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Are Singaporeans too easily offended?

~ By Tim Smith ~

Singaporeans have begun a crusade. Not against tyranny, or oppression, or privilege. In fact, this crusade, as far as anyone can tell, is against ever having to feel offended. And this crusade is leading more and more Singaporeans to seek out offensive content, so that they may destroy it.

Let me begin with the case of Sun Xu. This young international student was studying engineering at NUS, when he wrote in a blog entry that all Singaporeans were 'dogs'. The effect that this remark had on the public consciousness cannot be understated. Far from regarding his remark as the sort of flippant verbal abuse common in the playgrounds of Junior College, to which a father might remind his crying son that while sticks and stones may break bones, names cannot hurt him, Sun Xu's remark spurred many Singaporeans into battle. Harsh disciplinary action was taken against Sun Xu. In total, Sun Xu was fined a hefty $3000, made to complete three months community service, and he had his scholarship revoked retroactively, meaning that not only would he lose his scholarship for the rest of his term at NUS, but he would also have to pay back the $8,200 that he had already received. He later gave a full public apology.

Calling Singaporeans dogs is an expensive hobby then. In sum, it cost Sun Xu at least $11,200 plus community service. Putting that into perspective, Madam Gan Hui Leung, who was recently found guilty of violating employee safety laws that led to the death of her maid, 25 year old Siti Ustima, was fined a mere $5000. When a foreigner offends a citizen, $10,000 fine. When a citizen kills foreigner, $5,000 fine. Incredibly enough, despite having almost bankrupted Sun Xu, in several online polls, the majority of respondents felt that Sun Xu had been treated too leniently.

What few people realize about the Sun Xu case is that he is studying engineering at NUS, just as many foreign students do, under a contract which binds him to work in Singapore for the next six years after graduating. Although Sun Xu had his scholarship revoked, his contract nonetheless binds him to work in Singapore for six years after completing his training. When Sun Xu came to Singapore, he was under the impression that he would get a free education, in return he would dedicate six years of his working life to paying Singapore back through skilled employment. Now, because he said that Singaporeans were dogs, he is required to both pay for the education he was promised for free, and work for Singapore for six years.

Then came the case of Angelo Jandugan, a Singaporean citizen of Filipino origin, who commented on a Facebook thread that Singaporeans had a 'loser mentality'. An army of angry Singaporeans, led by the incendiary reporting of the Temasek Review, bombarded his putative employer Deutsche Bank, with emails and open letters, to have him dismissed. The Temasek Review even supplied contact details for Deutsche Bank in a bid to get Jandungan fired. Deutsche Bank, due to the massive public response, was forced to state publicly that they had no employer by the name of Angelo Jandugan currently working with them.

Indeed, it is not hard to find hundreds of similar stories since the Sun Xu case broke. Stories about foreigners making disrespectful or offensive remarks are the bread and butter of the media for the moment. The very stories themselves have become stories, with reporters now scouring the comments threads of their own stories to find more offensive remarks from foreigners, to write new articles about offensive foreigners, to get more offensive comments from the comments threads, and so on. But is it really news?

The remarks have hit a real nerve among many Singaporeans. Why? Take a moment to think about it for a second. Why are stories about foreigners saying "mean stuff" about us front page news? Why are so many responding with an irrational and ruthless fury towards these remarks? Why are they reacting like children in a playground?

The Singaporeans who are claiming to be offended argue that the government's liberal immigration policy is to blame. Singaporeans are losing out to foreigners who come here, steal our jobs, enjoy privileges that we don't get, aren't required to do NS, etc. It is adding insult to injury to call us 'dogs', or tell us we are worth less than 'fart', or whatever. That is their argument. I don't buy it.

Firstly, if immigration policy were the problem, the anger ought to be directed towards the politicians, not individual foreigners who offend us. Secondly, if the problem is that foreigners are stealing all our jobs, then two of the most high profile cases, Sun Xu and Angelo Jandugan, fulfill neither of those criteria. Sun Xu was a student, and stealing no one's job (he was brought here because of a shortage of skilled engineers after all). Angelo Jandugan is a citizen, not a foreigner, and therefore enjoyed no special privileges.

The problem lies, instead, with Singapore's attitude towards offense. Nowhere else in the entire western world would you find the national reaction to being offended on a par with what we have recently witnessed. Fines imposed, scholarships revoked, jobs lost, these punishments are all over and above what a liberal society's response to feeling offended should be. So just how should a liberal society respond to feeling offended? The answer is very simple: it shouldn't.

Offense is a self-inflicted injury. It makes no sense to hold other people accountable for your own self-inflicted injury. If a fat man shoots me in a dark alleyway, obviously it is right that he be held accountable. The fat man inflicted the injury, therefore the fat man is culpable. However, if I see a fat man in a dark alleyway and his obese frame offends me, who is responsible for my feelings of offense? Is it the fat man's fault that I find him offensive? Should I yell at the fat man "You there! Remove yourself from this alleyway at once. Your obese body is injuring my sensibilities!" Of course not! It is my fault, out and out. I am the one who is offended, and I am responsible for my feelings of offense. From there, I have two choices. One, leave the alleyway so I don't have to look at the fat man. Or two, I can start to work on changing my feelings towards fat people. They are my feelings, after all. So I am responsible for them.

In this epidemic surrounding offensive foreigners in Singapore, we have placed the responsibility squarely on the foreigners; they offended us, therefore it was their fault. In doing so, we have been the angry people shouting at fat men in alleyways. We have been blaming other people for our own self-inflicted injuries, turning it into their fault. But this is not how offense works. Offense is not some trump card that obligates others to make reparations to the offended parties. Offense is the responsibility of the offended.

Worst of all, now, it seems, many Singaporeans are chomping at the bit, searching for more and more foreigners to hold responsible for their own hurt feelings. They are seeking out the alleyways where they know that fat people will congregate, and then launching an attack. News sites have been scraping the very bottom of the barrel to supply similar stories (one recent Temasek Review article alleged that a foreigner had called Singaporeans "low quality"). The appetite for these stories has become insatiable.

But this is the wrong strategy. It is not healthy for the individual nor for society at large. Let me suggest, as humbly as I possibly can, a different strategy. If you feel offended by something you read online, whether from a foreigner or a citizen, take a moment. Breathe. Remove yourself from the situation and, if that's not possible, try to change your feelings towards the remarks. Your feelings of offense are avoidable and it is your decision how to let these remarks affect you. Ultimately, the responsibility lies with you.

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