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Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Real Apologies vs Pseudo-Apologies

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." - George Santayana


Some time before today's headlines ("PM says sorry") I was musing that I couldn't remember the last time the Singaporean government had apologised about *anything*.

Everyone's favourite ex-ISD agent claimed that:

"A look back shows that PAP ministers do say 'sorry'.
Known for his candour, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew has apologised for remarks he made on immigration in Australia (1988), the crime situation in Johor (1997), and the Chinese in Malaysia (2006).
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong too has had occasion to apologise, to Singaporeans. He apologised for using the phrase 'no-brainer' to a teacher, for Singaporeans, unfamiliar with the American term meaning 'it's obvious', thought he was calling her names. In 2006, he apologised for saying 'fix' the opposition.
A more recent example from the PAP ranks is Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Vivian Balakrishnan, who faced flak over hiccups in the organisation of the Youth Olympic Games (YOG).
He apologised last month when certificates of appreciation were sent out to volunteers with the wrong signatures. In Parliament, quizzed on the YOG busting its budget, he admitted the ministry got the initial estimates wrong."

I found this claim very suspicious. So I looked at the examples raised:
1) Lee Kuan Yew apologising on immigration in Australia (1988)
Apparently he said that with their new immigration policy, Australia would become "the new white trash of Asia".
I can't find the context of this, but according to The Political economy of foreign policy in Southeast Asia (1990):
"[Singapore is] resolutely independent in its foreign policy, determined to frequently - and often defensively - assert its sovereign rights, and to resist what it too readily perceives as
foreign 'interference', even from close friends like the US and Malaysia. It nevertheless remains ever ready and willing to criticize foreigners and foreign countries and governments for their policy shortcomings, reflecting a curious blend of insecurity and arrogance in government policy-makers. For example, after making a fetish of foreigners not being entitled to comment on Singapore's domestic politics, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was himself forced to apologize to the Australian Prime Minister for criticizing his immigration
policy while on a state visit to Australia in 1988"
So it seems he did apologise - to a foreign country that was not in Southeast Asia.
2) Lee Kuan Yew on the crime situation in Johor (1997)
In an affidavit against Tang Liang Hong, he said that Johor Bahru was "notorious for shootings, muggings and car-jackings". Tang leaked these remarks to the Malaysian press, and he had to apologise "unreservedly" through his press secretary. Haas's "The Singapore puzzle" notes that "Lee had the remark stricken from the record, though with no penalty, in contrast with the judgment against Chee Soon Juan for stating an error in parliament".
Once again, this was an apology (and to Malaysia too!)

3) Lee Kuan Yew on the Chinese in Malaysia (2006).
LKY had said that "My neighbours both have problems with their Chinese. They are successful, they are hardworking and, therefore, they are systematically marginalised".
In a letter of 'apology' sent to Abdullah Badawi, he proclaimed that "I was explaining to a liberal audience of westerners", "Singapore understands the reality of Malaysian politics", "I have not said anything more than what I have said many times before" and "I am sorry that what I said has caused you a great deal of discomfort". A long annex of Malaysian leaders' words on the marginalisation of Singapore Malays was also attached.
In short, regardless of your views on the merits of what he said, this was no apology.
Indeed, the 'apology' was rejected: "'I certainly do not agree and I certainly reject the premise upon which he made the statement in Singapore"
4) Lee Hsien Loong on using the word 'no-brainer' on a teacher
"Singaporeans, unfamiliar with the American term meaning 'it's obvious', thought he was calling her names"

It seems he "apologized for any offense caused". That isn't a real apology, but I don't think he needed to apologise in this case. Ironically this is an inversion of the American tendency to impose their cultural context on the rest of the world.
5) Lee Hsien Loong on saying he would 'fix' the opposition.
At a rally, he had infamously said that if there were more Opposition members in Parliament, "I'm going to spend all my time thinking what's the right way to fix them".
His Press Secretary issued a clarification that "What PM meant by his remark was that if there were many more opposition MPs in Parliament, the government and opposition would spend all their time and energies countering each other, and Singapore would be worse off for it. He used direct language to get this important point across to a mass rally crowd. If the exact words he used offended, he is sorry".
Again, this is hardly an apology.
6) Vivian Balakrishnan on the Youth Olympic Games (YOG).

"He apologised last month when certificates of appreciation were sent out to volunteers with the wrong signatures. In Parliament, quizzed on the YOG busting its budget, he admitted the ministry got the initial estimates wrong."

He did say sorry for the former, but what he said about the latter was that he had "underestimated the requirements and consequential cost of several major functional areas which were necessary to host these Games". Which again is no apology.

One could also look at perhaps the most recent example:

7) Lee Kuan Yew on Malay Integration

After saying that Islam could not be integrated he later said that he stood "corrected" based on events in the last 2-3 years. Here he did not even apologise that people took offence, let alone apologise for his words.

In short, apologies are few and far between.

In contrast, the apologies we got yesterday at the lunchtime rally:

"I'm sorry but we will try and do better the next time"

"We should acknowledge it, we should apologise, take responsibility, put things right... And we must learn from the lessons and never make the same mistake again"

(Amusingly half the people the ST interviewed in reaction were skeptical)
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