Monday, 26 December 2011

MP Seng Han Thong & the SMRT in the new normal

Significant part attributed to MP Seng Han Thong is false: Shanmugam
By Saifulbahri Ismail, Channel NewsAsia, 24 Dec 2011

Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said that a significant part of what has been attributed to MP Seng Han Thong by people and netizens over his recent comments is false.

Mr Shanmugam said: "A significant part of what has been attributed to Mr Seng is false, to be quite blunt about it."

Weighing in on the controversial remarks, Mr Shanmugam said the key point is that Mr Seng had sought to rebut a statement made by an officer from train operator SMRT.



Mr Shanmugam said: "Han Thong heard over the radio what an officer from MRT said, essentially suggesting that poor language skills of Chinese, Indian and Malay drivers who work with SMRT were part of the problem in the inadequacy of the response by SMRT. Seng Han Thong strongly disagreed with this comment.

"So when he went on TV, he referred to this comment, and in essence made the point that the language skills of workers should not be blamed for the inadequacy of the response. And his point is that broken English can be effective in communicating of what needs to be communicated.

"The real problem according to him, was that the workers, drivers specifically, had not been given adequate training to deal with these sorts of emergencies."

Mr Shanmugam said the mistake Mr Seng made was that he misquoted the MRT officer and said that the officer had referred to Indian and Malay drivers when in fact, the officer had referred to drivers of all races.

Mr Shanmugam added: "If you put that across I don't think many people will have reacted in the way they did. The mistake... was that he misquoted the MRT officer and said that the officer had referred to Indian and Malay drivers having poor English language skills, when in fact the officer had referred to all three races.

"I think that personally Hang Thong could have also gone further to explicitly disagree with the view which he thought that the officer had expressed - that the Indian and Malay drivers had poor language skills, he could have gone further and rebutted that."





Mr Shanmugam also took issue with an article posted by socio-political website, The Online Citizen (TOC).

TOC headlined its article, "MP Seng Han Thong: SMRT's unpreparedness also due to Malay and Indian staffs English language proficiency". Mr Shanmugam said the article, which was attributed to Mr Seng, was false and was the opposite of what he had said.

The minister said: "The article does not say that he was quoting an MRT officer. They could have pointed out that it was an inaccurate quote. The didn't say he was quoting an MRT officer and neither does it say that he disagreed with that view. Instead, in both the headlines and in the text, it reaffirms the view that these were his words."

Mr Shanmugam believes Mr Seng is not racist. He said he has known Mr Seng for many years, adding that he works hard on the ground and helps everyone.

Mr Shanmugam added: "We have to look at the facts. So I hope that we can deal with this matter on the basis of facts and not on the basis of false statements which are wrongly attributed to someone."





MP clears the air regarding comments on transport workers
Channel NewsAsia, 24 Dec 2011

Member of Parliament for Ang Mo Kio GRC, Seng Han Thong, has sought to allay concerns and clear the air with transport workers over his comments in a Channel NewsAsia programme, BlogTV.

Mr Seng, who is Executive Secretary of the National Transport Workers' Union (NTWU), said in the programme, he expressed his view that SMRT needs to improve on the public communications during an emergency.

He said he recalled hearing on the radio a view that cited the workers' difficulty in English as a reason for the communication problems at the MRT stations.

Mr Seng said he disagreed, adding that broken English should be acceptable.

He said unfortunately, in trying to defend the workers, he made the mistake of only mentioning "Malay" and "Indian" workers, when the original quote in the radio interview had cited MRT staff of different races - "Malay, Chinese, or Indians or any other race".

Mr Seng said his wish to defend the workers was further taken out of context and misconstrued by The Online Citizen.

He said the headline, "MP Seng Han Thong: SMRT's unpreparedness also due to Malay and Indian staffs (sic) English language inefficiency", made it look like he was blaming any unpreparedness during a emergency on their language inefficiency.

Mr Seng said he understands that this episode has hurt the feelings of the workers, as well as other Singaporeans, and apologised to them for this misquotation.

Mr Seng, who shared these views in a Facebook post on Saturday (*see below) stressed that he never had any intention to belittle or push the blame of the recent MRT breakdown to the workers of SMRT.

