The Functions of Apologies in Singapore

In Singapore, apologies are an indicator of power—or the lack thereof. Publicized apologies, whether they are uttered by the powerful voluntarily or extorted from the disempowered with self-righteousness derived from privilege, are equally insincere because sincerity is secondary, if it is even significant. Nevertheless, apologies are a tool for the powerful to declare their non-existent sincerity and a tool for the disempowered to prove wrong the unsettling truths they have uttered.

A number of years back, a blogger was made to apologize “unreservedly”—and publicly through the blog itself—to Philip Yeo of A*Star as though the declaration of an unreserved apology was the same as a truly unreserved apology. As long as he sounded abjectly remorseful, no one cared if he was apologetic either.  Obviously, no one was stupid enough to believe that the blogger was truly apologetic The necessary and expected referent of the apology was thus its own existence in public space and no longer contriteness from the heart. A private apology would not suffice for it was devoid of meaning insofar as the powerful one was concerned. The apology could only be meaningful if there was empirical proof of its utterance.

More recently, the Prime Minister of Singapore himself fed Singaporeans an apology a few days before the General Election to minimize vote loss, won the elections, and forgot all about the apology as Singaporeans defecated the apology together with the other junk food they eat. (I, too, will not hesitate to apologize unreservedly should this claim happen to be false. As everyone knows, bloggers are known for not verifying their claims, unlike Straits Times reporters who use the most advanced PAP truth-check software to verify all their information.) Whereas a disempowered blogger’s apology to a powerful figure had to be unreserved, a prime minister’s apology could be conditional and non-committal: “if we didn’t quite get it right, I’m sorry, but we will try to do better the next time” (italics mine). It could also amount to self-praise: “we’re sorry we didn’t get it exactly right” (italics mine, source for both quotes here). In other words, they got it largely right and they are sorry they are, so understandably, like everyone else, not perfect. It was a declaration that the blamable was blameless, one that violently exploited the apology as a signifier only to empty it entirely.

When the now infamous delinquent/famous victim Reuben Wang made an apology to Teo Chee Hean after writing a blog article now tragically known more for containing expletives than any political point, anyone vaguely familiar with how Singapore works would speculate that that the apology was extracted via institutionalized extortion.

A mild defense of the use of expletives should first be made to show how trivial the matter really is. An expletive is just another word. Any word can be an expletive as long as enough people decide that is should be forbidden in polite language. Comparing an aforementioned politician’s self-aggrandizing “sorry” and Wang’s expletive, the former is markedly more vulgar to me. Perhaps I should politely request for an apology as a Singaporean citizen and start an unending cycle of apologies. There will come a day when “sorry” acquires the status of an expletive vulgar enough to make whores blush. Expletives also have transgressive potential simply because it is forbidden. The use of an expletive could be an indication of insolence, but it could also be used for illustrative purposes—to indicate a speaker’s emotions, for instance. This is not a defense of rude behavior but a defense of legitimate expression although they may not be mutually exclusive. While Wang need not have used expletives, his use of expletives serves to indicate intensity of his anger and frustration of his encounter with Teo at the Pre-U Seminar. It is one thing to hurl vulgarities at the person you are communicating directly with, and another thing to use vulgarities in one’s communication. If you show a friend an article about how Wang had to apologize to Teo and your friend goes “WTF,” it would be unreasonable of you to accuse your friend of being rude to you although everyone knows that WTF is an acronym for an expletive-containing expression.

As I read Wang’s article, it does not strike me that he was being rude to Teo. Why Wang was supposed to apologize to Teo, and Teo specifically, remains the greatest mystery in the history of well-publicized Singaporean apologies.

Lest we forget, Wang did not hurl expletives at Teo at the Pre-U Seminar where both of them were present. Neither did he send Teo a letter or email rudely sprinkled with his expletives. He wrote a blog post that was not addressed to Teo.  There are instances where “Fuck you” is not said to or for “you”. (Yes, that word came out without being censored by silly asterisks. If you think I am being rude to anyone or that I am being indiscreet with my use of language, go get a life—it comes with a complimentary brain which you would certainly find useful.) Even if you do not like the expression, you could still understand that it shows how angry I am when I use it in my reference to another person. In the case of Wang, he was expressing his views and feelings to his audience. Some may even criticize him for not having enough guts as he had restrained himself when he had the chance to address Teo directly, but only performed an expression of his anger towards Teo in front of a wide but different audience online. It is justifiable for someone to be critical of how Wang had expressed himself, but it would be wrong to say that he was rude to Teo or that he was rude solely to Teo. Why, then, should Teo have the privilege of receiving an apology as though Wang had verbally abused him in his face?

