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 “Neighbourhood Watch”: Countering Hate Speech with More Speech
Let’s take stock. It has been established that the temporal Panopticon is likely to be beneficial in Singapore following Cheong’s well-documented woes, as individuals would be inclined to exercise due diligence before penning online statuses or updates. Furthermore, the scale and the speed of the responses to Cheong’s out-of-line remarks suggest there is a civic conscience online. Even if regulation proves to be redundant, a “neighbourhood watch” (Wolf 552) – which, in this case, is a community of Singaporean netizens – would be mobilised to combat the hate speech. Paradoxically, without downplaying her obnoxious posts, the Cheong saga highlights not the dangers, but the comforting and positive effects of the Internet.
Regulation is a weapon that is frequently deployed by administrations. Proponents believe that legislative rules and prohibitive directives, coupled with harsh, punitive sentences, would prevent the manifestation of online hate speech. Such legal strategies for the Internet are undeniably well-intentioned, “because the messages transmitted through that social space have physical, psychological, and cultural effects on real places and real people” (Tsesis, 863-864). This means that vitriolic invectives, such as the statement that got Cheong into trouble, can impact the rights of others, and inflict emotional or material harm upon individuals and communities. Tenuous social fabrics will not be spared. Regulation could therefore put an immediate stop to the publication and spread of these pernicious comments.
What legal experts such as Tsesis might not have considered, is the point that regulation has its drawbacks, and should not be employed in isolation. First, criminalisation of repugnant hate speech means that the authorities would have to heighten the present levels of Internet monitoring and surveillance, and many users would be disturbed by such protocols. Foucault and Mayer-Schönberger would be alarmed, because these developments would strengthen tendencies for individuals to disciplinarily watch themselves. Rather than expanding the space for more democratic discourse, netizens could be even more cognisant and conscious of what they post, for fear of disciplinary repercussions. Second, the “shield of Internet anonymity” (Wolf 550) and the “viral nature of online hate” (Wolf 550) mean that users with malicious intent could hide behind pseudonyms to spread mindless hate. Given the “borderless nature of the Internet” (Wolf 550), where jurisdiction and norms are almost-impossible to establish, a confluence of these virtual characteristics has rendered legal policing a futile endeavour. Third, regulation is no silver bullet. Troubled by a tumultuous history which is dotted by tenuous race relations and contentious geopolitical conflicts, the ruling People’s Action Party has not taken the contemporary status quo for granted. In Singapore, the Sedition Act has a provision against racist comments; specifically, sub-section 3 of the Act prohibits publications that “promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or classes” (Attorney-General’s Chambers). However, this did not stop Cheong from posting her callous and reckless comments on the Malay community.
Hence, “[a]n equally important and powerful tool against hate speech is the voluntary cooperation of the Internet community” (Wolf 551), a movement Wolf terms a “neighbourhood watch” (Wolf 552). In other words, rather than relying pedantically upon legal instruments to clamp down on hate speech, the regular users of the Internet should become more vigilant, and band together to counter these expressions with more speech. The metaphorical cyberspace neighbourhood means that everyone should be looking out for one another, especially those who might be susceptible or vulnerable to these online abuses. The sustained promotion of these collaborative methodologies would complement legislative ones, allowing ordinary folks to deal with the scourge of hate speech. Cheong’s racist post galvanised a series of counter-speech (Wolf 551), as netizens began to expose it “for its deceitful and false content” (Wolf 551), whilst “promoting the values of tolerance and diversity”. Hardly anyone was in support of Cheong’s actions. Many seized the opportunity to espouse the importance of acceptance, and the spirit of giving-and-taking in a multi-racial society.
Despite the merits, opponents would also point to the limitations. While the general response has been heartening, some – often behind pseudonyms – have taken the opportunity to counter Cheong’s hate speech with hate speech. Take for instance a discussion post on REACH, the government’s feedback agency, whose author made ludicrous claims: that “[t]he reason that [Cheong] is being attacked so strongly is because she is Chinese” (Guest), and that “Indians ***** racists are out in full again”. These baseless accusations are clearly non-constructive, but regulation, especially with the element of anonymity, could require greater administrative efforts, in terms of tracking down the ones responsible, before bringing them to justice. In fact, a more rigorous community of responsible netizens would ensure that further hate speech is countered by more speech, and to rein in racist remarks productively.
It has been tough on Cheong. Even as the controversy dies down, her grievous mistake will persist in cyberspace for an extremely long period of time. Amidst the flak she has received, she could probably take solace in the propositions that her misadventure could force Singaporeans to think twice before posting something irresponsible or offensive online, and has galvanised civic-minded Singaporeans who are opposed to racist sentiments. In the words of the Prime Minister, “[l]et us be more mindful of what we say, online and in person, and always uphold the mutual respect and sensitivity that holds our society together” (Lee).