Do you remember when Member of Parliament (MP) Seng Han Thong who in December 2011 had been asked about the SMRT train breakdowns that he had remarked, “I noticed that the PR mentioned that some of the staff because they are Malay, they are Indian, they can’t converse in English good, well enough, so that also deters them, from (sic) but I think we accept broken English.”?
According to Yahoo Singapore, “Under Singapore’s Sedition Act, among other things, it is an offence to bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the Government; and to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or classes of the population of Singapore.”
Now, take a look at one of the two comics below, that Demon-cratic Singapore’s Leslie Chew had been arrested for.
Credit: Demon-cratic Singapore
Which expression would you consider to be more racist and which would be more likely to “promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or classes of the population of Singapore”? I will leave that judgment to you.
But I would venture to ask this – if both expressions are considered to be of similar gravity, why wasn’t MP Seng arrested? Why was only Chew arrested? Or, if you would consider MP Seng’s offence to be more serious, why was he not arrested and why was he let off?
In this article, I would like to look into the approaches taken to address MP Seng’s and Chew’s expressions.
Apparently, a mysterious person had filed a complaint “about one of Chew’s cartoons”, though he was eventually investigated for two. It is still not known what the complaint was about, and why two cartoons were investigated, since only one was filed a complaint on. So, this is all we know about Chew so far.
Is MP Seng Han Tong Above The Board, Above The Law?
What about MP Seng? According to AsiaOne, “Mr Zaqy, MP for Chua Chu Kang GRC, posted on Facebook: … “I certainly agree that the comments were unwarranted and I was personally disappointed that Malay and Indian SMRT staff were singled out. Having read the transcript, I think he meant to paraphrase someone else and that the first postings online omitted that fact … However, I don’t think this changes the fact that it was said and that we should be more sensitive especially in public forums.”” AsiaOne added that, “Mr Zaqy told The Straits Times that Mr Seng could have been more understanding towards the sensitivities of the Malay community, which had recently recovered from racially-fuelled incidents.
According to Yahoo Singapore, “MP Halimah Yacob said that … she was ‘disturbed by the remarks which are inappropriate and unfair … I can understand your anger and frustration at such a simplistic and insensitive articulation of the probable cause for the communication failure that had occurred,” she said, addressing the public at large.”
What do you think? Should MP Seng’s expression be considered seditious and should the disaffection voiced out by others warrant his arrest?
Yet, instead of arresting MP Seng for investigation and questioning as Chew had been, other MPs stepped up to try to explain MP Seng’s actions. Xinmsn had reported that then Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K Shanmugam had, “said (that) he has known Mr Seng for many years, adding that he works hard on the ground and helps everyone. Mr Shanmugam said it’s unfair to label Mr Seng as racist.” AsiaOne had reported that another MP, “Mr Zainal Sapari, MP for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, defended Mr Seng, saying in his Facebook post that it was not in his nature to make such comments.”
MP Seng also released a statement of apology on his Facebook page, which says that, “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.
And the matter was then considered closed.
Chew vs MP Seng: Different Stokes for Different (Normal) Folks
Was MP Seng arrested? The intensity of uproar and disaffection generated by MP Seng’s comments had definitely overwhelmed that which Chew had thus far been able to only feebly muster. Yet, there were vastly different responses as to how the they were treated.
- Chew was arrested on one mysterious complaint. MP Seng was not after an ensuing uproar.
- Chew was investigated. Other MPs spoke up for MP Seng.
Similarly, if there were other individuals who spoke up for Chew, can the matter be considered closed as well?
Is The Singapore Government Practicing Double-Standards?
Inherently, these are the following problems that can be seen from a comparison of these two expressions:
- Are politicians above the law? Why was MP Seng not arrested but why was Chew so quickly arrested such that at one point, 10 policemen were searching in his home?
- What can be considered seditious and what can be considered to “bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the Government; and to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or classes of the population of Singapore.” Did only Chew’s comics bring about feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or classes” and was thus arrested, and did MP Seng not have, and was thus not arrested? Certainly, we would disagree with the outcomes of the events.
- What does it say when MPs are allowed to speak up for one another and let the matter go, when the state would come down heavy-handedly on individuals?
I don’t think I need to elaborate further on this, because many of us would have come to our own conclusions.
Power Over The People
It is sickening and appalling that the law can be used as subjectively as it is – it all depends on who you are, to determine whether you can use it, and who you are to determine whether it should or should not be used on you.