Given that what Wang wrote was posted online and set as public before it was deleted, we may say that his audience is the general public of which Teo is a member, but merely one of many. If readers had found his language offensive, he should have apologized to his readers or to the general public, which would include Teo. If his school had believed that his inelegant use of language had tarnished the reputation of the school, he should have apologized to the school for the impact of his writing and not to Teo. The only way Teo can distinguished from the rest of the audience lies in the fact that the article was critical of him. In other words, the real contention was with the content, not the manners. Singaporeans may already be accustomed to experiencing the bizarre as the quotidian, but the series of events following Wang’s publication of his article highlights certain troubling facets of Singapore.

Wang’s brush with Singapore’s institutions and politicians brings to mind the perennial debate about online anonymity. Netizens are often challenged to be accountable and credible by putting their name to their comments, as though credibility comes naturally to those who reveal the names on their NRIC when they blog. (According to this theory, Xiaxue is one of the most credible bloggers around whereas Molly is amongst the most irresponsible. Molly ought to be ashamed of herself.) It is as though how responsible and credible one is depends on how easily traceable one is to the government. Yet, various state institutions would collude to perform a disciplinary function if you step on powerful toes and tracked down. You are not silenced, but are made to silence yourself, delete your online existence and can only re-emerge anonymously only to subject yourself to the same old asinine claims about anonymity.

It will become clear once you are tracked down why the authorities would like to be able to track you down. According to a ChannelNewsAsia report, Wang “wrote to Mr Teo . . . to apologise for being “too rash and too harsh in using the expletives.”” If the wording of the report is to be trusted, it would seem that Wang was not made to realize that the use of expletives was to be faulted in itself; rather he was made to realize (if this phrase did not seem ridiculous the first time round, I hope it does not) that he was wrong because he was too harsh. If he had substituted the expletive with “marshmallow” and sounded equally harsh in his criticism of Teo, he would still have to apologize. On the other hand, we may also say that if he had been praising Teo but had randomly sprinkled his post with expletives, it would have been deemed more acceptable since the main problem was with how harsh he was. This is truly a learning experience, though perhaps in a different way from what the mainstream media would make it out to be. It would be interesting, though, to know if Wang had worded the apology himself or if the educators in his school had vetted the apology or advised him on the wording with their delicate, disciplinarian-nurturing rhetoric.

If I may be allowed to speculate based on my understanding of how things work in Singapore, I would say that committees are probably now formed in schools or in the Ministry of Education itself to look into coming up with a code of conduct for students attending the Pre-U Seminar next year. Students may be trained to frame their questions and objections in sanctioned templates. There may even be injunctions for students to not blog about it at all. “Character education” teachers and “cyber etiquette” teachers may be rubbing their hands in glee, glad to have found another example to include in their lesson plans so that Singaporean kids can grow up to become active and responsible citizens who are politically engaged but never harsh in their criticisms of the ruling elite—if they even have to criticize. These are just wild, satirical speculations, are they not? Well, one MOE spokesperson has said: “We hope to turn this into a teachable moment for both the student blogger and students in general.”

If the way a single article by a single blogger could result in nationwide social engineering efforts is not exactly disturbing because we are already used to it, the irony of the whole saga may be more disturbing: Student rants about how Teo, who represents the ruling elite, is failing at engaging the people. Student is made to participate in a charade of reconciliation by the forces of the state. Charade is taken as the reality; the original rant is forgotten. Happy ending: Ruling elite has engaged the people. This is not altogether new either. We are a nation repetitively interpellated into the absurd script written by the PAP. The script is scripture and the nation has to dare to burn it if it does not want the perpetually remain as disempowered players.

I have to confess at this point that I have made assumptions about Reuben Wang in my writing. I should be careful not exploit Reuben Wang for my purposes. Perhaps he really is remorseful about using expletives. Perhaps he truly understands the PAP now. Perhaps the state has managed to re-educate him. Perhaps, but I certainly hope not. Perhaps I will never find out—the state has an uncanny power to make people disappear as they continue living their lives as though nothing has changed.

Reuben: I hope you are old enough to vote when the next General Election comes.

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