This is going to be a post about racism. Buckle up, I promise it’ll be short.
There was Amy Cheong, who until yesterday was a fairly unremarkable marketing-type person amongst the teeming masses in the country. One (or three) public Facebook posts slamming noisy Malay void deck weddings and insinuating that they are cheap and morally unworthy later, she became a household name, or at least a trending topic on social media. In quick succession, her employers, the police, and the heads of government got involved. She got fired, had a sedition charge laid against her, and became a issue that even the Prime Minister felt he needed to comment on. You can see screencaps of Amy’s original posts here, and read a timeline of the events that happened here.
It’s a hideously complex matter with a lot of angles to consider, but I’ll get my personal thoughts on it out of the way:
1) What Amy Cheong said was vile and racist, and her reactions to people calling her out on her racism included a tweet where she said her “generic post” was getting a lot of “hateful and cruel responses from strangers”– this after she cut and pasted several dozen identical apologies to anyone who even mentioned the issue. She wasn’t sorry about being racist, she was just sorry she was getting flak for it.
2) I won’t demonise the people who highlighted her publicly-made comment to her employers, particularly since a large part of the comments I saw being made on Facebook were made by members of the Malay community, who have every right to be slagged off . I especially dislike the term “lynch mob” used in this context because… you know, the original lynch mobs were actually made of racists.
3) I don’t agree with NTUC’s decision to fire her instead of, say, sending her for counselling or enrolling her in community outreach programs. It’s not going to help anyone, and it certainly isn’t going to help her overcome her racist mindset.
4) At the same time, I recognise that it was NTUC’s prerogative to decide whether they wanted to keep her on the payroll or not. If it’s reasonable to reject job applicants on the grounds that they hold values that are not in line with the company’s, then it should also be reasonable to fire people on the same basis if such information comes to light.
5) Bringing this incident up to the Prime Minister/lodging a police report? What is that really supposed to achieve? (Yet you knew it would happen anyway, because people.)
What galls me more than any of the above, though, is this line from PM Lee’s response to it. I quote. “Let us treat this incident for what it is: an isolated case that does not reflect the strength of race relations in Singapore.”
An isolated case, Mr Prime Minister? The only thing “isolated” about Amy’s comments is how much attention they got. I can assure you that racism does happen, each and every day, at all levels across society.
It’s boys who were from my predominantly Chinese, middle-to-upper class junior college making mat jokes and poking fun at Malay accents. It’s someone openly justifying not hiring Malays and Indians because they are “lazy”. It’s getai MCs broadcasting unapologetic apu-neh-neh jokes in an open field next to HDB blocks that, thanks to our ridiculous ethnic quota policies, are guaranteed to have Indian families living in them.
It’s my dad making “terrorist” jokes every time the mosque across the road is mentioned.
It’s growing up being told to behave while in public or “Indian men will come and catch you and sell you on the streets to beg for money”.
If you want hard truths, this is one: Singapore can pretend to be racially harmonious all it wants, but the fact remains that racism deeply rooted, and will continue to be as long as we ignore the truth of racial inequalities in the blind pursuit of “meritocracy”. People are shocked that Amy Cheong got fired over a Facebook post because it seems like such a small thing, one banal thing that is not fit to lose a job over. But that’s the problem. Everyday racism isn’t long vitriolic manifestos on nutjob websites, it isn’t a lone guy shooting up a dozen people in the name of hatred. It’s things like Facebook posts and what you say to your friends and what you think in private that affects the way you do things in little ways. It’s banal, it’s boring, it’s everywhere.
And as long as those in positions in power continue to deny this truth, it’s never going to get better at a national level. This is something that needs to be talked about. This is something that should be part of any national conversation we hold.
But I’m not betting on it happening.