He said that having been executive secretary of NTWU for many years, he is well aware that the workers are competent in communicating with the public in English.

In the BlogTV interview, he said he tried to make the point that "not-so-perfect English" should not prevent them from communicating effectively with the public, especially in times of emergencies.

Mr Seng said these are challenging times for the transport workers and for SMRT and he is confident that they will rise to the occasion and work with the management to restore public confidence in the train system.

He noted that they have had to work extra hard to repair and maintain the system during this period.

He said their exemplary performance is the pride of NTWU and will be duly recognised by the Singapore public.

Noting that workers in the frontline faced the stress and pressure from commuters as they tried their best to resume train services, he thanked them for their service to the travelling public.

*Seng Han Thong
LETTER TO THE NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION WORKERS' UNION
Dear brothers and sisters of NTWU,
1 The recent series of breakdown incidents in our SMRT system has raised the attention of the public. You have had to work extra hard to repair and maintain the system during this period. Your exemplary performance is the pride of NTWU and will be duly recognized by the Singapore public.
2 I know that it was you, the workers standing at the front line, who were facing all the stress and pressure from the public commuters, every minute and second when we tried our very best to resume the train service. May I thank you for your service to the travelling public.
3 In the recent Blog TV programme, I expressed my view that SMRT needs to improve on the public communications during an emergency. I recalled I heard on the radio a view that cited our workers' difficulty in English is a reason for the communication problems at the MRT stations.I disagreed and said that even broken English should be acceptable.
4 Unfortunately, in trying to defend you, I made the mistake of only mentioning our "Malay" and "Indian" workers where the original quote in the radio interview I was commenting on had cited MRT staff of different races, "Malay, Chinese, or Indians or any other race". 
5 My wish to defend you was further taken out of context and misconstrued by The Online Citizen. Their misleading title "MP Seng HanThong: SMRT's unpreparedness also due to Malay and Indian staffs (sic) English language inefficiency" (Dec. 21), made it look like I was blaming any unpreparedness during a emergency on your language inefficiency. 
6 I understand that this episode has hurt the feelings of our workers, as well as other Singaporeans, and I apologize to you for this misquotation. I never had any intention to belittle or push the blame of the recent MRT breakdown to the workers of SMRT. Having been executive secretary for NTWU for many years, I am well aware that our workers are competent to communicate with the public in English. That is why when I heard on radio that our workers had difficulty with English, I disagreed . So in my Blog TV interview, I tried to make the point that our not so perfect English should not prevent us from communicating effectively with the public, especially in times of emergency. 
7 These are challenging times for you and SMRT. I am sure you will rise to the occasion and work in cooperation with the management to restore public confidence in our train system. 
8 Once again, I ask for your understanding, and urge you to work together to get MRT back in good shape. I salute your hard work at the frontline of our public transport system!
Han Thong


Seng Han Thong isn't racist, says fellow MP
Channel NewsAsia, 24 Dec 2011

Member of Parliament (MP) for Ang Mo Kio GRC Inderjit Singh said he is disappointed with the comments of fellow MP Seng Han Thong on Indian and Malay MRT staff, but is assured that he is not racist.

He said in his 17 years working with Mr Seng, he has never sensed any racism in what he says and does.

Mr Inderjit said he has worked closely with Mr Seng, not just as a fellow MP, but also as members of the same GRC team in Ang Mo Kio.

He said he drew from experience that his colleague is not racist.

Mr Inderjit shared his thoughts on Facebook on Saturday (24 Dec), in response to a netizen who asked for his views on the outcry over comments by Mr Seng in a TV programme, BlogTV.

In the Channel NewsAsia programme telecast on Monday, Mr Seng had said: "I noticed that the PR mentioned that some of the staff, because they are Malays, they are Indians, they can't converse in English well enough."

His comment drew ire from netizens, who perceived it as suggesting as SMRT staff failed to communicate with commuters during the two massive service disruptions last week because of their ethnicity.

Mr Inderjit agreed that Mr Seng's comments were "uncalled for" and are "not fair to the minority races."

He said even if Mr Seng was stating what he had heard, as a public figure he should have been more discerning and mindful of the multi-racial fabric of Singapore society.

