Mr Seng HanThong – what he actually said

Another case of twisting of ordss (words) and (intentional?) omson (omission) by the infamous Temasek Review:

The (New) Temasek Review headline shouted

quote: [MP Seng Han Thong: “because they are Malay, they are Indian,  they can’t converse in English well”] unquote

The Online Citizen headline screamed

quote: [MP Seng Han Thong: SMRT’s unpreparedness also due to Malay and Indian staffs English language inefficiency] unquote

What Mr Seng Han Thong actually said :


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.”


 In fact, if we read the transcript and watch the video above, we can see that Mr Seng Han Thong was actually saying in times of emergencies, communication of what is happening (even in improper English)  should be the main concern.

In my opinion, it was a case of improper public speaking, but definitely not racism at work.  

Nonetheless, Mr Seng made an apology for his message being miscontrued. His apology on his facebook dated 22 Dec 2011


Statement of Apology

In my interview with, 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 gi…ves 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.


Mr Hri Kumar (MP – Thomson Constituency)


” He made a disappointing comment, for which he apologised. Was his apology sincere? There is no doubt it was. Is he a racist? Any of us who know Han Thong, as I do, know that he clearly isn’t.


see full comment from Mr Kumar here
24 Dec 2011, Mr Seng Han Thong’s facebook entry, produced full here:



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 Han
Thong: 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



Mr K Shanmugam (Law & Foreign Affairs Minister) in a Channel News Article


 “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.


On In his facebook entry dated 25 Dec 2011, Minister K Shanmugam

“There are 3 points that I will make:
1. What did SHT actually say ?
2. Was the TOC article accurate ?
3. Is SHT a racist ?
What did SHT say ?
1. There has been a lot of response, to what people believe SHT said. That response is entirely understandable, if indeed he had said what has been attributed to him. Unfortunately, what has happened is that a significant part of what has been attributed to SHT is false.
2. SHT heard over the radio what an officer from MRT had said – essentially suggesting that the poor language skills of Chinese, Indian and Malay drivers who worked with SMRT was part of the problem, in the inadequacy of the response. SHT disagreed with this comment. On TV he referred to this comment and in essence made the point that the language skills of workers should not be blamed and that broken English can be accepted (meaning that broken English would have sufficed for effective communication). The real problem, according to SHT, was that the drivers had not been given adequate training. The problem lay with management and not the workers.
3. This is what he said. The meaning is clear enough. The key point is that SHT referred to the MRT officer’s statement in order to rebut it, to say that he, SHT, disagreed with it.
4. The mistake SHT 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 three races. SHT could also have explicitly disagreed with the view (which he thought that the MRT officer had expressed) that the Indian and Malay drivers had poorer language skills. SHT has since apologized for the error he made.
Was the TOC article accurate ?
5. The TOC headlined its article : “ MP Seng Han Thong : SMRT’s unpreparedness also due to Malay and Indian staffs English language inefficiency”
6. This is quite false. It attributes to SHT the very opposite of what SHT had said. The article does not say that SHT was quoting what an MRT officer had said, and the article does not say that SHT quoted it in order to disagree with it. Instead it says ( both in the headlines and in the text) that he in fact said the above.
Is SHT a racist ?
7. My colleagues and I have known SHT for many years. He is not a racist. He works hard on the ground and helps everyone. It is quite unfair to label him as a racist. If he had indeed made the comments which have been attributed to him, then I would have come out to say that that is completely unacceptable.
I hope we can deal with this matter on the basis of facts and not on the basis of a false statement which has been quite wrongly attributed to SHT.”



 ST Forum- Published on Dec 24, 2011

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


See Also :
4-Sg Hard Truth

Categories: The Ruling Party - PAP

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