Indranee Rajah: We need to have a care in what we say about others

A few days ago, the internet was abuzz with the story of Miss S’pore finalist, Ms Jesslyn Tan, who found the sight of a man with a hole in his T-shirt napping on the MRT so amusing that she took a snapped a photo of him and put it on her FB with the caption “Holey moley. Sibei trendy worzxxz”.

The post caused a minor internet storm. Many were critical of it, and Ms Tan has since removed the post and apologised online for being insensitive.

What’s it to me? Well, you see, the man in that pic is my resident, Mr Koh Hee Huat, and I have known him for many years. I want to share a little more about this man who has been unwittingly caught up in this mini furore.

Mr Koh is a helper at the Ye Shanghai Teochew Muay stall at Bukit Merah View (BMV). The stall opens at night till the early hours of the morning. Those familiar with the area – and certainly all the taxi drivers on the midnight shift – will know this stall and Mr Koh. He’s the man who takes the orders from the customers in the queue and dishes out their selections into small plates for the other helper to bring to the tables. He’s on his feet from evening until 3.00 am in the morning when the stall closes.

Every time I’ve been to the stall after my Friday night MPS ( and that’s many times over the years ) he’s been there – in good or bad weather, quiet and unassuming, but always hard at work, and responsive to all customers, no matter who they are.

He makes an honest living to support his mother and his family. His wife works at the same stall. He has a daughter waiting to enter poly.

In the midst of all the buzz and noise on the topic, I would like to address this from his perspective, so people can understand the impact the episode has had on him.

First, he’s genuinely bewildered why he has been singled out like this out of the blue, and on such an issue. His T-shirts have holes because he wears them for work. The stall has metal fixtures which snag on the T-shirts, causing them to tear. It’s just part and parcel of his work environment, in the same way that people who wear overalls may get grease stains, or outdoor workers get dust on their uniforms.

But more importantly, the episode caused him to feel a deep loss of face and hurt. When I visited him at the stall last night, he said many customers asked him about the incident, and it was very embarrassing for him because so many people know him. Despite that, though, he still turned up for work over the past few days, stoically carrying on with his job. Many may not realise this, but it takes courage to do this – to turn up and carry on when suddenly, through no doing of your own, you are the subject of national discussion, and every eye is on you.

Mr Koh initially thought of quitting in the wake of this, but his boss encouraged him to stay. His boss told me that he has known Mr Koh since he was boy and he is a very good worker. When Mr Koh’s father passed away, he asked the boss to take care of Mr Koh, which the boss promised to do. The boss is determined to keep that promise.

My grassroots leaders and I encouraged Mr Koh to stay too. We told him that this will pass. He doesn’t surf the net and he wasn’t aware that many have people expressed support for him.

So if you are in the area and have a yen for teochew muay, do go and give Mr Koh a word of encouragement or a thumbs up. He’s very much part of our Bukit Merah family, and just like whenever a family member feels down, it helps when others rally round to give a morale booster. And if anyone merits a boost it is this quiet, hardworking, unassuming man. He may not be sibei trendy, but he is definitely “sibei ho”.

As for Ms Tan, I am glad that she has apologised, albeit online and not to Mr Koh directly. She says she has learnt from this and would be very mindful of social media in the future.

I do hope so.

We still do not sufficiently appreciate the impact that what we do or say can have on others, especially via social media. The consequences are often unintended, but by then it is too late. The old adage “the pen is mightier than the sword” still holds true in the internet age, even though the keyboard has replaced the pen. A sword cuts deep, but words can cut deeper. We need to have a care in what we say about others.

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