By Ravi Philemon
Member of Parliament, Ms Indranee Rajah recently weighed in on the incident where former Miss Singapore Universe finalist, Ms Jesslyn Tan posted a picture of a hawker assistant Mr Koh Kee Huat and made an insensitive comment about a hole in his T-shirt.
It’s commendable that upon noticing that the person in the picture posted is her resident, Ms Rajah went out of her way to visit Mr Koh at his hawker stall to reassure him. But this latest social media storm may not be as straight-forward as it seems and raises questions if a widening social stratification has long-term implications for our Singaporean society.
In the year 2006 former Member of Parliament, Mr Sin Boon Ann, said in Parliament that it is important to “break down the institution of snobbery within our society”. Reflecting on Wee Shu Min, a Raffles Junior College student’s “get out of my elite uncaring face” comment dismissing a middle-aged man’s concerns of security for his own future in the face of globalisation, Mr Sin pointed to the gulf that has developed in the society, saying “perception exists that Singapore is a society that is bifurcated between the elites and the commoners, the scholars and the normal streams, the gifted and the ordinary, the HDB dwellers and the private property owners, and the rich and the poor”.
Eight years after the backlash resulting from Wee Shu Min’s elitism controversy, we don’t seem to have slain this demon of ‘snobbery’. Why? Has the gap between the haves and the have-nots created a permanent underclass in our society who are alienated from some others in society who define success by the brand, label and what’s consumed?
I mean, is there anyone who wants to be a hawker assistant in a Teochew muay stall today? Do many know how many hours these people work? How much are they paid?
We know of one instance where Mr Koh experienced a deep loss of face and hurt because of the wide publicity given to the post of Ms Tan. But considering how upward social mobility is happening at a slower pace today, and how people are increasingly valued not for their hardwork, it is not hard to imagine Mr Koh and others like him having had to endure such hurtful remarks in the past – insensitive remarks which were less conspicuous because they did not get such public attention, but still, no less painful.
It will be sad if all those on the other side of the gulf learn from this latest episode is, not to publicly comment on how people less well-off look or behave on social media, even if they make such comments in private among themselves.
Before Ms Rajah posted that Mr Koh works as a “helper at the Ye Shanghai Teochew Muay stall at Bukit Merah View”, Ms Tan may not have known where to find Mr Koh to personally extend her apologies to him. And even if she now knows, she might feel too ‘paiseh‘ to extend the apology in person. I am not sure if Mr Koh would want that either. He may prefer that the matter to be laid to rest.
But even before Ms Rajah’s comment on her Facebook regarding the incident, Ms Tan had extended her apologies to him via social media – an apology addressed to Mr Koh and his daughter, which had been widely reported. And we have to trust that Ms Tan is indeed sorry and regrets her comment. I see no reason why she should be further reprimanded or singled out.
Ms Rajah is quite right when she wrote, “we still do not sufficiently appreciate the impact that what we do or say can have on others, especially via social media. The consequences are often unintended, but by then it is too late.“
Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, Acting Minister for Manpower, commenting on Ms Rajah’s post on her Facebook said that he had “read a number of comments against her (Ms Tan)” and exhorts others not to respond in kind to her.
I am sure that Ms Rajah would not have intended for a cyber-equivalent of a lynch mob to be unleashed on Ms Tan when she commented on the episode.
I certainly do hope that Ms Tan would be able to cope with the further heat generated by a Senior Minister of State’s comment.
Image montage from Indranee Rajah’s Facebook page and AsiaOne