Are Singaporeans chicken, or simply bo chap?

Straits Times Forum, 10 July 2007

Tirade of racial abuse aboard bus and no one bothered to act

ON JULY 4, while travelling on bus service 16, my fellow passengers and I were the victims of racial abuse.

The incident was sparked by a person who boarded the bus but had no change for bus fare. At that moment, an elderly Caucasian woman came up and offered to pay the fare for that person.

She did this while raising her voice and commenting that Singaporeans will never help anyone but themselves and that all Singaporeans were money-minded.

She even went so far as to add a four-letter vulgarity before the word ‘Singaporean’ in every sentence she uttered.

At that moment, I could not remain silent any longer and I interrupted her, merely uttering the words, ‘excuse me’. It was then that her racial slurs began, referring to Chinese people as ‘chinks’ and how she hated all of them.

I then accused her of being a racist which she freely admitted to being, all the while adding again the four-letter vulgarity directed at all ‘chinks’.

She then remarked to the entire bus how Chinese people could not speak proper English, adding that she did not know how they could see owing to their small eyes.

To say the least, I was shocked and horrified by her bigotry. Being lost for words and disgusted at her deplorable behaviour, I just called her a disgrace.

After the dust had settled, I found myself utterly disappointed at how such a small and hateful person was allowed on our shores, if in fact she was in Singapore on a long-term basis.

However, I was even more disappointed in the extreme apathetic nature of my fellow Singaporeans. This racial abuse lasted a good five minutes on a bus packed full of Singaporeans who had just finished work, and no one except me had shown disapproval of this verbal abuse.

Everyone just sat there without saying a word. If we Singaporeans do not stand up for ourselves in the face of such blatant tyranny, who will? The ironic thing is that I am Eurasian and my girlfriend is German and I was the only one who said something when she went on her racial tirade.

This debacle has left me with the opinion that our Government’s drive towards attracting foreign talent needs to be approached with great caution.

More stringent checks on potential immigrants are required, which should not be solely based on paper credentials, but on their sentiments towards Singapore and their people. One bigot allowed to grace the country I love is one too many.

Shaun Jalleh

I think that old woman is a little off her rocker. I’m sure she does not represent all Caucasians in Singapore, whom I’ve noted are generally less bigoted than the majority of Singaporeans.

What I’m more concerned about is how Singaporeans are so averse to standing up against racism and injustice, that they just set Shaun Jalleh defend Singapore on his own. I think that is the real disgrace about Singaporeans. Perhaps it’s our education system, our political emasculation or simply our bo chap (indifferent) attitude to everything other them ourselves.

Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.

17 thoughts on “Are Singaporeans chicken, or simply bo chap?”

  1. I have a different view to this.

    Rather than saying we’re chicken or bo chap, i would rather applaud the fact that we Singaporeans are more dignified than this western lady, who’s clearly nuts. that many in the bus didnt react (compare this with how riots start in some countries) shows that we certainly have more class than some of the people we have warmly accepted into our arms.

    If you were to confront her, she’ll use it as an excuse to get even louder and more abusive, which clearly happened. Simply because she knows she can get away with it, that noone will lay a hand on her (because we Asians are plainly nice and accepting). Leave her alone, she’ll sit down and shut up.

    I’ll probably let her say whatever she wants. She’s just a sad individual and if that’s how she wants to live her life, carry all that hate and anger, live in a country surrounded by people she clearly detests, then good luck to her. I wish her a long happy life.

    I’d pick and choose my battles, and this woman really isn’t worth the time nor effort. But that doesn’t mean i am belittling what Shaun did – i give my kudos to him for standing up though.

    but what did it lead him? getting frustrated and angry himself – making him question the govt’s open door policy – which is quite irrelevant to this isolated incident. Bad energy creates more bad energy.

    What i’m most curious is the person who received the change from her. That person, who i assume is also a westerner, just kept quiet, took her change, and not say anything in response to this woman?

    What would be wonderful is to see if this lady, as well as the one who received change from her, respond to Shaun’s post.

    I would love to hear what their opinions are and what they have to say for themselves.


  2. Hi Gerald,
    Singaporeans are cowards as well as apathetic!
    Really pathetic!
    You were just saying some time back that you noticed Singaporeans are more civic minded and more willing to give up seats for pregnant women and old people etc.
    You still think so after reading Shaun’s account?
    Let’s stop giving ourselves excuses.
    Of course there are many societies who are much worse than ours but then those are mainly third world countries.
    If we want to be invited to the First world club, Shaun’s account should really shame all of us.

    aygee: I do not agree that by giving excuses about why we are “more dignified” etc etc.. will really move us in the right direction.

