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OPINION | SIA discrimination handling perhaps a reflection of panic mode when things go wrong , a blinkered Josephine Teo and other stories in review

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In an eventful week, perhaps the most news-making story was what happened during the SIA flight and the fact that sometimes rules need to flexible and humanity and diplomacy must triumph over just towing the line

According to reports, Singapore Airlines (SIA) has been accused of discrimination and has apparently issued a partial refund on the basis of such allegations. The airline, arguably Singapore’s most famous international brand, has also issued an apology for the “distress or embarrassment caused…”

For those unaware, Australian student, Isabella Beale, a congenital amputee without a left forearm, was informed by cabin crew on a flight from Australia to England that she was not to occupy emergency exit rows despite having paid extra for the seat. SIA policy prohibits pregnant women, children under 15, those with infants, and those requiring “special assistance” from occupying emergency exit rows. Seating in these rows is only available to those who are physically and mentally able to perform the necessary functions, such as opening the emergency doors, in the event of a crisis.

It is important to note that Ms Beale is not complaining about the policy. Rather, she was aggrieved by the way communications were handled. She told ABC: “I understand that there might be policy around this, I’m not saying I need you to sit me in emergency, I’m saying I need you to treat me like a human being.” According to Ms Beale, a member of the cabin crew said, among other things, in “a loud tone and quite, like frantic and rushed ‘Get out, get out of that seat now, you need to get up’.”

On the return leg of the flight, the same thing happened despite Ms Beale having consulted with SIA staff members at the check-in desk about where she could sit and was assured that she could still sit in the exit row of the plane. Despite Ms Beale’s best efforts, just before takeoff, airline staff allegedly spoke rudely to her and asked her to move. This episode was 10 times worse, according to Ms Beale.

She said, “At first it’s one woman and she comes up to me…it’s almost take-off time and she goes ‘Show me your ticket. You have to move’. Without speaking politely, without acknowledging me as an individual.

Given that SIA is an international brand, this handling of the situation seems unprofessional at best and ignorant at worst – neither scenario is particularly reassuring.

That said, I wonder if it is our nation’s collective panic at breaking rules or when faced with situations that diverge from the norm that caused this unfortunate incident?

In general, Singaporeans have a phobia of breaking rules. We can be so terrified of rule-breaking that we fail to think through a given scenario on its merit and exercise discretion. When something that goes against the grain occurs, we go into automatic “the computer says no” behaviour instead of assessing and dealing with the unfolding situation for what it is.

We try to make the problem go away instead of confronting it and coming up with a solution. This appears to be the attitude the cabin crew has taken here. In their panic, they failed to see Ms Beale as a reasonable human being with whom you can talk politely.  Instead, she became a “problem” that needed to be suppressed.

This is not to say that the cabin crew is made up of bad or unkind people. Rather, they are victims of our collective panic when things go wrong. This is a learning experience. Not just for SIA but for all of us. We need to reflect and be self-aware. Plans will always go awry – that is part of life. But are we dealing with the situation for what it is? Or are we simply trying to suppress a problem?

Perhaps, why Singaporeans react this way, could be down to the way we are governed. The Government tells us everything and every minutia is curated and controlled.

An example of this top-down control is exemplified in the upcoming presidential elections. Theoretically, the race is open to anyone who meets the criteria. However, over the years. the criteria have seemingly been refined in such a manner that candidates who are deemed “unfriendly” to the establishment are weeded out. Whether this is actually true cannot be conclusively proven but the numerous change in rules for a position with limited political power has caused speculation.

Most recently, the estranged brother of current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (PM Lee), Lee Hsien Yang (LHY) had indicated his interest in contesting the position. However, due to investigations of his role in the will of his late father, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, being reopened, LHY has apparently left the country out of fear of prosecution, limiting his chances of contesting.

With LHY out of the way, these may be the candidates you can anticipate as your rival:

  • Halimah Yacob, incumbent President going for another term
  • Khaw Boon Wan, 70, former Transport Minister
  • Lim Boon Heng, 75, chairman, Temasek Holdings
  • Lim Hng Kiang, 68, former Finance Minister

There has even been speculation that PM Lee’s wife, madam Ho Ching would contest!

These are all establishment figures and from the ruling party, the People’s Action Party (PAP). While the candidate would have to resign from the PAP, as Madam Halimah did, they are all seen to be extremely pro-establishment.

Theoretically, the President has the power to act as a safeguard for key national issues such as the national reserves and could act as an effective check on Government power. However, if the President is always an establishment figure, can this ever be done? Further, if no one ever challenges the Government, could this not lead to complacency and a complete inability to critically analyse a given situation? Such as what potentially happened on SIA?

The proliferation of candidates that sing from the same song sheet could also lead to those in power having blinkers on when it comes to policy issues – a situation that does not serve the progress of our country. A recent example of this is when Second Minister for Home Affairs, Josephine Teo, labeled the Worker’s Party’s suggestion of having an English Test for Singaporean citizenship or Permanent Residency applications as elitist and discriminatory.

For anyone to bed in and become part of society, the ability to effectively communicate is essential and for a multi-racial country like Singapore, having a good proficiency in our common language, English, is key. Why is that elitist or discriminatory?

Despite many netizens coming up with memes and quips to ridicule Ms Teo, she presses on blinkered. Again, a failure to assess situations for what they are, viewing dissent as a problem to be ignored or pressed down instead of analysed with a view to proper problem-solving.

Singapore prides itself as a developed and modern nation. This comes with being able to deal with a problem through proper analysis and assessment without having our knickers in a twist or being blinkered.

The SIA incident should serve as a reflection point for all of us, including those who wield the levers of power.

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