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The silence of the Media Literacy Council

By LL

The Media Literacy Council (MLC) was formed on 1 August 2012 to spearhead public education on media literacy and cyber wellness, to reduce uncivil behaviours online — behaviours that are “anti-social, offensive, irresponsible or simply mean”.

How ironic then that one of its Council members, Mr Calvin Cheng, former Nominated Member of Parliament, has consistently put himself in the limelight for making threatening, inflammatory remarks online.

comments CC5On 20 July 2016, Mr Cheng garnered attention again for threatening NUS professor Mr Chong Ja Ian by suggesting that he might report him to the university and that his job might be jeopardised.

“Does your university know of your internet activities? Unlike me, you have a boss and YOU can get fired. I am concerned for you,” Mr Cheng wrote. “I shall check with them what's fine for you. I am concerned. I think MOE should be too.”

A few comments down, he repeated: “Quite a few of us are concerned. Perhaps we shall make enquiries together. Concerned for you of course. Economy is bad and all that you know,” before adding a link to Mr Chong’s public work profile.

And all this was in response to Mr Chong Ja Ian’s comment that “the apparent coordination of all this vitriol and indignation is so interesting to watch. Perhaps this is precisely the sort of panic Khaw Boon Wan feared,” on a post by Workers’ Party Mr Leon Perera.

This thread is worrying for two reasons:

  • In that same thread, Mr Cheng seemed to be gloating that he was “fine” after talking about “killing children”, and appears to still not recognise the offensiveness of his earlier behaviour.

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This was in reference to the 2015 incident in which Mr Cheng, then a member of the MLC Council, posted a comment on Facebook on his ideas of how to tackle ISIS, which involved killing not just the terrorists, but also their children pre-emptively. This provoked an outrage from fellow netizens, and also two police reports against him.

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In response, MLC chairman Prof Tan Cheng Han said in a statement that “taking everything into consideration, I am unable to conclude that what Mr Cheng said as a whole amounts to hate speech.”

However, “as a member of the Council he (Mr Cheng) has to visibly uphold the values that the Council espouses. In this instance, his comments were insensitive and therefore inappropriate for a member of the MLC. I have spoken to Mr Cheng and counselled him that as a member of the Council he will be held to and judged by a higher standard compared to a private citizen,” he added.

MLC’s statement seems to have had no effect on Mr Cheng, who appears to still not recognise the offensiveness of his earlier behaviour.

2) Mr Cheng thinks the internet needs his brand of “strong policing” — and with its silence, the MLC is not disagreeing.

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On 21 July 2016, announcing his end of two terms with the MLC, Mr Cheng reiterated his stand that “now more than ever, the Wild West of the Internet needs strong policing.”

A day later, he made it clear what sort of “strong policing” he has in mind — a sort of stalking, vigilante action based on his own sense of right and wrong.

On 22 July, Mr Cheng continued his attack on Mr Chong, writing publicly on his personal Facebook profile that “I have been watching this individual (Dr Chong Ja Ian) for some time now, and he stalks political pages making snide remarks at Ministers, MPs and pro-Government people …. I am concerned about the suitability of such an individual teaching our undergraduates politics, of all subjects. … I am harsh in my criticisms, especially with people I feel are purposely antagonistic. … I will continue doing what I believe is right.”

comments CC2This personal attack echoes what happened in May 2015 when Mr Cheng also singled out playwright Alfian Sa’at for “irresponsible rhetoric” and called for the Government to “watch commentators like Alfian Sa'at closely” so that “if red lines are crossed, the use of the ISA on these domestic agitators should not be ruled out.”

This is not about removing Mr Cheng from the MLC, or even jeopardising his job. After all, his offensive behaviour online may not reduce his ability to do his job, and as of 22 July, he would have completed two terms as an MLC Council Member and stepped down.

This is about the need for MLC to send clear signals about what exactly they consider uncivil behaviours online — behaviours that are “anti-social, offensive, irresponsible or simply mean”, instead of remaining silent now.

No doubt the power dynamics are uneven. Mr Cheng is a former Nominated Member of Parliament, a former PAP member, and he has been on the MLC for four years.

But with their silence, the likes of Calvin Cheng threaten to make the entire Media Literacy Council a farce. How exactly do they credibly conduct public education and advise the Government on the appropriate policy response for cyber wellness, if one of their former Council members is consistently known for threatening, bullying tactics online?