In an interview on Saturday afternoon with Channel NewsAsia, Mr Inderjit said the issue should not deter MPs from making off-the-cuff remarks.

"We should just be conscious of what we are saying and try to say what we feel without fear. I don't think MPs will be deterred, but I think all of us will be sensitive to issues that have been raised by the public and so we'll try our best," he said.

Mr Seng had apologised on his Facebook page, saying: "I made a regrettable mistake in my language, which may be misconstrued as me saying that people speak bad English because of their ethnicity."

He explained that the remark was made in the context of a larger discussion about how to improve the current problems with the mass rapid transport system.



Malay MPs weigh in on 'racist' remarks
They criticise fellow MP Seng Han Thong's remarks on train drivers
By Toh Yong Chuan, The Straits Times, 24 Dec 2011

ANOTHER two Malay People's Action Party (PAP) MPs have weighed in on the controversy that erupted over remarks made by fellow MP Seng Han Thong on a TV talk show.

Mr Zainal Sapari and Mr Zaqy Mohamad made separate postings on Facebook yesterday that distanced themselves from Mr Seng's comments that the lack of proficiency in English of Malay and Indian train drivers deterred them from making train announcements.

Mr Seng said he had been refuting a remark by an SMRT officer.
Both Mr Zainal and Mr Zaqy yesterday criticised Mr Seng's remarks, which some Netizens had said were 'racist''.

Mr Zainal, MP for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, told The Straits Times when elaborating on his post, that Mr Seng's comments were inappropriate and cannot be condoned.

But, he added, 'it is not fair to label him a racist'.

Having known Mr Seng for seven years, through working together on community activities, he described Mr Seng as 'a good man and not in his nature to make such remarks'.


The saga, he added, shows politicians or public figures 'need to improve our own communication skills, not just the SMRT staff, especially in sensing the ground and sensitivities with respect to beliefs and race'.

When contacted by The Straits Times, he said Mr Seng could have been more attuned to the sensitivities of the Malay community which has just recovered from the shock of recent incidents.

Last month, former PAP youth wing member Jason Neo, 30, made a racist Facebook post of a picture of a bus carrying Malay kindergarten children. He later apologised and quit the party.

Within a week, full-time national serviceman Christian Eliab Ratnam posted on his Facebook wall a picture of text criticising Islam. He later apologised online.

On Monday, Mr Seng, a veteran labour MP, sparked an outcry online with his comments. He wrongly attributed it to an SMRT official.

It drew a rebuke from Minister of State for Community Development, Youth and Sports Halimah Yacob, who went on to urge people 'to stay cool as we need SMRT to focus on the big, big issue of fixing the defects''.

Mr Seng has since apologised for his comments, saying he had misheard the SMRT official on the radio while driving.

Another PAP MP, Mr Baey Yam Keng, when contacted, noted that the issue of the poor communication by SMRT during last week's train breakdowns had nothing to do with race.

Hence, he said, 'there was no necessity to make reference to race in this case'.

Mr Baey, MP for Tampines GRC, is managing director of public relations company Hill+Knowlton Strategies.

Like other public communications experts interviewed, he stressed the need for newsmakers to be extra careful and precise when making comments on sensitive topics such as race, religion and ethnicity.

These topics are as sensitive in today's fast-moving social media environment as they were in the non-Internet past, noted Adjunct Associate Professor Basskaran Nair of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

Mr Nair, a public relations veteran, had this advice: 'When in doubt, avoid making comments on race and religion, especially off-the-cuff comments.'

MP Zaqy pointed out that being precise means avoiding sweeping statements and to look at issues 'through the eyes of minority segments'.

Dr Vivian Chen, assistant professor at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information in Nanyang Technological University (NTU), pointed to the pitfalls when mentioning race.

'When you talk about sensitive issues like race, you have to use neutral terms' because people might 'end up enlarging and interpreting what you say', she said.

Professor Ang Peng Hwa, director of the Singapore Internet Research Centre at NTU, pointed out that in the brouhaha, the point Mr Seng had wanted to make - about poor communications - got lost when attention shifted to ethnicity.

The experts also stressed that mistakes will occur, given the emotional and visceral nature of social media, where comments are easily taken out of context or distorted.

