Amy Cheong [2012]

Originally posted on Poached Magazine.

“It is what you might call The New Intolerance, a new but intense desire to gag uncomfortable voices of dissent. ‘I am not intolerant’, say many people; say many softly spoken, highly-educated, liberal-minded people: ‘I am only intolerant of intolerance’. And people tend to nod sagely and say ‘Oh, Wise words, wise words’ and yet if you think about this supposedly inarguable statement for longer than five seconds, you realize that all it is advocating is the replacement of one kind of intolerance with another. Which to me doesn’t represent any kind of progress at all.” 

We shouldn’t have to be worried about comments of the sort expressed by Amy Cheong. Her message should be perceived as so obviously ridiculous that it doesn’t merit any sort of outrage. We should be laughing at how silly and small-minded her words are, and perhaps feel sorry for her – not because she’s a ‘lesser’ human being than us (she isn’t), but because she clearly hasn’t had meaningful interactions with people of the community she’s insulting. She hasn’t had the opportunity to broaden her perspective enough to realize that a few black sheep are never representative of an entire community.

When she did finally get that chance, it was with an angry mob cornering her off a cliff. (And jump she did; she migrated to Australia. “Problem” solved, well done everyone!)

“Underlying prejudices, injustices or resentments are not addressed by arresting people: they are addressed by the issues being aired, argued and dealt with preferably outside the legal process.

The truth is that we’re afraid. We’re afraid to air real issues. We’re afraid to talk about what’s going on in our lives. We don’t trust ourselves to deal with these issues in a civil, mature way- and so we brush them under the carpet. That’s why we banned Sex, Violence and Family Values– an award-winning Singaporean film that portrays a racist Chinese director mocking an Indian actor. Why?  SVFV doesn’t encourage anybody to be racist- Banning SVFV won’t make racism go away. A film like SVFV is to draw attention to the racism that already exists, to hold the problem up to the light so that we may discuss it openly, and hopefully, eradicate it. That’s a good thing! But we ban it because we’re afraid. We’re afraid that people are going to get offended. We’re afraid because, apparently, Singaporeans can’t be trusted to be civil and mature about these things.

If you’re thinking, “That’s true what, Singaporeans are damn immature and childish,”– well, sure, but why? Why are we an immature and childish society? Because nobody taught us otherwise, maybe. Frankly, I think we should be taught these things in school! How do you deal with intolerance? How do you deal with racism, with offensive content and behaviour? What should you do when you’re hurt or upset? Nobody teaches us that. Why? I think it’s because even our teachers don’t really know what to do. Too much thoughtful conversation required, more than anything that ever goes on in most schools or households. (Hey, if we’re supposed to be having a “National Conversation”, this is what we should be talking about, isn’t it? I want to know why the average Singaporean supposedly can’t be trusted to be mature about things, and what we’re doing to fix this.)

Why “outside the legal process”? Well, we can’t become an inclusive, understanding and tolerant society just because the government or other authorities tell us we we have to. (Or else.) That doesn’t work. You can’t force someone to love you, you can’t force someone to feel sorry. When a parent or teacher tells you to apologize to someone else for breaking their toy, are you actually sorry if you say it? It’s far more likely that you’re sorry that you got caught.

Amy said a line that I found laughably sad on her Twitter, she said, “After this episode, I have realized how one generic post can create so much hurtful and cruel posts from strangers“.

Read that a few times. Her racism and ignorance was ‘generic’, and it’s ‘strangers’ who are ‘hurtful and cruel’! Let’s not pretend that we Singaporeans are kind, loving, understanding and tolerant – we Singaporeans love a good witch-hunt. (I wonder why? Were we like this during our kampong days? Or did we pick up the habit from our gracious leaders?) But isn’t it pretty obvious she’s not nearly as sorry about hurting people as she is sorry at receiving a taste of her own medicine? We’ll never know for sure now.

The goal isn’t to twist someone’s arm or threaten them into saying sorry. The goal is to make them realize how hurtful they might have been, to realize how they have caused pain to others, and to evoke sincere, genuine regret. I’m not sure if we achieved that with Amy. I wish we could have been accommodating enough to let her stay without feeling threatened. I wish we could have allowed her to learn and grow, and to continue to contribute as a member of Singaporean society. None of that. She’s gone.

“We need to build our immunity to taking offence, so that we can deal with the issues that perfectly justified criticism can raise. Our priority should be to deal with the message, not the messenger.

The problem isn’t with Amy Cheong, or Sun Xu, or those that came before them, or those who will surely follow. They are the symptoms, not the disease. How do we deal with the disease? With proper fundamentals. With robust discourse. We have to talk about it in our schools and our households, and on blogs and social media. We stave away the dark by providing our own light.

With regards to Amy, DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam said,  “Good that NTUC acted quickly.” Good for who? For Amy? For the Malay-Muslim community? For Singapore? Or for the political well-being of NTUC? Good thing we burned the witch! Now the citizens of Singapore will be safe from racist witchcraft!


“The person’s comments were offensive not only to Malay-Muslims, but all the rest of us who value Singapore’s multiracial spirit and who want to take it further,” DPM Tharman added.

I too value Singapore’s multiracial spirit. But hey, if we’re talking about “offensive”- personally, I’m offended by the idea that Singaporeans can’t handle a mature, civilized discussion. I’m offended that our DPM has to advocate the hanging of a scapegoat as the solution to a systemic problem. He’s an intelligent, educated man- I don’t believe that he genuinely thinks that sacking Amy achieves anything. It simply placates the masses. It’s politically convenient.

If we are to be an inclusive, gracious and tolerant society, we have to learn to forgive, and to love, and above all, we have to learn to be nicer to one another.

Time and time again, we’re told not to take our racial harmony for granted. But what kind of racial harmony is it if we have to be afraid that if one person says something stupid, we’re going to have riots in the streets? That’s an awfully shallow harmony, isn’t it? Fair-weather friendship.

If we ‘want to take it further’, we’re going to have to learn to stop being so bloody offended by every little thing.

Please. Less outrage. More humanity.


Some thoughts:

1. Singapore has to remain competitive to survive

2. One of the ways we competed in the past was by having a more compliant, safe, obedient, reliable workforce

3. That isn’t enough anymore because good, cheap labor is flooding the international marketplace

4. To compete in the future we have to be smarter in a way that cannot be easily bought

5. The world is still stupid in many depressing, heartbreaking ways (thinking now about the complicated mess of guns, racism, police brutality, vigilantism, etc in the US, and how people are still trapped arguing over semantics)

6. If we could have a large enough concentration of people who can think clearly about multi-variable problems, we should be okay

7. We need to get better at thinking clearly – the faster and better we do this, the better we’ll survive

8. We could do more to celebrate, incentivize, provoke, midwife clear thinking