Netizens attack Singapore Prison Service for its inconsiderate name for newsletter, forcing it to change the name

Since 2009, the Singapore Prison Service (SPS) has named its quarterly newsletter as Panopticon. However, the newsletter was made public in July this year and can be read on the SPS’s website.

As expected, the name didn’t go down too well with netizens and academics as the name refers to the panopticon concept.

The Panopticon concept is a kind of institutional building and a system created by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham. It is designed to allow all inmates in a prison to be on constant surveillance by a single security guard who will regulate their behaviour with fear.

New Naratif editor-in-chief Kirsten Han took to her Facebook on 9 September to highlight the irony of the newsletter’s name.

“The Singapore Prison Service named their quarterly newsletter Panopticon. Just let that sink in,” she wrote.

In the comment section, she added, “I like how the editor’s note in this issue is celebrating how it’s been some time since Panopticon was made available to the public, and he hopes the public enjoys this return. Let’s just watch as Panopticon becomes no longer available to the public once more.”

Benjamin Lee, also known in his blogging site as Mr Miyagi, said that the term does not go in line with SPS’s intentions of rehabilitating and re-integrating inmates.

“It is a serious service, and deserves an honest and straightforward treatment,” said Mr Lee in an article by the Straits Times (ST).

He added that a more straightforward name like “Singapore Prison Service Newsletter” would be a safer choice than anything that tries to be clever.

Besides him, other netizens also said the contents of the newsletter, which features interview with prison officers on their job and different rehabilitation initiatives, was quite the opposite of its name.

Dr Melvin Chen, a philosophy lecturer at the Nanyang Technological University, noted that the main problem with the name is the historical development of the concept panopticon.

Originally, the term was used to a design where guards can watch prisoners without actually watching, thus ensuring the inmates improve their behaviour better in an efficient way.

However, Dr Chen told ST that over time, the term has been used as a metaphor to condemn the state’s disciplinary tendencies.

“Once the dust has settled, it is too be hoped for that a better understanding of the lineage and nuances of the term ‘Panopticon’ will be attained,” he said.

Following the backlashes by the public, SPS said that it will give its newsletter a “more appropriate name”.

A spokesman from SPS told ST that they agree that the term “could be misconstrued, and convey an unintended and wrong imagery”.

He added that SPS’s intention for the newsletter is to refer to an infrastructure and management design that permits prisoners to be effectively and efficiently supervised.

“The features of the Panopticon are seen in many modern prisons today, and the name is consistent with SPS’ mission to ensure the secure custody of offenders, while at the same time rehabilitating them,” said the spokesman.