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Hard Truths or Plain Racism?The Government’s Hypocritical Outrage over Amy Cheong

While we can all condemn Amy Cheong for the unthinking racism of her remarks, we should wonder whether they just reflect the tone of institutional racism that is projected from the very top of the government. Her crime was perhaps that she took her cue from the frequent racist utterances from of our former Minister Mentor which instead of being condemned are labelled “hard truths to keep Singapore going.”  Recently even the Australian PM praised MM Lee for his “straight talk” from three decades ago and said “We never forgot his warning that without reform we would be the “White Trash of Asia”

She obviously did not realise that the latitude accorded to the gods do not apply to mere mortals such as her.  The PM was quick enough to jump on the bandwagon of condemnation from PAP ministers but has been noticeably silent about his father’s remarks. That surely ranks as hypocrisy or double standards to say the least.

She undoubtedly violated her corporate code of conduct. However she was dismissed without being given a chance to defend her actions by going through the company’s usual disciplinary procedure. Should not a reprimand or a written warning have been the first stage as she had already issued an apology? It was a salutary reminder of how few employment rights Singaporeans have. As Subra points out in his Article 14 blog ( it is particularly shocking, or would be to a naive observer, that a so-called government trade union should dispense with due process.

The question of whether she should be prosecuted is another matter. Most countries ban hate speech directed at an individual or group on the basis of their race, religion, gender, sexual orientation etc. The US is perhaps alone in protecting hate speech under the First Amendment to the Constitution dealing with the right to freedom of expression.

One must be careful not to curtail free speech rights just because they give offence to a particular group (for example fundamentalist Christians would no doubt wish to stop the teaching of evolution theory on the grounds that it is offensive to their beliefs). However against the belief in an absolutist right to free speech there is an important argument that hate speech undermines a public good which Waldron (“The Harm in Hate Speech”, reviewed in the NYT, “identifies as the “implicit assurance” extended to every citizen that while his beliefs and allegiance may be criticized and rejected by some of his fellow citizens, he will nevertheless be viewed, even by his polemical opponents, as someone who has an equal right to membership in the society. It is the assurance — not given explicitly at the beginning of each day but built into the community’s mode of self-presentation — that he belongs, that he is the undoubted bearer of a dignity he doesn’t have to struggle for.”

To quote Waldron again, “In its published, posted or pasted-up form, hate speech can become a world-defining activity, and those who promulgate it know very well — this is part of their intention — that the visible world they create is a much harder world for the targets of their hatred to live in.”

But postings like Amy Cheong’s do not occur in a vacuum. It is no accident that we get these numerous instances of hate speech in Singapore. There is not only Amy Cheong but also Shimun Lai, Sun Xu and Jason Neo.  A few years back there was the case of Chua Cheng Zhan, the PSC scholar, who made racist remarks about Indians dominating the Singapore association (perhaps he could not stand the competition!). Yet he was allowed to apologise and let off whereas Amy Cheong was sacked for saying something much milder!

Before that there was the case of MP Choo Wee Khiang who said in Parliament that “One evening, I drove to Little India and it was pitch dark but not because there was no light, but because there were too many Indians around.”   Surely, if they had not been protected by parliamentary privilege, his remarks could have been construed as inciting racial violence. They are qualitatively in a different league from Ms. Cheong’s. I myself have had to endure an onslaught of anonymous online postings calling me “ape-man” and “son of Ah Meng”.

It is because of a climate of institutional racism that is fostered from the very top and that is explicit in the racist attitudes and utterances of Lee Kuan Yew himself. If every citizen should have an implicit assurance, as Waldron puts it,  that he will be viewed as someone who has an equal right to membership in the society, then this is lacking in the case of minorities in Singapore, and in particular in the case of the Malay minority. The latter have always been viewed with suspicion as potential fifth columnists. Many Malays were excluded from national service or when they were enlisted assigned to low security classifications or part-time service. This served and continues to serve to stigmatize them in the eyes of employers.

Similarly the Ethnic Integration Act treats minorities as second-class citizens by denying them the right to live where they want. It also penalizes them economically because they are often unable to sell their property to the highest bidder if the quota has been filled.

The proportion of minorities who are selected as government scholars is also so much lower than their share of the population (and many of those classified as minorities are new immigrants or children of mixed-race parentage). From 2002-2010 the proportion was 5.8% ( but of these only 2.3% were Indians and 1.2% Malays. Surely in any country that wanted to portray itself as not institutionally racist there would be an inquiry and steps taken to either remove cultural bias in the selection process or remedy deficiencies in the education system.

It was only in 2009 that MM Lee gave an interview with National Geographic ( where he said about Malays that “The influence from the Middle East has made them have head-dresses for no rhyme or reason.”  Later in the same interview he said “Well, we make them say the national pledge and sing the national anthem but suppose we have a famine, will your Malay neighbour give you the last few grains of rice or will she share it with her family or fellow Muslim or vice versa?”

In January 2011 the Association of Muslim Professionals felt obliged to issue a statement in response to LKY’s book “Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going”:

The Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP) deeply regrets certain comments made by Minister Mentor (MM) Mr Lee Kuan Yew in his book Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going. These comments are in relation to the practice of Islam by the Malay-Muslim community (MMC) where MM Lee had urged the MMC to be less strict in their practice of Islam in order to facilitate integration, and in relation to the issue of gaps between the MMC and other communities in Singapore, where MM Lee opined that the MMC will never catch up with the other communities. We note that these views of MM Lee are not new. It is not clear why MM Lee has chosen to repeat them at this point.

Some of LKY’s other memorable quotes may be found at

His pseudo-scientific theories of racial superiority were acquired apparently from Toynbee, a British historian of the early twentieth century, who published “A Study of History”. While it is now universally discredited and hopelessly out-of-date, it still seems to command a certain support among members of the PAP elite, judging by quotes on George Yeo’s FB page when he was a minister. Toynbee naturally put the white races at the top. Lee Kuan Yew has modified this by putting East Asians at the top above the whites, South Asians in the middle and South-East Asians at the bottom. From his often-quoted comments on the IQ Bell curve, he clearly believes Africans are some way off being human which makes me wonder how he got on with President Obama when they met.

In this climate of officially condoned institutional racism, it is not surprising that Amy Cheong should have felt that her posting was acceptable.  PM Lee was quick to condemn a little person like Ms. Cheong:

“Fortunately the person has promptly apologised for her grievous mistake. But the damage has been done, and NTUC did the right thing in terminating her services.” 

However it is regrettable that he did not adopt the same moral tone in dealing with his father’s comments. Perhaps he should consider setting up a commission of inquiry into what has led to this climate in the first place and what steps can be taken to remedy it. It would seem difficult for the police to act against Ms. Cheong when they have turned a blind eye to some of MM Lee’s more outrageous comments.


  1. Nicely said, Mr Jeyaretnam! If Kuan Yew’s “Hard Truths…” is no longer available, please find me a copy. Otherwise I’ll get one when I get back. It is obviously a book of incredible promise from the perspective of issues to chew through before an election…..Dr Eli.


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