by Pan Jie on

It isn’t easy being a PRC – or Chinese national – working in Singapore.

You leave your family for a country where you do not understand the primary language and when your English fails you on the job, the Internet loses it.

This is what reportedly happened to the captain of SMRT bus service 969 – who was involved in an ‘incident’ last Saturday. According to the original post by Facebook user Fareen Salauddin, the bus captain stopped driving following a fare dispute over whether one of the passenger’s children could travel on the bus for free. The passenger argued that the child was 0.86m tall – below the maximum height of 0.9m for free rides.

To make things worse, the bus captain, a Chinese national, could not communicate the correct bus fare in English and hence, chaos ensued. According to eyewitness Jian Wei, 31, both parties raised their voices during the dispute. Other passengers offered to translate but the offer was rejected by the passenger, who insisted that the driver speak English.

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When Jian Wei disembarked to board another bus after eight minutes, the bus captain was still speaking to his superiors over the bus intercom.

The post even suggested that he ‘went on strike’ – an unkind reference perhaps to the 2012 illegal strike involving 171 bus drivers over a pay dispute. From Jian Wei’s account, it’s more likely that the driver merely stopped the bus temporarily in an attempt to resolve the issue.

Given the raised voices, it also seems likely that a basic problem in communication was aggravated by flared tempers on both sides.

Fareen’s original Facebook post has since been deleted, but it wasn’t long before it was reproduced on another site. In the same time, SMRT has also declined to comment apart from issuing a public apology for the inconvenience caused. Despite the incomplete picture, the Internet has been swept up in a torrent of angry comments, mostly directed at PRCs for their poor English.

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“Made in China. Please keep it in China,” reads one top comment. Meanwhile, other voices asked for “a mandatory English course before setting foot in this country” or simply not to hire PRCs anymore.

Even if the bus captain could not speak English, or if he had misbehaved, that should be problems for SMRT to deal with. Is it fair to condemn all PRC bus captains for just one incident involving Mr. 969? Singapore has more than a thousand bus drivers of Chinese nationality and most of them have proven capable of resolving such issues without scandal despite any possible language barrier. Yes, they speak poor English, but most buses still run smoothly without unexpected delays.

Are we too quick to point fingers and question their competence based on a single, isolated incident?

Related article: It’s time to stop public shaming

When a Singaporean behaves poorly in public, we assume that he or she is a jerk. We do not assume that all Singaporeans are equally terrible. For example, we didn’t throw all tuition teachers under the bus when one of them shoved an elderly uncle at a Toa Payoh hawker centre earlier this year.

There are hundreds of China-born bus captains who do their work every day without incident. When something goes wrong, we should first consider the suspect’s individual competence rather than pass judgment on the entire nationality.

If Mr. 969 failed at his job, retrain him or even fire him. To implicate his countrymen in an incident they were not involved in would be an overreaction.

The bus 969 incident is sadly not the first time foreigners have been indiscriminately blamed in Singapore. In a few recent cases, we’ve been the ones who were left red-faced. Remember the woman who was defecating in front of a train station? Almost everyone agreed it was a Chinese national until NEA cleared the air by identifying her as a 34-year-old Singaporean with mental illness.

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Image Source: Facebook/Miao Jia Zhou

Barely three weeks ago, a guy named David Voo posted about a “fishy PRC kidnapper’’ roaming around Compass One mall in Sengkang. As it turned out, the lady in question, Madam Zhou, was neither a kidnapper nor even a PRC. She was just a good Samaritan trying to help a lost and crying child.

Thus, not only are Chinese nationals guilty until proven innocent, those accused of anything nasty get tagged as PRC until their identities are proven otherwise. In a country that pledges ‘justice and equality’, it’s worrying to see so many spontaneous reactions that pass judgment based on no better evidence than their own prejudices.

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As of Tuesday when The Pride reached out, SMRT declined further comment to their earlier Facebook post while internal investigations were ongoing.

It seems that their hands are tied. Singapore needs Chinese – and other – foreign workers to build our houses, clear our dishes and do the thankless work that most Singaporeans don’t care to do. They’ll be here to stay because few Singaporeans are willing to drive buses, even with the salary increases in recent years.

What then can we do when structural issues are out of our control? We can start by empathising with the Chinese – and other – foreign workers around us.

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They are people who are here to earn an honest living. They live in worker dormitories and they’re far away from their families. Despite working the same long hours, they are paid less than Singaporean and Malaysian bus captains.

Related article: Service staff in Singapore deserve more respect

So let’s give our foreign bus drivers a break by trying to understand them, and having some empathy for the difficulties they face.

Help them to help you get where you need to go.