Quite obviously, this hasn’t been the only issue of double-standards from our government and of our law. You would still remember when in the Punggol East By-Election 2013 that The Straits Times had conducted an election poll, even though, “according to the Parliamentary Elections Act, no person is allowed to publish exit polls between the time that the writ for an election is called until the close of Polling Day. (according to Yahoo Singapore)” Yahoo Singapore had also mentioned that in contrast, “in 2011, Joseph Ong Chor Teck was arrested for conducting an exit poll on the then-Temasek Review Facebook page.” Yet as had happened in the past, an individual would be arrested but larger establishments seemed to be let off. Yahoo reported that, “the Elections Department has confirmed an ongoing police investigation into … The Straits Times”, but until now, nearly 4 months later, The Straits Times had still not been brought to justice. Meanwhile, it seemed again that an apology would work – “Straits Times editor Warren Fernandez on Sunday apologised for the lapse and said the paper would cooperate fully with the police.”
In fact, do you see a trend here?
- If you are an individual, for whatever small ‘offence’ that the state ‘considers’ you to have made, you will be arrested.
- If you are the government or part of the larger establishment (which is linked to the government), your peers from the establishment will speak out for you, you can apologise and the matter will be laid to rest.
What does this reek of?
ELITISM: Meritocracy to Protect the Elites
ELITISM. This is what our meritocracy is about.
So, what happens if you have power?
- If you are in power, you will be protected.
- If you are in power, you are above the law.
- If you are in power, you can apologise and your apology will carry A LOT, A LOT of weight.
- If you are in power, you have friends in power who will speak out for you and what they say will carry A LOT, A LOT of weight.
- If you are in power, we don’t really want to get you into trouble. We will protect your ass.
- If you are in power, you can do whatever you want and we will have your back – because we are in power together.
- If you are in power, we have the intellectual to discuss issues and come to a logical, sensible understanding and you shalt not do wrong (because, hey, that’s what we say and you know what, we are in power together).
- If you are in power, you are a human being with complexities and we need to understand who you are before we make any judgment about you.
- If you are in power, it is easy for you to use the law against someone.
And what happens if you are an ordinary Singaporean?
- If you are ordinary, you will be arrested for every little thing you do, as long as we constitute it as ‘wrong’.
- If you are ordinary, when you do what we constitute as wrong, you are horribly wrong – you will lose your personality and be known as silo-identity criminal-like person.
- If you are ordinary, you do not have the intellectual capability to discuss issues – ordinary Singaporeans should not discuss racial and religious issues. You won’t be able to handle it. We can. Not you.
- If you are ordinary, does it matter who speaks up for you? Do you have friends like us who can speak up for you and let the matter rest?
The list can go on and on.
“Based on Justice and Equality”? No. Based on Elitism and Meritocracy
Basically, what this episode has shown is that in Singapore, the government has a lot more power than the people. The government practices double-standards. If you are in government, you can do wrong but you will be spoken up for, you can apologise and you will still be in power.
But if you are a normal-stream Singaporean, the government gets to decide whether you are wrong and will arrest you. You don’t get to decide.
There really isn’t any fairness and equality in Singapore. So what if our pledge says, “based on justice and equality”? The government doesn’t believe it. They kept insisting on pledging on a principle of meritocracy that isn’t even enshrined in the pledge.
And in Singapore, meritocracy breeds elitism. You are in the express-stream. Elitism breeds people who let power get into their heads and think that they can do whatever they want and twist the law to protect themselves.
Basically, the law in Singapore is there to protect their power. We know this – the law is intentionally loosely-worded so that when convenient, the law can be used against ‘normal’ Singaporeans who threaten their power.
What I am saying is not new. Can the government and the courts use it against me? Well, they can. And they might win and have a high chance of winning. But what can I do? I can fight my case. I can plead my innocence.
But I will be at the mercy of the elites. They have the power so they get to define what is right or wrong.
Our Government Has Lost Its Bearings. It Has To Change.
Now, for some of you, you might still want to think – don’t malign our government. Don’t malign our courts. Sure, our government and courts has done what is right. They have and sometimes, I am proud of them.
But in times like this, they have not. And it is their responsibility to uphold themselves to the rule of law. As someone on my Facebook had questioned, “rule of law, or rule by law”?
Our government is not above the law. Politicians are not above the law. They are elected by us to serve us. They are elected by us to listen to us. What this means is that we should be asked to speak, so that they would be able to listen and to facilitate our needs – not to deny our right to speak, not to repress our expressions and not to prevent us from thinking in ways that are different.
And if the government cannot hold themselves responsible, then it is up to us – Singaporeans – to hold the government responsible. At the next general and presidential elections, we need to vote to ensure that we have a representative government who will abide by the following:
- Protect and enshrine our individual rights, whether you are a ‘normal’ Singaporean or a politician
- Do not go overboard and abuse their power
- Encourage a diversity of opinions – this will generate more ideas to propel Singapore forward
- Listen to the people and facilitate people’s needs
Again, there are many more that I could write. But I would need to detail each and every act that the government would need to do only because the government has lost its bearings, and we would need to hold them by the rein. If our government has the principles of justice, equality and fairness held up in esteem, we won’t need to teach them these. They would know what is right.
Unfortunately, this government has proven itself unworthy. It has to change.