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My storm in a teacup, and thoughts on some wider implications

By Ian Chong

So several days have gone by since the little storm in a teacup that involved Calvin Cheng trying to threaten my employment, in part through an attempt to muster online support for his effort. I am happy to report that I am quite well. I owe this less to anything I did on my part and more to the fact that the issue at stake was clearly quite inconsequential—a difference of opinion. My lack of any significant social stature probably helped too. Doing anything to me or my employment really doesn’t matter enough either way for any cause. Clearly, being seen to be “second rate” has its benefits.

The whole incident does raise a set of wider concerns, however. I thought I would take the opportunity to share some of my thoughts on these. I must also stress that these reflections are my own and represent neither my employer nor any organisations with which I might have an affiliation.

My tongue-in-cheek comments on opposition Worker’s Party Non-Constituency Member of Parliament Leon Perera’s Facebook post reflected an observation.  Public posts by non-establishment and more progressive, perhaps liberal, figures or groups seem to be subject to increasing moral panic, person attacks, and name-calling. These appear to me like efforts to distract from the main topic of the posts. I began to wonder if there is some coordination behind these actions. Nationalism and political mobilisation are among the topics that interest me professionally, after all.

Given the excitement on Perera’s public post last week, therefore, I thought I would place a comment to gauge the response, if any. I wanted to see if the actions on posts by non-establishment figures and groups paralleled behaviour elsewhere, as sort of social experiment if you will. China is one place, in particular, where groups who oppose a position, personality, group, or even political party across a border will try to flood a page to distract and disrupt. Some of these groups appear to be abetted, or even directly managed by the Chinese government.

See the following reports for more information, including studies from Harvard University:

 

The various attempts to threaten me after I made my post indicated some attempt at collaborating to manufacture a negative public impression and generate social pressure on a particular target.

See:

 

This seeming effort at astro-turfing seems to happen in other cases as well. I remain curious as to how widespread this phenomenon is in Singapore, the types of groups that engage in it, and the types of issues they usually mobilise around. One more important question that remains unanswered is why these groups of people respond to some individuals and not others.

Another issue that the incident may highlight is a broader inability to respond to disagreement. To have differences, including and perhaps especially over politics, is natural. Where there are people, there will be questions of distribution, power, and ends. That there are a range of divergent views that may not sit easily with other in Singapore should not be surprising. We are a highly plural society, after all. Disagreeing and disagreeableness is not sufficient reason to try to forcibly stifle someone else.

The seemingly constant need to silence opposing perspectives, however, is disturbing. More so when quite a number of people appear to take the existence of alternative views as some sort of personal affront. Rather than a debate over the substance of an issue or disagreement, the focus is instead on denigration and rendering the other invisible. Given Singapore’s diversity, there is a need to discuss differences candidly.

Provided that such discussions and even heated arguments focus on substance rather than simply the intellectually lazier option of insults or, worse, threats of physical violence, they have the potential to foster greater mutual understanding over time. Personally, I am usually quite happy to debate the substance of differences with others and even be proven wrong. I find that to be a good way to learn.

An inability to manage differences of opinion bodes ill for a diverse society like Singapore. It means that rather than trying to find understanding and compromise through argumentation and debate, there is a greater eagerness to eliminate the voices of those unlike ourselves. This may make it more difficult for different people to learn how to accommodate and live with each other. Silence can easily foster misunderstanding and even resentment. As more and more people seek to drive those with differing views out of common spaces, then, this is likely to pave the way for much greater divisiveness and less toleration. The consequences of such an outcome would be particularly pernicious in a society that is already highly diverse.

Much as I continue to disagree with Calvin Cheng’s statement about killing children preemptively, in case they take revenge, I do not and never did think that he should be kept silent.

For reports on these comments,

He has the right to publicly receive criticism for his publicly espoused views and just as publicly try to defend them. I simply feel that those views he expressed are not reflective the Media Literacy Council’s (MLC) top three core values of “empathy,” “responsibility,” and “respect,” especially coming so soon after the terrorist attack on Paris and the wave of Islamophobia that followed.

Any impression of acceptance or endorsement of such views by the Council, in my opinion, sends a wrong signal about the way people in Singapore should engage with each other and may encourage others to behave in a similar manner. In this regard, the silence of the MLC and its parent body, the Media Development Authority (MDA), on statements about killing children and the issuing of threats simply for a difference in opinion is both worrisome and regrettable. It damages not only the credibility of bodies like the MLC and MDA, it may encourage others to act in similarly negative ways when engaging with others.

See:

I note that the MLC’s official website states: “Our Vision Discerning Singaporeans who are able to evaluate media content effectively, and to use, create and share content safely and responsibly. Our Mission We work in partnership with Industry, Community and Government to promote an astute and responsible participatory culture.”. I hope the unfortunate statements by Cheng are not reflective of the MLC’s own attitudes. Cheng served on the MLC at the time of both incidents. Given the MLC’s reticence, I am unable to conclude much about its views on these matters.

I am fortunate that I am relatively safe and secure as middle class, middle aged, heterosexual Chinese male. There are others who do not have these privileges, who are more vulnerable. For them, the negative effects of others trying to silence or threaten them online are likely to be far more serious. A similar targeting of a vulnerable individual has the potential to lead to real and tragic consequences. That is not just academic or a simple difference in opinion. By then, statements about pain and regret will simply not be enough. This is precisely why bodies like the MLC need to serve its function, and Singaporeans need more ability to accommodate debate and difference.

Ian Chong is an assistant professor at the Department of Political Science in National University of Singapore. This post was first publicly published on Ian's Facebook page.