Hence, it is important for Netizens to forgive mistakes, they added.

Like the other experts, Prof Ang said Mr Seng did the right thing by apologising swiftly and he urged Netizens to 'look at the actions of the person, as opposed to just the words that he spoke'.

Similarly, Mr Baey said: 'Hopefully, people will move on... and look at his other contributions as an MP, and not discount anyone just because of one mistake.'

Equally supportive was Mr Zainal, who told The Straits Times: 'It was a mistake, but it is not Mr Seng's intention to put down the Malay and Indian communities.'



LET'S STAY COOL
'Several friends have raised their concerns over MP Seng Han Thong's remarks. I am also disturbed by the remarks which are inappropriate and unfair even though he may be repeating what someone else said.

'Having worked in the labour movement for 33 years before taking up my present post, I am reminded of how employers in the past sometimes try to pin the blame on the lowest level workers as a way of deflecting responsibility from the management whenever a major problem occurs.

'Effective communication as we all know requires a properly thought-out strategy and plan, putting a system in place, training of employees and testing whether the plan works, among others. It is not right to pin the blame on workers and, what is worse, Malay and Indian workers for the purported lack of English proficiency.

'So, 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.

'But friends, let's also try to stay cool as we need SMRT to focus on the big, big issue of fixing the defects so that the trains can run smoothly and passengers are not further inconvenienced.'
Minister of State for Community Development, Youth and Sports Halimah Yacob in a Facebook posting.



MP Seng's gaffe: Let's keep it in perspective
AS AN Indian Singaporean who has had the privilege of working under Mr Seng Han Thong, I can testify that the Member of Parliament is not only kind-hearted but fair-minded ('Outcry over MP's remarks on SMRT train drivers'; yesterday).

As the divisional director supervising human resources where I worked at the administration and research unit of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC-ARU), he always was a joy to work with and always concerned for the ordinary man.

He respected his colleagues regardless of their race.

When he dined at the staff canteen at the old Trade Union House, he always made sure that everyone present had a drink or food.

Before I left NTUC-ARU, he made sure we dined together before we parted ways. He was present at the wedding of our old colleague's daughter, clearly appreciating and at ease with Indian culture.

Let us not get carried away by this episode. Politicians have families too. Mr Seng has apologised, and he is a gentleman.
K.S. Thomas
ST Forum, 24 Dec 2011




MP sorry for "racist" remark
By Nurul Syuhaida and Wayne Chan, Channel NewsAsia, 22 Dec 2011

Member of Parliament (MP) Seng Han Thong has apologised for his remark made on Channel NewsAsia's programme, Blog TV.SG, which was telecast on Monday.


The comment by the deputy chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Transport suggested SMRT staff failed to communicate with commuters during the two massive train breakdowns last week, because of their ethnicity.

That remark got Mr Seng -- one of the five guests on a special edition of BlogTV which discussed the recent spate of MRT breakdowns -- in hot soup.

It incurred the wrath of Singaporeans, who vented their anger on his Facebook page.

It also drew a rebuke from Minister of State for Community Development, Youth and Sports Halimah Yacob, who said the remark was "inappropriate and unfair".

"English is a very important language that is used very widely, in all job applications, in all jobs, and whether that would then lead to employers thinking that, 'look, perhaps we should re-think about employing minorities because they may not be able to speak English so well'," Madam Halimah said.

"This could then affect job opportunities, particularly in the current situation when the labour market is softening, and people are really quite concerned about their jobs and that's the reason why I think we need to correct this."

In his online apology (*see below), Mr Seng said he made a regrettable mistake in his language, which may be misconstrued as him saying that people speak bad English because of their ethnicity.

He said Singaporeans of all ethnicities and backgrounds speak varying standards of English, and that his Chinese-educated background gives him a special empathy for the non-English-speaking sections of the society.

The point he was trying to make was that different standards of linguistic ability should not prevent people from communicating, especially in times of emergency.

Mr Seng also said he was simply repeating what he heard from an SMRT spokesperson in a radio interview.

SMRT told Channel NewsAsia that Mr Seng may have misunderstood comments made by its senior vice-president for communications & services, Goh Chee Kong, in a radio interview last Saturday.

