profit-driven public transport created by the PAP. The biggest problem with Singapore is how The Greats respond to problems. They need to change the way they respond to them. The current philosophy: cover up what you can, justify what you can’t and reductively address what is beyond justification. The system creating the problem is sacred because it is created by the sacred. The required change: criticism is sacred, not power. Leadership is the art of letting go as much as possible. Change is not possible unless the greatest of The Greats, the PAP, does not have a high chance of staying in power perpetually. As long as we do not have a truly democratic culture and remain PAP-dominant, perpetual power is too great a temptation for The Greatest to resist. The Greatest is not going to risk losing it by admitting to mistakes. Counter-intuitively, if it has a good chance of losing power anyway, the stakes are actually lower. No point clinging on so desperately to something that is clearly impermanent.

If only there were fewer masochists.

Singapore is dystopian and comic. But there’s no mirth because it’s too close.

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