    Wake up Singaporeans! I am ashamed.


  3. I agree with you aygee, that Jalleh’s questioning of the govt’s open door policy is irrelevant. I mean, how is the govt going to filter out quacks like this? Ask them to fill out a form which asks, “Are you a racist?”

    But of course if anyone really does take action on their racism, by commiting hate crimes, then I think the govt has every reason to kick them out.

  4. Although it was hard n harsh, I’ll say that Dr Huang of nofearSingapore is spot on in his observation!
    Other than being shy, reserved, passive (active only unless it’s something that benefit them, like buffet dining, queuing for places etc), Sengkapolians will most likely choose to stay dumb n numb.
    Gerald is right too. I felt that way abt staying dignified, c’os I learn this from my wife’s family.
    But – staying dignified ALL the time, is not exactly a dignified thing to do.
    In essence, may I suggest:
    Sengkapolians hv been so conditioned:
    1, To be unresponsive, to rather not be bothered, than to be reactive.
    2, We’re afraid of failure. Of ridicule. Of embarassment. Of being rejected.
    Rebutting pp, in a public area some more..
    3, Not to speak up, voice our opinion, so just stay dumb.
    4, And hardpressed that we’r tired out. Daily. Regularly. By our environment, work, family, making a living n making a life – no, I mean, STAYING alive. Where got energy to even bother with that old foreign sulk?

  5. she is entitle to her world view. she is probably not far from the truth anyway .the author ought to be easy on himself. my assessment, admittedly inadequate without all the relevant info, is that he was probably not conditioned for a ‘fight’. most are not in this kind of ‘fight’ especially if it’s too sudden and your adversary is an ELDERLY LADY somemore.

    having said that, there is a redeeming quality about the elderly caucasian he overlooked. she offered to help and others did not. that gave her some justification eventhough her delivery may need some improvement.

    some may even be kind enough to say that her spirit is willing, but her flesh is weak.

    and in any case, we are dealing with a symtomatic problem here. if we cant identify the root cause, we will be wasting our time and energy to address the issue especially in the manner befits the author’s description.

  6. I have come to realise that for the ang mohs, they often take meekness for weakness.

    It’s a pity I was not with you in the bus – for sure I would retort and put the lady in her place. No vulgarities or bad English. One has to speak with a touch of class even when one is annoyed.

    When I get annoyed, I get anointed!

  7. its just so funny.

    Dr Huang – with all due respect – in Gerald’s previous post – u said that doctors are idealistic and will fight for what’s right.

    and your comments on Singaporeans standing up for themselves and not allowing westerners to put us down – and dismissing me for saying we’re more dignified – is so very idealistic, and you’re a doctor yourself :-)

    i’m not saying its wrong, but, asking us to wake up because of an incident of a crazy woman, and that we singaporeans are chicken…well…

    let’s just say i prefer to pick and choose the right battles.


  8. But having said that, the bloggers who put racist comments – what happened to them? did they go to jail? fined?

    Can that very law be used against this lady, if the incident was recorded and witnesses turn up?


  9. Hey gerald…just want to say i really like your blog…you’ve shown that there are s’poreans who can think objectively and rationally…

    As to this article

    1) In response to the title you’ve given to this post, I’d hv to say s’poreans are a mixture or both, or are either one of the words mentioned. Something in our upbringing here in s’pore renders us as to avoid confrontation. We do not like confrontation, as we dont like putting ourselves in the spotlight in a social setting, maybe because it could lead to embarrasment in some way. We are cultured from young not to approach or confront those who act outside social norms from young, unless necessary. Or maybe, its possible that ppl were ‘bo chap’ too…as long as it didnt affect them personally, why act? That is certainly the mindset shared by some of us.

    2) Regarding what you said about our authorities screening foreigners first for undesirable or anti-social, racially discriminating profiles, I agree with you but its rather hard to do so. People can hide their dark sides when applying for citizenship here, esp. if they did not make their views public in the country they come from. Psycho-evaluating these ppl may seem a good step, but it would add more red-tape for the ICA, and cld even lead to discourage foreigners from coming in, if they think applying for citizenship here is too hard…(is tt a good thing or bad thing? well tts a discussion for another time)…

    3) This may be a point not well liked, because I believe that although all racially discriminating ppl should be detested, this caucasian woman in the article raised a valid point at 1st. We are money-minded, and not many of us wld pay for another person’s bus fare in tt situation. Its actually the silver lining of this very dark cloud…racism in any form should not be tolerated, but the other issue here is…in our cosmopolitan city not many of us are gracious or helpful towards others…


  10. Thanks for your comments.

    As I think more about this, I think both aygee and Dr Huang could be right. We all weren’t there, so we don’t know the mental state of that woman. If she was the mental type that you sometimes see on the buses — you know those old women who are scolding some imaginary person with hokkien vulgarities — then I think there’s no point trying to argue with her.

