13 July 1997
Lee Kuan Yew has apologised twice and we have accepted that he did not mean to hurt
our feelings. The Singapore Senior Minister and former Prime Minister had referred
to Johor Baru, Singapore's nearest neighbour, as a place "notorious for shootings,
muggings and carjackings".
I shall not go into detail what made him say that. I claim to no better insight than
President Bill Clinton, after defending Affirmative Action and urging for a year-long
dialogue on race relations, has said he was considering extending a national apology
to Black Americans for this nation's years of slavery which only ended in 1863. Tony
Blair, the British Prime Minister has already apologized for his nation's role in
the Irish potato famine of 1845. Perhaps, he is following Blair's lead. After all
they like each other and share many similarities.
I do not suppose apologising for a clear wrong hurts. Indeed, it is an honourable
thing to do. But in this case what good will it do?
James K. Glassman, a Washington Post columnist posed this question:
"Who's supposed to apologise? The Confederacy or the Union? Recall that 136
years ago the Union which is to say the United States government, went to war, at
a cost of 359,528 lives, to end slavery. Now, we're supposed to say we're sorry?
May be some thanks would be in order."
The only reason this silly idea was getting attention, he asserted, was because there
was not much else Clinton could think to do about race after that hazy, platitude-laden
speech at the University of California in San Diego nearly a month ago.
The irony of the whole thing is that Clinton would be apologising on behalf of a
nation in which all slaves and slave masters have long been dead, and when at the
peak of slavery no more than 10% of White Americans, mainly in the South, had or
owned slaves, to African-Americans who have never been slaves and on behalf on White
Americans who never owned slaves
There is a rule of thumb in politics (and also in journalism) that if one is criticised
by both partisans of the divide, then he must be doing OK; he is on the right track.
Clinton is right this time because critics on both sides twitted him. Reverend Jesse
Jackson and several other Black leaders and intellectuals said an apology was not
necessary because it has no substantive value to it. I think the Blacks are right
Most decent people would agree that the practice of slave-owning and exploitation
was the most disgraceful black-spot in American history, and in that context, an
apology for slavery would not hurt. But apology won't be enough. What are needed
are ideas and concrete programmes and action to make the United States a whole country.