S'pore racist saga shows online self-policing works

Amy Cheong episode is proof the local online community can no longer be said to "squander opportunity" to move toward "a more responsible, greater self-regulatory regime".
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

Few people in Singapore would want to be in Amy Cheong's shoes this week, or for the next few weeks and maybe months, too. The 37-year-old was the recipient of much wrath after she posted comments on her Facebook wall which were widely deemed racist.

Within a day, her comments went viral triggering thousands of angry retorts and demands for her employer--which she had highlighted on her Facebook profile--to fire her. By the end of the day, she was sacked from her job as assistant director of membership at NTUC (National Trades Union Congress).

In a statement released Monday evening, NTUC Secretary-General Lim Swee Say said: "NTUC takes a serious view on racial harmony in Singapore. We will not accept and have zero tolerance toward any words used or actions taken by our staff that are racially offensive."

The Cheong saga also triggered responses from various government officials in Singapore including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong who said he was "shocked" over her comments. He posted on his Facebook wall: "[This episode] reminds us how easily a few thoughtless words can cause grave offence to many, and undermine our racial and religious harmony. Let us all be more mindful of what we say, online and in person, and always uphold the mutual respect and sensitivity that holds our society together."

The incident also made its rounds on various global media outlets including BBC in the U.K., Times of India, and The Australian and Herald Sun in Australia where Cheong has citizenship and since fled to for some respite.

The whole episode also led some to question if Singaporeans had unresolved issues concerning race and religion--two areas the government has always highlighted the need for careful management.

Law Minister K. Shanmugam said on his Facebook page: "[Cheong's] comments reflect a deep seated racist attitude coupled with contempt for those who are less well-off or who wish to spend less. There are deep fault lines in our society based on race/religion."

Its fears over racial and religious imbalance aren't unfounded. In 1964, a series of race riots between the Chinese and Malay communities in the country left 36 dead and over 550 injured.

It is often with reference to these riots that the government has underscored the need for Singaporeans to be wary about what they say or do, and the reason for its heavy hand on content it deems contentious--the Cheong episode included.

However, the speed at which this week's events developed clearly demonstrates the government has little need to interfere. Netizens were swift in expressing their anger over Cheong's comments and calling her out for her racist opinions.

In 2009, Singapore's then-Acting Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts Lui Tuck Yew had described the Internet as an ineffective self-regulated environment, referring to how the online community here had failed to quash negative comments targeted at another local politician set ablaze by a discontented resident.

Lui noted the "unkind" comments by bloggers and how fellow Netizens should had done more to address the malicious remarks.

"It is a squandered opportunity for a higher degree of self-regulation. It would have been an example of the genesis of the first step toward a more responsible, a greater self-regulatory regime. But many of those responses were not rebutted nor answered. And I think it is not healthy for some of those to remain on the Net unchallenged, unquestioned, and unanswered," he had said.

Fast forward to 2012, today, I'm happy to politely say Lui can now eat his words. Singapore's online community has challenged, questioned and answered, and is clearly capable of being "a more responsible, a greater self-regulatory regime", especially if the occasion absolutely calls for it.

Sure, there will always be a few bad eggs but that's the nature of the Internet...you get the all the good along with all the vile.

Along with the right user policies and proper understanding of the risks, the Singapore government should never need to implement social media laws because online community will plays its role in weeding out unsavory comments.

Instead, it should redirect its emphasis to cultivate a society that embraces racial and religious acceptance, rather than tolerance.

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