Sunday, 6 October 2019

The problem with Tommy Koh's 'Third World' comment: Did he actually say it?

The headline:
Tommy Koh laments that Singapore is a First World country with Third World citizens
What a great quote!

But if you read The Straits Times report carefully, Prof Koh isn't quoted as saying that at all.

The report on the Singapore Bicentennial Conference starts with the sentence:
Veteran diplomat Tommy Koh laments that Singapore is a First World country with Third World people.
But it's not clear whether Prof Koh actually used those words or the reporter was paraphrasing him.

"Third World" is not mentioned in the article again.

Considering how ST has gone to town with the line, I wish the paper had reported the exact quote.

What Prof Koh did say was:
"I am more critical of Singaporeans than of the Government. Many of our people don't give a damn for the environment when they should. Many of our people are selfish and unkind. Just look at the way they drive."
Even in ST's follow-up report "Singaporeans are Third World people? Public figures react to Tommy Koh's comments", nowhere is Prof Koh quoted as using the term "Third World".

Instead, it's someone else, Singapore Management University sociologist Paulin Straughan, who is quoted as saying: "We can't really have a First World Country with Third World behaviour."

So it may appear that ST has put the words "Third Word" in Prof Koh's mouth. Is it (dare I say it) fake news?

Because if he did say it, it would be a rather undiplomatic thing for a diplomat to say, especially to Third World nations.

What does "Third World" mean anyway?

Here is an explanation from a website called World Population Review:
What is a third world country? Recently, third world countries can be defined by high poverty rates, economic instability, and lack of basic human resources compared to the rest of the world.

The term “Third World countries” was first used during the Cold War. This term was used to describe countries that were not aligned with the Communist Bloc or NATO or that were neutral. This term was first used to categorize countries into three groups based on their politics and economics.

During the Cold War, the United States, Canada, South Korea, Japan, and Western European nations and allies were categorized as First World countries. Second World countries included China, Cuba, the Soviet Union and their allies. Third World countries typically had colonial pasts in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Oceania.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the terminology of the “three worlds” has changed somewhat. Today, the term Third World is used to describe a country that is not developed as much as other countries and faces economic, social, political, environmental and other issues. This has led to some confusion as to how the term was originally used.
Despite the confusion, people still tend to use "Third World" to mean poor countries and "First World" to mean rich countries. I haven't heard or read anyone use "Second World".

This would mean that what Prof Koh supposedly said was that Singapore is a rich country with citizens who behave poorly like they're from a poor country.

The problem with this is that it equates being poor with poor behaviour, which I find offensively elitist.

And that is why I hope Prof Koh didn't say what The Straits Times said he said.

For me, Third World will always be this reggae band: