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



December 23rd, 2011

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.


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