Recently, Seng Han Thong needlessly got himself into hot soup with some ostensibly racist remarks. All, I think, because of his own inarticulate English. Here is what he said:
“… and, uh, I noticed that the, the PR mentioned that some of the staff, ‘cause they are Malay, they are Indian, they can’t converse in, uh, English good — well enough…”
I suggest that you watch the video to get a real sense of how the entire remark was made. I am certain you will conclude, as I have, that there is absolutely no racial prejudice intended.
First, he appears acutely aware throughout that he speaks English poorly, correcting himself regularly and speaking at a quick nervous clip. It should be obvious to any viewer that he would be the last person to criticise anyone’s English.
Second, he is trying to quote someone else - SMRT’s Goh Chee Kong, who had earlier spoken about the poor English of staff, who are “Malay, Chinese, Indians or any other race”. Here lies a lesson for all: when quoting, make it clear you are quoting! Seng Han Thong only said, “the PR mentioned that … ” and spoke very quickly at that, which I believe caused the qualifier to slip past the ears and minds of most viewers. He should have stated clearly and emphatically that he was quoting, even if in bad English: “there was, uh, someone from SMRT, I think he is the PR guy, I believe he said something like … ” And voilà, you have washed your hands clean of any trouble in what you are about to say.
Third, he was obviously trying to refer to the general diversity of SMRT staff, which is why he pinpointed Malays and Indians and forgot about the majority Chinese, which would not indicate diversity. As a second language English speaker, listing things does not come easily and immediately, and under the bright lights of a talk show, he probably rushed through that particular list. In the first place, it was probably his bad English that required him to use examples instead of simply stating “diversity” - in French and Mandarin I often use examples because I cannot find the correct word for what I want to describe. Here is another lesson for all: when listing races, cover your rear as Goh Chee Kong did by adding the disclaimer of “any other race”.
This episode exemplifies how language is at the heart of society. All questions, issues and debates in and about society boil down to points of language - whether in law, politics, philosophy, history or morality. Indeed four years of law school have taught me that law is language and language is law, and in Singapore that language is English. Legal conflicts from Parliament to courts to consumer contracts are disagreements over language. Drafters build impregnable fortresses out of big words and unsolvable mazes through complex linguistic riddles. Litigators blow them up with even more ridiculous stretches of the English language. And the top students in school, I have realised, are generally pretty handy with words, either written or spoken and sometimes both.
The point is: speak good English, or whatever other language you have to use in your life.