Saturday, 26 July 2014
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Would Amy Cheong have been fired if she was a banker?

Posted on Oct 9, 2012 4:59 PM Updated: Oct 12, 2012 2:41 PM

Not to spit in the wind of self-important moral outrage, but I can’t be the only one who is feeling a little ambivalent about the firing of Ms Amy Cheong.

The NTUC executive was sacked literally hours after her Facebook rant on Malay weddings went viral yesterday. The reason, said secretary-general Lim Swee Say, was the union’s zero-tolerance policy towards racially-offensive words or actions.

Of course, Ms Cheong’s rant was shocking on several levels - its casual denigration of an entire community, the pettiness and lack of perspective in becoming enraged over “loud noise” from someone else’s once-in-a-lifetime joyous occasion, the use of expletives.

Her bold ignorance also rankled - Malay weddings do not cost only $50, Ms Cheong. If you’re going to be a racist, at least get the facts right.

But NTUC’s termination of her services also left a bad taste in my mouth. I understand why the union - a national institution with many Malay leaders, who represent many Malay workers - must strenuously uphold multi-racialism in everything it does.

I also get why Minister Lim Swee Say and other politicians, them of the first generation of PAP leaders who saw first-hand the racial riots in the 1960s, would be personally aggrieved by what had happened.

But I wonder if sacking was the right move. Censure and community disapproval - which Ms Cheong received in spades - is obviously called for. But termination may be allowing personal shortcomings a worrying degree of influence over professional prospects.

If we sack everybody who has questionable beliefs, personal indiscretions or just for being a horrible person, I wonder how many offices around the island will empty out overnight.

It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that everybody - including the vigilante netizens whose viciousness towards Ms Cheong and NTUC perhaps equals her initial bad behaviour - thinks dark and unbecoming thoughts from time to time. 

Of course, her mistake was to tell everybody about it, and she’s paid the price. While I have no idea how Ms Cheong performed on the job, one thing is clear - she was let go because of her personal shortcomings as a human being, and not her work performance.

But that may not be a viable human resource principle that can be generally applied to any work environment.

So we must assume that because of her employment in a national organisation like NTUC, her personal views, especially so publicised, must affect her professional standing.

This may not be the case if she was employed by an organisation in the private sector, one colleague argued. If she was an investment banker or a hedge fund manager, would people care as much? And to what extent should other employers take NTUC’s actions as a precedent? Should it only be public organisations that follow suit, and where is the line?

What if it was a teacher? Fired, because it’s wrong for our kids to be taught by a racist, even if she stuck solely to the curriculum and never spoke of her personal views. Journalist? Fired, because newspapers are influential and racists should not have national platforms. Civil Servant? “Fired, then publicly flogged,” was the take of one colleague.

What about a teacher at a private tuition centre, or a civil servant who deals with, let’s say, landscaping and not community issues? Not to flatter Ms Cheong, but there are many examples of people who were great at their jobs while being truly questionable human beings at the same time. The composer Richard Wagner was a Nazi, but he also gave us the Ring Cycle.

I understand why Ms Cheong’s comments have caused such a firestorm.

But to me, they were an isolated incident that in no way reflects the majority of what Singaporeans feel. As many have pointed out, the varied, multi-cultural use of our common spaces are a point of pride for many citizens, not a source of irritation. I know this so surely that

I don’t see a need to pay much attention to one outlier.

It’s more worrying to me that we always summon fire and brimstone in reaction to such incidents, because this in itself reveals a lack of confidence that multi-racialism is truly our lived reality.

To me, it is - and nothing can shake that foundation, least of all a thoughtless comment on social media. We didn’t need a firing to prove it.