    On the other hand, if she was really trying to insult and provoke, then I think the Singaporeans on the bus have a patriotic responsibility to rebut her, even if what she said has an element of truth. (I mean, we are stingy and unhelpful to strangers, right?)

    While we are on this topic of FT, I wonder how a (presumably) economically inactive old foreigner got admitted to Singapore and given long term residency. Aren’t we looking for foreign TALENT? Or does being white qualify regardless?

  11. I guess it is only human to react indignantly in the face of racist remarks. To conclude who’s right and who’s wrong at face value is too early, and all too easy, to do. There’s simply too many unknown factors that may have led up to that unfortunate incident.

    Just because a grumpy old foreigner made those tirades, and that entitled us to call her names, without knowing the cause of her behaviour, only makes us equally guilty as the mistake she made. Two wrongs doesn’t make it right, does it?

    How’d we know if she’s not a talent? By her looks? That’s judging a book by its cover, ain’t it? I remembered backpacking in Australia many years back and stayed in a farm. There was this owner who played host and prepared dinner for me. Being Asian, I requested for chilli sauce from an elderly lady who’s helping him set the table, which she graciously acceded. It was only later that I found out from the owner she is an anthropologist!

    Back to the grumpy old foreign lady. She might not have been what she is now, but having stayed in a foreign country for many years and perhaps after many disappointing encounters with the locals, who can blame her for becoming disillusioned and bigotted in her behaviour?

    Nobody’s born a racist; it’s almost always the product of people and circumstances. And, if she became one as a result of this social atmosphere, then I’d think she’s more of a victim than an abuser. The fact that she extended a helping hand to a stranger showed there’s still a charitable spirit within, despite her uncouthed remarks.

    It’s easy to criticise and judge at face value. But the problem always lie deep beneath. If we learn to take a step back and perhaps reflect and think through the issue, there’ll be less uncivilised exchanges as well as misunderstandings.

    That’s my two pennies worth of thought. Shitsure shimasu.

  12. I find it funny the guy who wrote the article is the most offended……probably because he “thought” he was singaporean and realized he wasn’t when not everyone on the bus decided to make a big deal out of the situation like he did. I suspect he’s grown up outside the country with his german gf.

    Every race and color will be offended by someone else once and a while….but should be start fights over it? How civilized is that?

  13. To “oriental express”: Perhaps this lady ran into one too many people like yourself. You know, a rude “shoving in front of people to get ahead first” idiot that called her “ang mo” one too many times. And she has a point about the singaporean money mentality too don’t you think? But be my guest…beat up an old’s on your conscious..not mine.

    It was still wrong what she did. But don’t pretend like it’s a surprise. Most foreigners that live in singapore a few years see the ugly side of people. Such as having your children being called racist comments from grown adults in public (true story).

    But I’m not trying to generalize…most singaporeans are great..but not all.

  14. Well well, we are all the same products of this country who produces kids with no free speech. thou shall not speak.

  15. I agree with anonymous, most singaporeans are great but not all.

    I lived in singapore few years ago and I myself faced racism on quite a few occasions on a short stay. Now that is a lot.Here are few examples :

    1. One singaporean apartment owner refused to let me her apartment when she saw that I am brown and non-christian.

    2. whenver you stop any Singaporean and ask for directions ( near HDB Block ) First thing he will say is ‘don’t know’ with all rudeness. I mean even if he does not know he can say that with a smile it wont cost . Those who don’t agree try yourself…

    3. On a ticket window of MRT station, there was a european guy ahead of me in the queue and the vendor was all smiling welcoming and when my turn came she was very rude .

    What I want to say that is not everyone is like that but still there are quite a few . and Before you call yourself a great society first look at yourself.

  16. I agreed with Anonymous. The other day I was in a department store somewhere in Orchard trying to get some help to try a pair of shoes. When I called out to the sales person he apparently could not see me. When an ang mo who has just walked into the store it was like he saw “God!”. I’m pretty sad at first as a Singaporean, I’m treated like a second class citizen! Later when the sales person started talking, then I realized that he was from Philippines. What an “Irony” a Singaporean treated in his own country like that!

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