ARTICLE PUBLISHED IN TODAY (SINGAPORE) ON 28 APRIL 2005
Chua Cheng Zhan is a name that the people of Singapore, especially its ethnic minorities, will remember for a while to come.
He is a scholar of Singapore's prestigious public service, whose views have given a new lease of life to the spectre of racial insensitivity.
Chua, a 21-year-old mathematics student at Northwestern University in the United States, wrote recently in his online diary: "somehow, the singaporean association here in my school has become an Indian association. So gross. some more non-singaporean."
He continued: "ya. I discovered I'm so racist. at the club (under lighting in which everyone is supposed to look good), i still find indians and filipinos (dark ones) so repulsive n such a turn-off."
His derogatory remarks, and more, are now freely available on the Internet.
Something similar happened when Choo Wee Khiang, a member of Singapore's Parliament from the dominant party, took advantage of the privilege accorded to him by the House to make disparaging remarks about the same group of ethnic minorities.
He told his fellow legislators in 1992: "One evening, I drove to Little India and it was pitch dark but not because there was no light, but because there were too many Indians around."
At that time, not many dared to call for his removal from office.
Choo apologised for his racist remarks and the matter was swiftly brought to a close by Singapore's leaders, who said the apology had been accepted.
Unfortunately, the incident merely preceded the revelation of greater character flaw.
Soon after, Choo pleaded guilty to the charge of abetting his brother-in-law in using false invoices to cheat a finance company into granting loans of around $1 million.
He was sentenced to two weeks in jail, fined $10,000 and barred from contesting parliamentary elections for five years. He now keeps a low profile.
As such, it is no surprise that many in Singapore find it difficult to accept Chua's apology and the subsequent retraction of his remarks.
There have been calls for the Public Service Commission to revoke his scholarship and others have asked that he never be allowed to take a position of responsibility in Government.
As noted in the Tomorrow Bulletin of Singapore Bloggers:
"Calling for his head, or asking for his scholarship to be revoked, serves no purpose. If he is truly racist, doing those things would not change his views. What it would do, however, is to make him hide those views.
"From a broader perspective, making an example of him would also do nothing to change society in general.
"Racists will always be racists, and find reasons to be racists. Only they themselves can change their minds, not us."
The commentator then provides some wise words of caution: "What we have to be watchful for is whether his racist thoughts impact the way he acts if and when he ever attains public office."
Indeed, Chua's remarks raise some questions that Singaporeans must confront sooner or later.
Are his remarks a reflection of a younger generation that is less racially tolerant?
Or do they merely highlight a heightened state of racial consciousness?
To what extent does it reflect the psyche of the future leaders of Singapore?
While asking these questions, we must also find ways to deal with the likes of Chua Cheng Zhan.
Do we allow them to carry on with their lives after an apology or apply the iron hand?
Former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong has said that we can be a more gracious and forgiving society. I prefer to give people a second chance.
As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at his swearing-in ceremony: "We must give people a second chance, for those who have tasted failure may be the wiser and stronger ones among us. Ours must be an open and inclusive Singapore."
Chua deserves a second opportunity to more constructively contribute to Singapore.
If he becomes another Choo Wee Khiang, it's his loss.
If he learns from this experience to become a better person, it is Singapore's gain.
Please consider the environment - do you really need to print this?