Thursday, April 24, 2008

SIA: Slapping Is Alright

I do not condone violence.

Tan Siew Hoon, the 61 year old wife of Venture Corp CEO Wong Ngit Leong, slapped a Singapore Airlines stewardess after the stewardess was alleged to have flirted with him. They had an out-of-court settlement, a civil claim settled with the stewardess. In the courts, Tan was acquitted.

I think there are many problems on many levels here.

First, the issue of service. You just can't please everyone. If you didn't work hard enough in the service line, your service standard sucks. If you worked a little harder, you are a flirt and you deserve a tight slap. Any way, who are the people who are complaining of Singaporean service? What is it in our culture that is causing us to have a certain kind of service standard? Don't blame the people, look at the culture.

Next, if Singapore was the popular reality television series Survivor, who will be the ones in possession of the immunity idol? Social and political elite?

Out-of-court settlements, gag orders, media manipulation - these are few of many other apparatuses the powerful can employ to manage their image. The accumulation of wealth and power works for itself, and a person/family that owns it may have a better chance of being above the law and out of the media spotlight. Of course, the media, far from being the watchdogs, have become the lapdogs.

It is all about image management. Settle it out of court and away from media scrutiny, pay people to shut up. I once thought these things only happened in the movies, but this happens in Singapore.

Based on the brave and generalistic assumption that everyone is 'dirty', why are local politicians and powerful persons so 'clean'? It is not only attributed to their saintliness and virtuousness, but also how public information on them is controlled - controlled in a way so as to maintain their status of power. This is topped off by a good well-oiled public relations machinery, making the elite a lot more holier than the rest of society.

Let us look at this from another perspective that might be too fluffy for the most of us. Capitalism has made them rich and powerful, also empowering them to have connections with the media and the political and legal structure. Capitalism, in order to survive and perpetuate itself, needs the presence and existence of rich and powerful people. Capitalism is the dominant mode of production that will seek to protect its own interests. That is why the rich and powerful enjoy more safety nets and layers of protection than the rest of us.

There is always an economic and commercial imperative in the dealings of the modern judicial system. For all we know, the judicial system is a function of the larger capitalist economy. Why don't we conduct an experiment and get people of different social divisions (gender, race, age, sexuality, class, economic status, income, etc.) to slap an SIA stewardess?

The differential access to resources such as good lawyers, connections with powerful people and the press, as well as truckloads of material wealth, will be few of many factors that determine the sanctions taken against those who slap a national icon.

We also need to adopt an empathetic position. Why are people so feisty and aggressive? Is it their fault that they cannot control their stress and anger? Why blame individuals? If we invoke psychology to explain all these, its positivist derivations will blind us to the possibility that larger social, economic and political phenomena are actually at play.

As Singaporeans, we are often too quick to individualise problems. You are poor because you are lazy. You are sickly, because you are poor and lazy. You get depression because you don't know how to handle yourself. It is your own problem.

The government has continued to drive the rhetoric and ideology of meritocracy into our consciousness. We are sheep. Little Bo Peep wears the blue circle and the red lightning, and wields her staff, whacking all of us into conformity.

One intrinsic problem with meritocracy is that while if you work hard, you will succeed, it assumes that failure comes if you do not work hard. Meritocracy diverts attention away from the economic and political structure, away from the political elite and its ideologies. As we follow, we also embrace its ideologies, often looking at problems as they are atomised and individualised. It is not the fault of society or the government or the economy, it is only your fault. This is how we come to rationalise.

I also find it intriguing that the law is harsher on certain social divisions of people. Male versus female. Lower class versus upper class. Majority versus minority. Maybe we will never know. The law is such that people follow but cannot question. That is why lawyers practise law and not question it.

There is also another problem with the law. It does not care about "small things" that happen at the ground. In capitalism, yes, we are protected from crimes of theft, robbery and stuff that involve property, because people do own private property. When I speak of small things I refer to physical altercations, or even situations in which someone opens the car door and hits and scratches your car. How will these be resolved? Does the law care? Or does the law want us citizens to settle it on our own?

Let us say, the SIA stewardess slapped Tan Siew Hoon in retaliation. How will this be resolved? Is it resolved at all? A young woman assaulting a woman 35 years older than her, isn't that crazy? Or why not let Tan flirt with the partner of the SIA stewardess to get even?

An SIA stewardess was assaulted while doing her job. Won't SIA be responsible and take action against the assailant? Wasn't the stewardess wearing her kebaya while performing her duties? Maybe if a working class man flying in economy class were the culprit, SIA will sue the living daylights out of him and make sure he will be a bankrupt, and that is only a civil suit; they could always report him to the police and a criminal prosecution will ensue.

Yes, the rest of Singaporeans may have an axe to grind against the richer folk. That is always a common grouse amongst the working class, who probably hate the guts of the middle class; and for the middle class who own computers, and have blogs, they will be grumbling against those on the upper strata of the social and political ecosystem. But all these people aren't stupid (although they like to engage in the occasional witch-hunt, probably it is rather empowering to be part of a lynch mob). Why the coincidence time and again, when we observe that people in positions of wealth and power "get away with it"?

Sometimes I wonder, what if Tan Siew Hoon conjured enough saliva and phlegm and spit at the stewardess instead? Will she get away with it without a civil hearing?

Essentially, the problem is not Tan Siew Hoon or her anger. We should be looking at the relationship between the law and people in positions of wealth and power. We should be looking at the stresses that people get in society. Let's not individualise our problems too easily, for they are always connected to something bigger, but we have taken things for granted too often. We wouldn't want to see signs on our public transportation and airlines reminding passengers not to assault the crew, would we?


Ned Stark said...

I agree. Notwithstanding that prosecutorial discretion is mandated by the constitution I must say im rather disquieted that the tycoon's wife was let of with a warning.

Sam Ho said...

if only we had a law where we do unto others what others have done unto us. sounds barbaric, but then again, who says we aren't barbarians?

i think what unsettles you is probably the feeling that there was no sense of justice, isn't it? come to think of it, tan siew hoon the slapper already had an civil suit settlement previously with the stewardess.

tan siew hoon must have paid the damages, and on top of that, request a gag order. if you're rich and powerful, you can buy your gag orders.