A tale of two apologies – why one was accepted and the other ridiculed


Recently two racially offensive incidents happened in the Singapore’s online media landscape around the same time, circa October 25th. One was that of The Smart Local, “an independent media publisher that focuses on travel and lifestyle stories for Singaporeans”. They made a video of Singaporeans trying snacks from Little India, our historical Indian enclave. In it, the ethnically Chinese Singaporeans tasted and apparently gave ‘unsavoury’ comments on the snacks. The 5-minute video created much offence, not just among local Indians but also among Singaporeans who are sensitive to racial issues. The other one was on Toggle, the online media of local broadcaster, Mediacorp. In a Chinese-language series, I Want To Be A Star, one of the actors was made up to look like a black guy with face painted black and an afro wig. Unsurprisingly, it received an onslaught of criticism for being offensive.

Both parties issued apologies. While that of The Smart Local seems to calm nerves, Toggle’s apology only generated more vitriol. Why so?


Let’s look at the apologies:

The Smart Local:

“It was our intention to create a video celebrating Deepavali. But because of poor execution on our part, we ended up doing the opposite. We removed the video as soon as we realised our mistake and this is a big learning lesson we’ll take with us moving forward.

We’ll be preparing a public apology that will be posted up today. We apologise again for this mistake, and we will not be producing content like this again.”


"The scene has been perceived as being racially insensitive by some viewers, although that was never our intention in the production. We appreciate the feedback and truly apologise to viewers who have been affected by this portrayal.”


3 components of an authentic apology

In my book Speak Smart Make Your Mark, I have mentioned that for an apology to be considered authentic, it must have three components:

  1. It must show that you acknowledged your mistake and regretted your actions
  2. You acknowledged the hurt inflicted on others.
  3. You are willing to make amends and not repeat the same mistake again.


How did they fare

The Smart Local conveyed exactly these three components:

They stated their good intentions but took responsibility for the negative impact by acknowledging poor execution. They also acknowledged that it was offensive, ie., "We ended up doing the opposite [of celebrating Deepavali]" and made it very clear that they will not be producing content like this.

On the other hand, Toggle was very flippant in their apology. It sounded more of a corporate template apology.

One Twitter user Ila S. (@danceinthedarth) pointed out the flaw perfectly. She tweeted:

No, it wasn’t “perceived as being racially insensitive to by some viewers”. It IS racially insensitive. There is no perception.

Toggle seems to be trying to weasel out of taking responsibility for its insensitivity. It downplays the negative impact by saying that the video only affected some viewers. Simply using cookie cutter phrases like “truly apologise” does not constitute sincerity. Nowhere in its short apology does it say that it will not repeat the same mistake again.

There is an element of arrogance in its apology. If I could paraphrase as a personal interaction, it would sound nothing more than - Oops, sorry I didn’t mean to offend you. But, whatever!


Understand the difference between impact and intention

As individuals, we too have to make apologies to our colleagues, friends and family. But many of us have the misconception that if the intention was good, then somehow the negative impact should be pardoned. This is far from the truth.

Negative impact does not justify positive intentions.

When there is a conflict, the offender needs to focus on managing the negative impact. Apologise for the negative consequences first. Then explain how your actions came from good intentions. But never ever use good intentions as a justification.

Admit it. When you are offended, you never cared if the intentions of the other party were good or not. You just want to hear a sincere apology.

For your comments:

What are some of the best and worst apologies you have received? How did you respond? Would love to hear about your experience.