The Amy Cheong saga: A primer on human rights

Vincent Wijeysingha

The termination of Amy Cheong, an assitant director at the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), for a blatantly racist comment on Facebook is ill-advised.

On Sunday last, Ms Cheong commented unfavourably on the noise issuing from a Malay wedding held at an HDB void deck. In making her point, she uttered some very unforgiving statements about our Malay community and imputed various failures to it.

She clearly acted wrongly and insulted many in the Malay community. Judging by the majority of posts online, she also offended many non-Malay Singaporeans.

Racist comments are always unacceptable and should never be tolerated. When I lived abroad, it never ceased to both hurt and amaze me that people could utter racist statements. Often I heard the statement, “F**k off back to where you came from,” and it always caused me to reflect that most people in the United Kingdom are not originally from the UK since the indigenous people died out centuries ago.

When confronted with behaviour such as was displayed by Ms Cheong, our sense of fair play, courtesy, immediately kick-in and we feel we are justified in punishing the guilty one.

No doubt, harmony among the ethnic groups in Singapore is a crucial quality and should be fought for every step of the way. Our history has made this goal even more important.

But to sack Ms Cheong is, in the words of that old saying, ‘to take a sledgehammer to crack a walnut’. And equally important, the episode shows up the failure of policy in two crucial areas.

The government has consistently told the nation that racial harmony is a desirable objective, indeed a central factor in nation-building. And instinctively we know this to be so. Furthermore, over almost two centuries of modern Singapore, unaided by the PAP Government, we, the people, developed a sense of multiracial and multicultural pluralism.

Proudly, we know that we are a cohesive, pluralistic people. We share one another’s holidays, we eat one another’s food, we inter-marry, and we speak at least two of our four major languages.

But, note, that we did these things unaided by government diktat. The Government’s multiracial policies have, at best, attempted to put a gloss on our differences, appear to decisively deal with disunity, and force us into what sociologist, Nirmala Purushotam, described as an ‘ascriptive’ racialism, whereby one must fit into the C-M-I-O mould.

Recall that for years, government policy ignored the two most colourful ethnic groups who were among the most successful and committed of our people, the Eurasians and the Peranakans, until they took matters into their own hands and began to carve out a space for themselves. But, sadly, not before many Eurasians had emigrated abroad from a country which seemed to have little space for them and not before many Peranakans forced themselves into being Chinese. We are the poorer for it.

Recall also that Dr Purushotam herself was a casualty of state-sponsored ascriptive multiculturalism when she became the subject of discipline at a local university upon a complaint that she exposed young students to the ‘dangers’ of Little India.

Underlying the government’s approach to the multiculturalism policy there lay – and continues to lie – a deeply racist foundation to public policy.

The racist approach was characterised best, and most emphatically, by the first prime minister himself, who was known for his uncompromisingly racist views, often using his National Day Rally speeches and other public utterances to characterise the ethnic groups according to a self-defined framework of utility. The Malays were lazy, he said, and untrustworthy. The Indians were fractious. The Chinese, he told us, were the only group which possessed the traits desirable for progress in Singapore.

Only after India began to develop economically did he appear to amend his views on that ethnic group. One is entitled to wonder if the immigration policy, that favours immigration from China and, to a lesser extent, India as opposed to the Nusantara, that is, the Malay Archipelago, is an expression of this racist view. After all, the proportion of people of Chinese descent has been growing while those of Malay descent declining, even though Malay fertility replacement is higher.

So long as the relevant government departments, namely Immigration and Manpower, decline to publish details of their immigration policies as well as the absolute numbers of immigrants and workers from the various countries, not to mention Permanent Residence criteria, the government lays itself open to an accusation of racism in population policy that it cannot defend.

Policy in respect of self-help groups has also been structured in ethnic terms. Mendaki, Sinda and CDAC were instituted on the assumption that people are more likely to help members of their own group than others.

Military recruitment and National Service has, and continues to insult the Malay community by frequently refusing to enlist or promote Malay servicemen on the grounds that they are a security threat should we ever enter into conflict with other Malay or Muslim nations.

Signboards and voice mail messages on government and quasi-government department answerphones very usually employ only English and Chinese.

The SAP system in schools favoured one as opposed to the other ethnic groups.

The government is not above playing the communalist card for its own ends. The GRC system was characterised as being to encourage minority representation in Parliament. In 2000, the Open Singapore Centre published a research paper entitled, Elections in Singapore: Are They Free and Fair, which I wrote. (It is now out of print.) That research found that minority representation was not declining.

In late 2011, I shared a forum platform with PAP MP, Alex Yam, of Chua Chu Kang GRC. I alleged that the GRC system had nothing to do with minority representation but was designed to entrench the PAP’s stranglehold on Parliament and make it harder for the alternative parties to effectively participate. To applause from an informed, professional audience, Mr Yam kept silent.