During the interview, Mr Goh had said SMRT staff who are of different races find it difficult to make announcements in English.

But he did not highlight any particular race.

SMRT said it is training its staff so that they can better communicate with passengers when a situation arises.
*Seng Han Thong
Statement of Apology
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. 
The remark was made in the context of a larger discussion about how we could better and faster improve the current problems we're facing with our mass rapid transport system. Let us once again focus our minds and our public discussion on this issue.

Seng Han Thong
Dear friends, below is the transcript of the BlogTV interview about the SMRT breakdown. Unfortunately, some of my comments were mis-interpreted. 
SEGMENT 2 – Is There an Even Bigger Problem?
4:19 Tim Oh: Can we ask you Han Thong, is there a new media department in SMRT? 
Seng Han Thong: They have all this, they have the new media, the SMS system to send messages to taxi drivers, the message about the requirement so it’s there. 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. So in this case, I think we should accept instinct, back to basics, Can we say: ‘hello, we are here, just that someone was caught in the train, lift, we just knock on the door like say, hello, we are here, we are here, don’t worry. That kind of assurance is not there. So even without the new media, you can respond to secure, to calm down. But that’s not happening. 
5:10 Tim Oh: ok let me just ask you guys, all these numbers that we are hearing, you know breakdowns, does these numbers actually worry you? 
Seng Han Thong: Really, first of all, we know about the land transport master plan and in fact to be back to basics, what we want is security and safety, so the security basis has been there, for the last one year or two, safety one, we know it’s happening, so the basic requirement for all commuters is how to ensure that the land transport is a safe one and a secure one.  
Cheryl: So what you are saying it’s not that the staff is not properly trained, that’s not the issue, it’s the communication from top down? 
5:51 Seng Han Thong: I would say there are two aspects. First the staff are not trained for this emergency preparedness, they know how to prevent terrorist but even this one, they are not prepared so they follow a very strict kind of SOP, so they have to be flexible, and especially to deal with different kind of emergency whether it is terrorist attack or internal, system flaw. They are not ready. I notice that the PR mention 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 but I think we accept broken English. 
Tim Oh: You know what, I think we carry on this conversation, we’re just going to bring on the visual, with some numbers on what’s actually happen so far, as we can see train disruptions, well, they are no stranger, they have happened before, possibly but not in this scale or in that frequency. If this has happened before, don’t you think Christina, that they should have a contingency in place already? 
SEGMENT 4 – First World Transport System?
2:00 Tim Oh: Well you know what guys, it’s happened, what’s happen has happened, will it continue to happen, we don’t know but I guess what’s important is to find out what people think especially commuters, do they believe that SMRT should be forgiven?
Video (vox pop) 
3:08 Seng Han Thong: I would say that we must look at it from two aspects, one’s a system problem, whereas the public transport workers, on the frontline, they are facing tremendous pressure these few days. They told me that, they were criticized, and in fact no, they face tremendous pressure from the commuters. So this is a system problem, the top management must come out quickly, a good system to communicate well. Not only to communicate to the commuters but to the staff, and tell the staff how to respond to this very unique situation, that’s important. In the end this is Singapore, this is our system, we feel proud of it, back to the so call first world class land transport, we must know that what we want is security, safety, and efficiency. 
3:50 Tim Oh: Do we still have a world class transport system? 
Jason Chuang: I guess, the thing is are we lower class commuters because I think the real drama happens outside the MRT, where I really see terrible people reacting to crisis, people cutting queues, people trying to get on the buses, ignoring kids, elderly, up the bus. Even for ourselves, have we reacted to the crisis in a better way?









Related stories;
Mr Seng Han Thong - What he actually said
Seng Han Thong - Alternative media and choosing sides
We need anti-racism whistle blowers but they should protect their credibility
There's enough real racism in singapore - TOC needn't cry wolf
TOC's report on MP Seng Han Thong's remarks
The PAP's biggest problem - the silent majority
Temasek Review don't be ridiculous - a reader from newnation.sg
But I hope objectivity and rationality will prevail in the long run - Zaqy Mohamad
We can only hope that those who have the ability to influence will act responsibly - Hri Kumar

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