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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A Cautionary Tale for Future Discourse
Cheong – following a public outcry, widespread condemnation, and unbridled anger on social media platforms – was unceremoniously fired by NTUC, before she fled Singapore for Perth, Australia. Given the buzz generated by the incident, Cheong would certainly rue the fact that a moment’s folly has cost her a career and future in Singapore, at least. It is unfortunate that she might remain haunted by this carelessness; however, it would be reasonable to think that she would be more meticulous with her words on cyberspace in the future. In Cheong’s predicament, “[i]f retrospective redemption is unattainable, what remains is prospective caution” (Mayer-Schönberger, 108). It is highly unlikely that she would be able to establish a working relationship with her former employer, or to find favour with the community she has offended; hence, upon reflection, Cheong would be more conscious about how she expresses viewpoints on the Internet, to prevent negligent lapses of judgement. Moreover, this “prospective caution” (Mayer-Schönberger, 108), which is care taken to avoid future dangers or mistakes, would expand to individuals who have witnessed how the events unfolded, as well as the speed and severity of the after-effects. Cheong, as a cautionary tale, would discourage bigots from spewing hate speech online, because they would not want to undergo the public scrutiny that Cheong experienced.
So why is Mayer-Schönberger critical of the temporal Panopticon? He observes that “the way to avoid exposure is to not criticise” (Mayer-Schönberger, 109), because the individual loses power and control over information, he does not know how his publications and “utterances” (Mayer-Schönberger, 109) would be used, or what the possible implications might be. In the socio-political domain, citizens should be empowered to keep the government in check – through rhetorical expressions or collective demonstrations – with impunity; yet the self-disciplining feature of the temporal Panopticon causes them to internalise the gaze and become their own inspectors. As behaviours in modern democracies have been altered by panoptic discipline, Foucault posits that communities have therefore been induced to internalise the “faceless gaze … that [has] transformed the whole social body into a field of perception” (Foucault 214). With this relentless monitoring, individuals never know if they are being observed, and must – for this reason – act as if they are always objects of observation.
Mayer-Schönberger is opposed to the possibility that the survival of online expressions could suppress democratic discourse. If citizens, within the temporal Panopticon, become “uninterested in public affairs” (Mayer-Schönberger 110) and refuse to engage in participatory dialogue involving contentious issues, “robust debate [would be] impoverished” (Mayer-Schönberger 110), since they fear the consequences of their speech. The reasoning is conceptually sound, but the effects of the temporal Panopticon have been hastily generalised. With reference to Cheong and her racist remarks in Singapore, a distinction needs to be made: on the one hand, there is public discourse in (cyber)space, which has to be nuanced, reasoned, and considered; on the other, this general right – or principles – can be abused through instances of hate speech or inflammatory remarks. There is little disagreement that hate speech has no place in constructive online exchanges. If the temporal Panopticon – through a prominent case study – compels observers to take greater ownership and responsibility of their online speeches, then it is not wholly negative.
Mayer-Schönberger also raises another concern, that individuals cannot be “reasonably expect[ed]” (Mayer-Schönberger 110) to know the types of “behaviour” (Mayer-Schönberger 110) which would be deemed acceptable and non-offensive. There will be no limits to the degree of self-censorship exercised, because everything – from a seemingly-innocuous photograph at a friend’s birthday party to a Facebook note on the state of governance in Singapore – is open to interpretation, could be taken out of context, or blown out of proportion. For this reason, we might self-police excessively. At first glance, Mayer-Schönberger’s worries are justified; nonetheless, the boundaries for racial hate speech in Singapore are rather well-defined. Following NTUC’s decision to terminate Cheong of her position, then Acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Chan Chun Sing remarked that he was proud of the majority’s response to the Amy Cheong episode (Huang). Singaporeans, including their politicians, condemned the insensitivity displayed by Cheong. They knew she had crossed the line. Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam noted on Facebook that Cheong’s “comments and conduct are shameful and completely acceptable” (Shanmugam), and acknowledged that NTUC’s decision sent a message that “such conduct will not be tolerated”. These ministerial proclamations reaffirm the commitment to racial harmony, and clearly establish the types of racial utterances and behaviour deemed to be offensive and unacceptable. It signals to the populace that there is no space for hate speech in Singapore.