In the last two years, former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew has continued to utter deeply racist statements against the Malay community, to the concerted and deafening silence of Malay ministers and Members of Parliament.

So, if, after 53 years, some of our people are still displaying the ugliest traits of communalism, then we must question whether the initiatives aimed at achieving both multi-racial harmony as well as courtesy have worked in the face of a racist approach to policy-making that has characterised the PAP since after it assumed power. I say, ‘after it assumed power’ because Mr Lee sought to position himself as a multiracial pan-Malaysian until his party consolidated its power after the 1967 General Elections.

Therefore, in effect, as citizens we can legitimately ask, have the ugliest examples of racism exhibited by our fellow citizens been aided and abetted by a government that is itself, at its worst, also a proponent of ugly racism.

We must be fair to ourselves and admit that at the best of times we all entertain negative views about out-groups: it is a human phenomenon.

But if a senior officer at the heart of a government-linked institution, whose secretary-general is a cabinet minister, considers it acceptable to make those views public on a worldwide platform such as Facebook, then we are entitled to question both if such views are common place at the NTUC and if she felt comfortable expressing those views precisely because they are commonplace since, as I have suggested above, racist approaches to policy-making are, themselves, commonplace.

A second failure of policy relates to Ms Cheong’s rights as an employee. The NTUC announced that it was conducting an inquiry into the affair and would publish a report. However, before its findings were made public, Ms Cheong was terminated.

I will say at this point that there was nothing to investigate: Ms Cheong’s statements were deeply offensive and unbecoming of a public officer. But an employee has a right to a fair hearing, a right to have her behaviour examined and mitigating circumstances taken into consideration.

Do we, for example, know whether Ms Cheong was under intolerable pressure in her personal life? Is she on medication for an emotional condition? Had she just come from a distressing experience? Did the noise extend to past eleven o’clock pm?

The point is that people make mistakes. They do or say things they should not have done. They exhibit poor behaviour in the workplace. They don’t match up to the expectations of their boss.

Our knowledge of human development, of human endeavour, of human limitations call us to take a rational approach to human mistakes.

In many jurisdictions, particularly those with well-defined rights for workers, labour legislation mandates a certain level of investigation and retraining for workers who have not reached the mark expected of them.

In Singapore, the Employment Act does not contain any such provisions. Workers can be fired at the behest of their employer with little right of reply except a statutory appeal to the minister. The migrant labour NGOs tell us that this route rarely succeeds.

Workers are entitled to some level of protection. They are entitled to the acknowledgment that they are fallible, that they sometimes need retraining, that their values need reorienting. They must be given the chance to improve and employers’ have a duty to nurture their employees. It goes to the heart of our productivity.

The gap in our legislation means that our workers have little recourse in the face of arbitrary termination. And it would be a source of irony, were it not so tragic, that the abridgement of Ms Cheong’s rights as an employee have been carried out by the very institution set up to safeguard labour rights and to set the marker for good employment practices.

As we have observed in those countries which consistently top the productivity league tables, productivity and creativity go hand in hand with a sense of belonging and the availability of protections that take account of workers’ failings. Ms Cheong should not have been used as a political football to demonstrate the government’s apparent hard line against racism.

The response to Ms Cheong’s offensive bevaviour is, unfortunately, a typical example of the government’s approach to issues surrounding race. We have prosecuted our multiracial policy by giving it a gloss which bears the semblance of effective harmony without in fact actually remedying the problem. Respect and equal treatment should be at the heart of any policy designed to unite people. Until the PAP’s approach to the ethnic groups shifts from the underpinnings installed by the former Prime Minister, we cannot build a community that is effectively multiracial and multi-religious and nor will we build a workforce that is secure and to whom retraining and improvement are standard.

The government is in a bind. It is unsure what to do with the episode Ms Cheong has deservedly created. By sacking her it has highlighted the failures of government policy as they relate to our people both as employees and as members of ethnic groups. It could have shown leadership by viewing the issue as an opportunity to revisit our policy, to improve. It is, after all, in the midst of a National Conversation, is it not?

Instead it has chosen to respond by pretending no problem exists, that the issue is confined to isolated individuals, and then reiterating its time-worn statements of racial equality, which have been frequently abused for its own purposes.

The Prime Minister is wrong: NTUC did not do the right thing by terminating Amy Cheong. There is still time to take heed of the sentiments of Amy Cheong’s fellow citizens and fellow workers. Will the NTUC do so?

Dr Vincent Wijeysingha is the Treasurer of the SDP and Head of the party’s Communications Unit.

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