Sorry for ‘regrettable mistake’: Seng Han Thong

UPDATED (22 Dec 03:30 PM)

Member of Parliament (MP) Seng Han Thong has apologised for a comment made on national television that appeared to criticise the English spoken by Malay and Indian SMRT staff.

In his Facebook post late Thursday morning, Seng said, "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."

Seng added that he was trying to say that bad English should not prevent people from trying to communicate, especially in times of emergency.

Initially, Seng attempted to defend his comments after socio-political blog The Online Citizen (TOC) broke the story on Wednesday. He had posted a partial transcript of the talk show on late Wednesday night, and said that "unfortunately, some of my comments were mis-interpreted".

In response to Seng’s comments, SMRT said in a statement on Thursday that “Mr Seng may have misunderstood the comments made at our media conference last Friday.”

“When asked by the media about the lack of information given to passengers and feedback from some that they could not understand the English announcements that were made, SMRT’s executive vice president Goh Chee Kong had explained that the company faces a challenge in trying to train its drivers to make announcements, as not all of them are comfortable speaking in English,” said SMRT.

 “At no point did Mr Goh highlight any particular race in his remarks,” SMRT added and said that they are working to improve on the pre-recorded announcements.

But the MP drew flak for his stance, and
even one of his peers expressed unease over his reported comments.

MP Halimah Yacob said that even though Seng was quoting someone else, 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.

Halimah, who is also Minister of State for the Ministry for Community Development, Youth and Sports,  then urged all to calm down and help SMRT correct its huge slip-up.

Meanwhile, TOC itself came under fire for its report with media scholar Cherian George criticising it for sensationalising the issue.

In a blog post, Cherian wrote, “Omitting to
mention that the speaker you’re quoting is quoting someone else can be a little misleading. That didn’t stop TOC, whose report on a TV forum is headlined, “MP Seng Han Thong: SMRT’s unpreparedness also due to Malay and Indian staffs English language inefficiency”.”

Cherian went on to explain that when Seng’s quote is “seen in context, Seng was quoting the comment as part of a larger point he was making, that SMRT should have proper SOPs in place, and that in an emergency the drivers’ standard of English is no excuse for silence.”

“His slip could have been due to political naivety rather than racism. Surely, he should know better,” Cherian added.

During the latest episode of "Blog.TV" on Channel NewsAsia on Monday, the MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC had said one of the reasons for SMRT's unpreparedness to deal with the disruptions last week was, according to the company's public relations team, the bad command of English by SMRT's Malay and Indian staff.

He said, "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."

His quote appears after the 2-minute mark.

When TOC first posted the story, which quickly drew a flurry of comments from readers, many of whom said the MP should have known better than to single out the minority races.

Munny, a 23-year-old engineer, said that his comment offended her as a Malay.

"The way he said it, it was as if he was stereotyping the entire Malay community, that we are unable to communicate properly," said Munny.

Others, however, defended the MP.

Tok Nicholas wrote on Facebook, "It's sad to see that so many people are posting many derogatory comments about you sir. Possibly misintepreted your words. It's unfair to be treated this way when you mentioned a quote from the PR."

The television programme discussed the train disruptions that happened earlier this month and questioned if it could have been better handled.

Seng, who was one of the five guests on the show, was invited to provide a perspective from his role as the deputy chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Transport.

During the talk show, Seng criticised SMRT's top-down communication and said that the staff on the ground were not given instructions quick enough on what to do.

"I believe the staff are waiting for instructions from the top, the operating control centre, the top, if the top did not give instructions, they cannot say anything for fear of that they might say something wrong," said Seng.

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