How MP Josephine Teo Could Have Avoided Her “Sexy” Gaffe (and Memes…)

Take from SGAG —

If you had tuned in to Singapore’s social media this morning, you’d probably choked on your coffee for what you thought were government-led directives on… the fine process of intercourse, sexual ones to be exact.

You see, this is the sure-win formula for being famous, albeit for the wrong reasons,

Candid and Unrestrained Comments + Sensationalized Headlines from Dutiful Members of the Media + Memes and Articles from Plethora of Alternative Media Outlets = Instant Undesired Fame

If you still haven’t gotten up to speed with what happen, read this article. And don’t miss out the headline.

Taken from SGAG —

In this Medium post, I’ll share how MP Josephine Teo could have averted from an online PR fiasco, in my humble opinion as a public speaking coach.

Question: “MP Teo, are young people not getting their flats early enough to have children?”

(Read disclaimers below)

The “Fodder” That Fueled The Wildfire

If you have read the article in entirety, the exact response by MP Teo was

“You need a very small space to have sex”

Yet, the printed headline on the papers was,

“You don’t need much space to have sex”

A case of same same, but different. Now, read the two above statements yourself and ask yourself which triggers a stronger response for you. Chances are, the second statement framed in a negative (“don’t) slant.

Why? My guess is that when statements are framed in a negative slant (don’t, can’t, shouldn’t) — you are subconsciously being “challenged” to take a stand and you would respond stronger, if you don’t agree with the statement. It may also trigger a state of defiance from the recipient — like, “why can’t I?”

(Side note — this deserves more much research and I honestly have no empirical information to back this, as yet)

Aside from how it’s being re-phrased, can one even go so far to suggest that the periodical has misquoted MP Teo? Well, yes and no. For the fact that, the media folks behind it could have argued in return,

“Well, it wasn’t parenthesized, was it? Besides, it was inferred from your actual statement, Madam!”

And again, there is a reason why front cover news, news headlines, cover images are constantly and carefully curated to… sell. And functionally, it can’t be wrong because if it doesn’t sell, no one reads. I’ve been in newsrooms but never worked in one. Yet if you speak with a journalist, you know that headlines are oftentimes, not within the control of the interviewing writer/journalist himself/herself.

Could this article be headlined as,

“Space should not be the sole consideration for child bearing: Josephine Teo on ‘no flat, no child’ belief” instead?

Yes! But would it be as “viral” as it is now? Hell no.

So what could MP Teo have done in this situation?

1) Avoid Sensational Language Or Vivid/Visual Language

Technically, if MP Teo hadn’t use the words, “have sex”, she wouldn’t have allowed the periodical to do a subtle spin in such a… sexy fashion. You can be “candid” and throw out “feisty rejoinders” but when reality is being spun out of hand, your candour can do so much to keep you cool amidst the social media and PR heat.

Lesson: Stick to the script if you know you have a tendency to be candid and find it difficult to hold your tongue. Better to be seen as trite than unnecessarily incredulous.

2) Euphemisms Are Not All That Bad

euphemism [yoo-fuh-miz-uh m]
1. the substitution of a mild, indirect, or vague expression for one thought to be offensive, harsh, or blunt.

(taken from

I know, sometimes people dislike euphemisms because when you use them, you come across as being indirect and trying to “sugar coat”. But as with all tools, it depends on the context being used. In MP Teo’s context, the use of a euphemism would have saved her.

Let’s see:

Expression: Have Sex

Euphemized Expression: Copulation (the proper technical term), coital activities/affairs (another technical one), have intimate relations, enjoy intimacy, private affairs, activities in the bedroom.

My Hokkien-speaking friend even suggested, “hei shio hei shio” as a better alternative. You get the drift.

When you use euphemisms appropriately, they express the same meaning but leave the room of imagination to your audience. In this context, being nuanced helps a lot too. And better still, you don’t come across as being too explicit and provide fodder for media disasters a la MP Teo.

3) Question Your Audience With Empathy

Response to a general question on “young people”

“Thank you for your question and I can understand your frustration in this matter. Do you mind letting me know what your concerns are, specifically? This way, I can better respond and assist you”

Yes, I know you say answering a question with a question is not best thing to do again. And yes, we heard it from DPM Teo before on “What do you think?.

But if you ask me, for speakers who are typically more “candid” and “feisty”, this strategy at least helps to build empathy for the audience (when delivered properly) and also forces you to hold your tongue and not respond, by default even if you are tempted to. Which in MP Teo’s case, was clearly controversial.

In my workshops, I share a total of 11 other different strategies to handle questions, whether they are benign or hostile and leading. And in such times we live in, people in positions of authority and influence cannot afford to respond without tact (my opinion) especially under public and media scrutiny.

My concluding remarks — while the media (print and more so, new / social) clearly has gotten their heyday for their intentions and motives, the general public needs to be discerning too, to read the article in full and understand the context and question it, if it’s unclear and vague. In this article, MP Teo did make effort to explain the challenges of the other alternatives on the plate.

Yet, most importantly — the source of information i.e. the speaker and presenter needs to be aware that, whether you like it or not, your words and actions can be construed in more ways than one. And often, in those that you least desire and expect.

“We cannot control the way people interpret our ideas or thoughts, but we can control the words and tones we choose to convey them. Peace is built on understanding, and wars are built on misunderstandings. Never underestimate the power of a single word, and never recklessly throw around words. One wrong word, or misinterpreted word, can change the meaning of an entire sentence and start a war. And one right word, or one kind word, can grant you the heavens and open doors.”

― Suzy Kassem, Rise Up and Salute the Sun: The Writings of Suzy Kassem

Disclaimer #1: I had tried searching for the full context i.e. the exact question posed to MP Teo but it was in vain. I will consider emailing the journalist in question but I doubt she will respond. The best that can be interpreted was from the article,

“question on whether young people are not getting their flats early enough to have children”

For simplicity sake, I’ve assumed the question posed as what I had typed out at the start. No other contextual information I can glean.

Disclaimer #2: As a Public Speaking Coach, I coach my clients whether they are corporate or governmental (no, we’ve yet to work with MP Teo, in case you wonder) on speaking effectively in public.

So this post will be on strategies to handle the above question better and in no part, am I qualified or keen in providing perspectives on the substance of the response — e.g. rationale of housing policy for wedded and/or unwedded couples, allocation processes, soundness of policies etc.

Disclaimer #3: Hindsight is 20/20. Yes, I am writing this response in the middle of my cushy office now after a 2 days training on this exact subject matter so you can say, I’m indeed literally close to being an armchair theorist. But in my 6 years of coaching over 3,500 clients in spoken communications and being in dozens of panel events as a speaker and professional moderator, I’ve either been “burnt alive on stage” by hostile members of my audience and made my fair share of Freudian slips and gaffes. But you can always take what I say with a heavy pinch of salt.