When online behaviour crosses the line

By Ghui

The government has long been concerned about the Internet. This interest began way before the Roy Ngerng saga burst onto the scene. While the public and indeed rank and file members of the PAP-led government fixate on the Ngerng drama, let’s not forget about the less high profile repercussions of the Internet.

It is no secret that many Singaporeans feel frustrated by the numbers of foreigners in our midst. The majority of Singaporeans recognise that this is not the fault of the foreigners but the result of poorly thought-out government policies. The answer therefore lies in lobbying the government to rethink and amend certain hitherto unchallenged policies as opposed to discriminating against foreigners per se.

It is therefore shocking to hear that the Philippine Embassy in Singapore has raised concerns about and called on the government of Singapore to take action against a blogger who posted a racist, anti-Filipino article to his blog.

The blog post is no longer available, but having taken a look at the blog, I am appalled – it even suggested that it is “legal” to “accidentally” cause physical hurt to its target nationality group.

While I have no wish to further publicise the content of this blog post, its content serves as a stark reminder to us as a sensible, rational and logical Internet community. We should realise that the real possible threat from the Internet lies not in questioning or criticising government policies and political figures but in the insidious propagation of anger and hatred towards people who through no fault of their own happen to be working in Singapore.

Singaporeans should feel free to air their opinions and express their thoughts. But this right should not be completely unfettered if it could result in danger to the individuals who have been unwittingly caught up by this online mob mentality.

The government has often cited examples of xenophobic or racist behaviour as reasons why Internet content needs to be regulated. In fact, this was one of the reasons given for the raft of MDA regulations put in place to regulate Internet content.

I disagree with those regulations because fundamentally, I believe that robust debate on issues that affect Singaporeans should be encouraged. The Internet is a convenient and effective forum to facilitate such discourse. Discussions should be meaningful and constructive. Even if there are no solutions proffered, it is still helpful for issues that bother Singaporeans to be raised. Leeway should also be given to those who might be frustrated and angry.

That said, there is a line between expression and incitement and if that incitement is targeted at a group of people who have no means to protect themselves, this behaviour needs to be regulated.

Part of this blog post could be an expression of frustration. But where it crossed the line is when it takes a disparaging stand against a certain group of people. At worst, it is a manipulative and misguided missive to rile up those already angry to go one step further.

If we, as a reasonable Internet community want to successfully lobby against further Internet regulation, we need to also behave like a responsible group. We cannot condone blatantly racist and invasive behaviour. We need to draw a line firmly and clearly. This website is manifestly wrong and it is imperative that the online community recognise this.

Unclear guidelines as to what constitutes unacceptable online conduct contributes to behaviours that cross the line. Most Singaporeans are aware that there are issues that are out of bounds but do not understand the boundaries.

The MDA regulations themselves were vague and came across to many Singaporeans as an attempt to rein in government critics. The government should perhaps consider introducing clear laws on behaviour that cross the line. The line should not be drawn at conduct that is deemed to question the government but at Internet content that a reasonable person would consider as inciting potentially violent behaviour or invasive of an individual’s privacy.

PM Lee took action against Ngerng when he deemed that his reputation was being impinged. Perhaps he and the government that he leads should consider those who do not have the means to defend themselves the way he can.