This is the first of a three-part series on the Amy Cheong saga. I had penned this commentary for a writing module in school. The first part (Monday) will look at hate speech and the purported effects of the temporal Panopticon, the second (Wednesday) will discuss how the Amy Cheong incident has provided a cautionary tale for future discourse, and the final part (Friday) will look at how hate speech can be countered by more speech. The references are available (here).
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Approximately twenty-two hours.
That was how fast it took the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) to dismiss senior employee Miss Amy Cheong, after she had published offensive, racist Facebook posts. Beyond expressions of discomfort by ordinary Singaporeans, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong – through a Facebook update of his own – condemned the comments, asserting that they “were just wrong and totally unacceptable” (Lee). His post, which gathered over 25,000 “likes”, resonated with many, and is evidence that there is little tolerance for hate speech in Singapore. A repentant Cheong, eventually aware of the extent of her transgression, scrambled to contain the damage: she frantically published notes of apology, deleted the original publications, and eventually shut her Facebook and Twitter accounts down. Yet, Cheong’s efforts to contain the damage were too little, too late, by the standards of a burgeoning cyberspace in Singapore.
At first glance, one could relate this particular case to Mayer-Schönberger’s temporal Panopticon, which is a constraining situation – with comprehensive digital memory – in which one must always assume she “is watched by everybody” (Mayer-Schönberger 111), even in the distant future. Trapped within the temporal Panopticon, Cheong’s online words could survive, and this could have the real danger of stifling democratic discourse, since individuals would be forced to constantly self-police. Consequently, they would deliberately censor their expression on the Internet, for fear of how their opinions or actions could be interpreted in the future.
But something does not quite make sense when one puts Mayer-Schönberger’s worry about the temporal Panopticon to bear on the Amy Cheong controversy. Within the democratic space in Singapore, the reactions to the Cheong’s distasteful Facebook outburst reflect a general consensus that there is little tolerance for reckless hate speech. Cheong’s misadventure does not fit the model of the temporal Panopticon entirely, because while Mayer-Schönberger postulates that the act of vigilant self-policing – which results in less virtual space for discourse – is necessarily negative and detrimental, it would appear that proactive, positive self-censorship, on Cheong’s part, would have prevented the fiasco in the first place. Mayer-Schönberger alludes to two examples. Stacy Snyder’s supervisors noticed Snyder’s drunken pirate photograph on her MySpace web-page (Mayer-Schönberger 102), while Andrew Feldmar was refused entry to the United States because a border guard discovered, via Google, that Feldmar had taken drugs in the 1960s (Mayer-Schönberger 105). When these two misbehaviours are compared vis-à-vis the Cheong incident, they show that online actions have consequences: Cheong lost her job; Snyder was denied her teacher’s certificate (Mayer-Schönberger 109); and Feldmar could not enter the country. However, while Mayer-Schönberger pays attention only to the negative effects of the afterlife of what is posted online, it seems that sometimes – as with Cheong’s racist comments – there can be positive consequences too.
Therefore, my argument is that the Amy Cheong saga – in relation to the temporal Panopticon – has the potential benefit of warning people who would otherwise engage in hate speech online, and the case shows that the nation can rely upon civic-minded Singaporeans, who are opposed to racist statements, to further reduce the frequency of such events. This essay will be anchored by two propositions: first, Cheong’s social media hate-speech disaster would serve as a cautionary tale for future discourse, encouraging individuals to take greater ownership and responsibility for opinions they express online; second, beyond hate speech regulation per se, Singaporeans can counter hate speech with more speech.
Amy Cheong and the Temporal Panopticon
Cheong’s online rant is a prime example of undesirable hate speech, defined as a “persecutorial, hateful, and degrading” (Tsesis 819) message of “racial inferiority … intended to harm its targets[,] and has a substantial probability of doing so”. Through her expletive-laden remarks, Cheong articulated personal annoyance at a Malay wedding which was held at a void deck near her area of residence, as well as preposterous generalisations about the Malay community in Singapore. She wrote that the organisation of Malay wedding ceremonies “should be banned” (Cheong), and that these events have led to high “divorce rate[s]”. Moreover, she opined that society should not “allow [people] to get married for 50 bucks”. These were stereotypical sentiments with no logical basis, and many Singaporeans were uncomfortable that Cheong had – on the spur-of-the-moment, out of frustration – disparaged another race openly.
The “replicability” (boyd) and “scalability” of digital information on social media platforms featured prominently throughout the twenty-two hours and beyond. boyd observes that information can be “cop[ied] [and] paste[d] from one place to another”, and “read by all people across all space and all time”; that is, social media environments allow online posts, especially controversial or offensive ones, to be saved and distributed rapidly. Cheong’s Facebook posts were instantly screen-capped, and these images were spontaneously shared across digital platforms. These screen-caps went viral, attracting thousands of “shares” on Facebook; additionally, search requests for “Amy Cheong” skyrocketed on Google Singapore, and copies of her racist post “trended” on Twitter. Despite the aforementioned attempts to delete traces of her hate speech, the “persistence” (boyd) of the screen-caps – which refers to how these online posts “stick around” for an indefinite period of time – suggests that a temporal Panopticon has been created, in which what was said in the past could be held against an individual for a long time.
Mayer-Schönberger asserts that “the durability of digital remembering” (Mayer-Schönberger 111) – which has rendered online information more comprehensive and accessible – gives rise to a “constraining temporal panopticon” (Mayer-Schönberger 111). He is worried that the longevity of digital memory would inevitably yield ramifications, specifically by stifling discussions online. Mayer-Schönberger is critical of this phenomenon which extends across time and (cyber)space, because once individuals are aware of the potential implications associated with digital communication, they would rather “err on the side of caution” (Mayer-Schönberger 111), choosing to think hard before publishing information online. Since they become more selective and cautious with their perspectives, “a climate of self-censorship” (Mayer-Schönberger 112) could curtail free speech within a democratic society; as a result, this pronounced fear would severely cripple “robust and open debate” (Mayer-Schönberger 112). Individuals begin to watch their own behaviours and expressions, acting as if they are being permanently watched.