“Cockroaches”, “Fucking vermins” and “Scum shit heads” who should “Please fuck off and die”. Some of the language used online against the local Filipino community is disgraceful and completely unacceptable. It pains me not only to see Singaporeans speaking in these terms, but also to see others – who should know much better – refuse to condemn such hateful language. This is racism pure and simple, and Singapore is heading in a very bad direction if such behaviour becomes ingrained as an accepted feature of our national discourse. Government policy may be the root cause of unhappiness, but unhappiness with the government is not a valid justification for racism. Nothing is, and this fact has to be called out.
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last couple of weeks, you must know that the above terms of abuse (and more) have been hurled at the Filipino community in Singapore in response to plans to celebrate their independence day in the forecourt of a local shopping centre. What to many would seem like a relatively innocuous event has unfortunately become a lightening rod for local discontent with government immigration and labour policies. While discontent with those tremendously misguided policies is very understandable, the response from a small minority of locals has plumbed new depths of distastefulness – moving beyond what could realistically be described as xenophobia to outright racism and bigotry. Yet the justification offered – and accepted by all too many people – that such anger is understandable or tolerable as a response to harmful government policies must be rejected if open and public debate is to be a healthy part of Singapore’s political awakening.
One of the biggest challenges facing Singapore is that the government has many tools and pretexts ready to stifle the free flow of information and discussion, both on and offline. From total control over mainstream media, the MDA’s escalating attempts at regulating news websites, to those libel, defamation and sedition laws that have been used against various politicians, commentators and cartoonists over the years – the government has a considerable arsenal of weapons to deploy against those it perceives as speaking out of turn. For this reason the growing power of social media in giving a voice to people and views that would once have been marginalised is to be welcomed and encouraged. Yet with the power of social media also comes responsibility. As Tan Chuan-Jin rightly said, any society will have its xenophobes and racists, and the voice social media gives to ordinary Singaporeans by definition also includes giving a voice to the unpleasant minority who would use that voice to hurt others. The responsibility now falls on those of us who seek greater freedom of expression in Singapore to show that the debate can be a healthy and constructive one, and to ensure the message that racist language is not acceptable is broadcast loud and clear.
Social media and online freedom of expression are some of the biggest threats faced by authoritarian governments which rely on the control of information to maintain their grips on power. From China’s internet firewalls, Vietnam’s ban on posting news articles to Facebook, Turkey’s recent attempts to block access to twitter, not to mention many more examples, numerous authoritarian governments are fighting back against online freedom of expression. To many observers, last year’s botched attempt by the MDA to regulate news websites was a step in the same direction for Singapore, yet so far online freedom remains mostly untrammeled. It surely does not take an overly active imagination however to suppose that there are elements amongst Singapore’s ruling party who would seek to take further steps against online voices critical of the government and we owe it to ourselves not to let bigoted outbursts become a useful pretext for the government to restrict online freedoms.
Please consider speaking out against the racist minority, show that such language is not to be tolerated and that freedom of expression online is a positive force that deserves to spread further into the offline world as well.