We need anti-racism watchdogs, but they should protect their credibility

Cherian George

Singapore would have been a better place in March 1992 had The Online Citizen and its followers been around. That month, PAP backbencher Choo Wee Khiang stood up in Parliament to complain that there were too many foreign workers congregating at Serangoon Road on weekends. He said, in the nation's highest forum, that he once visited Little India and found it in complete darkness "not because there was no light, but because there were too many Indians around there".

Opposition MP Chiam See Tong shot to his feet to object. Choo dismissed Chiam's rebuke, clarifying that he was referring to foreign Indians, not local Indians – digging himself deeper into a hole. Later, presumably after he had received some counselling from his PAP bosses, Choo apologised.

The Straits Times carried two Forum letters, one from a Chinese and the other from an Indian, expressing outrage at Choo's comments and calling for his removal from Parliament. But PM Goh Chok Tong said that Choo had apologised, that he didn't really mean harm, and that the matter should be laid to rest since people made mistakes from time to time.

This resolution left many Singaporeans unsatisfied and worried. But without an outlet for their legitimate grievances, the matter was indeed laid to rest. Alternative online media, if they had existed then, would have kept the issue alive, making it far more difficult for the government to sweep it under the carpet. Singaporeans usually count on the government to police the country's racial and religious harmony, but the Choo incident shows that it can sometimes be too charitable to its own.

I raise this issue to illustrate that there have been, and probably will continue to be, cases where Singapore requires vigorous independent whistle-blowing against racism.

But to do this effectively, the watchdogs must, above all, protect their credibility. And this is the problem I had with The Online Citizen's treatment of the current Seng Han Thong affair. After reading my blog yesterday, some readers wondered if I was saying that TOC should not have highlighted the incident. I am glad TOC did. But, to protect its credibility (and to be fair to Seng), TOC should have stuck to the facts – an MP and union leader making extremely ill-judged remarks, which he attributed to an SMRT rep.

This is what Halimah Yaacob did in her timely response, without being any less hard-hitting.

When we cry “racism” and our facts are not verifiable, it undermines the anti-racism cause. It makes it too easy for unconscious racists and outright bigots to claim that the commentators have some other agenda. In this case, many Singaporeans will come away from TOC's loose reporting concluding that its editors were using the episode to further its anti-PAP agenda. This then becomes an excuse for sweeping the racism issue under the carpet.

Opinion shapers should reserve their racism allegations for clear-cut cases: where the perpetrator has nowhere to hide. The Choo Wee Khiang incident, for example. Any way you look it at it, it was racist.

In contrast, the Seng Han Thong case is murky. The full account (see Yawning Bread for a good summary) shows that he blundered, but does not show conclusively that he was racist. To come to such a conclusion requires us to look into his heart, and we are better off leaving such soul-searching to the individual concerned and his maker.



  1. Cynical Investor Says:

    First let me say I help out at TOC. But mostly on biz dev issues and where editorially as a subber. I wasn't involved in this story.

    I also pointed out on Think Happiness and possibly TOC FB pages that PAP MP claimed that he was repeating words of SMRT staff.

    I think Sonia Suka screwed up by using the word "admitted". But she did point out where one could listen to the comments.

    As far as headline is concerned, I don't have an issue with TOC. The chap owns it by "repeating" the comments. In fact given his position as PAP MP, position on the tpt committee, he gives credibility to the words.

    As to the "racism", TOC never ever usede the word or implied it. The only mistake TOC made was the word "admitted" which the editor "corrected" by his comments.

    I will raise the issue of time stamping TOC's editorial, reporting comments.

    Anyway, gd feasting. Gd hols.

  2. Erasmus Says:

    Well Dr George, have you seen this?


  3. Ng Yi-Sheng Says:

    Let's assume the MP made a slip of the tongue; that he meant to say "Malay, Chinese, Indians" instead.

    Then why didn't he say so on his Facebook page when he first apologised? All his said was that his statements had been misconstrued, without any further explanation – which just seemed like floundering.

  4. Santosh Says:

    If this isn't clear cut racism then what is? He had no qualms in saying that it was its Indian and Malay staffs who had trouble with English. He could have said that their staffs had trouble instead. Racism need not be an act or speech as how Choo did it. Choo didn’t act as a racist but his speech was. Racism can be part of ones sub conscious. And Seng displayed this very clearly although he could have been cordial in his touch with the minority races in his daily work. And the truth is out from SMRT that they never had mentioned the 2 distinct races. So where did Seng came out with this. He wasn’t hearing voices I suppose. This form of sub conscious racism would not hit you hard but it will for the common man. And I am a common man. And if we do not register such stuffs to be wrong, then it would be tantamount to say that it is ok to call an Indian “ Keling Kia” You have got it wrong this time and kudos to TOC

    Santosh Melbourne

  5. Pongo Says:

    TOC is going to the dogs lah. Just the other day, I was surprised to read their article to ask for funds saying that they were needed to pay their chief editor. the person named in the article had already left Toc by the way.

    Such factual inaccuracies dont' seem to bother them much. they just try to justify by twisting the words. getting more and more like the tabloid alternative media, TR.

  6. Tango Says:

    Pango not very honest. TOC linked an old article dated May 2011 because somebody asked how they can donate. I donated so I know.

  7. Rina Ng Says:

    Absolutely concur with you Dr George.

    Thank You for your write ups re TOC's report on Mr Seng Han Thong.

    Really glad that someone of your calibre and stature speaks up.

    Thank You & Happy Holidays!