“Wokeism” article saga: Activists, social commentators raise concerns over perpetuation of “untruths and bigotry” against marginalised communities by people in power

The level of power educators and other people in similarly influential positions have in endorsing “untruths and bigotry” against marginalised communities in Singapore is concerning, said several activists and social commentators, following news that veteran journalist Bertha Henson had submitted an article by one of her students on “wokeism” and “cancel culture” to mainstream media outlet TODAY.

Dana Teoh, a National University of Singapore (NUS) student, in the article published on Sunday (14 Mar), argued that billionaire author J.K Rowling of Harry Potter fame’s “fall from grace” is an example of the dangers of “wokeism” and “cancel culture”.

Ms Rowling’s legacy has been mired by accusations of her using her public platforms to perpetuate transphobia, from her tweets to a 3,500-word essay containing trans-exclusionary radical feminist talking points, and even a novel narrating the case of a woman who disappeared in 1974 and is believed to be the victim of Dennis Creed, “a transvestite serial killer.”

Ms Teoh argued that while Ms Rowling had phrased her stance in a “less than tactful” manner, there is, in fact, “nothing wrong with saying, believing, and perhaps even convincing some people that what she thinks is true”.

“Everyone is entitled to the freedom of thought, if not of speech,” Ms Teoh wrote.

The culture of “wokeism”, according to her, “encourages narrow-mindedness” and the refusal to “acknowledge, let alone respect, even the mere suggestion of differences in opinion.

“[P]eople end up opting for fake niceness over their true opinions, presenting an inauthentic (but acceptable) version of themselves to you, Mr Hella Woke,” said Ms Teoh.

“Congratulations, you’re officially in a room full of virtue signallers. Who, by the way, may behave badly in private, hurting the communities you so vehemently claim to protect,” she added.

Assoc Prof Henson had revealed in a Facebook comment that she liked Ms Teoh’s writing style and thought that she “made a point that isn’t often talked about”.

“This was an assignment. She did well and I sent it to TODAY,” she said.

On the same day that Ms Teoh’s article was published, former chocolatier and social issues commentator, Lim Jialiang said in a Facebook post that learning the article was approved by Assoc Prof Henson brought back some “unpleasant memories” of what happened during his time as a student at the Nanyang Technological University.

In his post, Mr Lim recounted how a tutor for a class he was taking in his second-year called “The Changing Family” was “from the first class onwards, a little off”.

The tutor conducting the tutorial classes was doing a Master’s Degree in Education at the National Institute of Education (NIE).

“My course mates and I couldn’t quite pinpoint why we felt that way, but it didn’t take too long before we realised that she was extremely homophobic,” said Mr Lim.

“Part of me felt a morbid curiosity because it was 6 weeks into the course and we were fast approaching the LGBT section. How can we talk about the changing family without addressing same-sex families and relationships?”

He noted that as the weeks progressed, her “dog-whistling” started to scale up, with Mr Lim and his course mates bearing it sometimes, deflecting at other times, and sometimes even challenging her directly on it.

Eventually when the class arrived at the section on same-sex family­­­—just a week after Valentine’s Day—Mr Lim recalled what she said to them.

He quoted her, “You know, you all gave me the best Valentine’s Day present last week, because guys were giving girls presents, and girls were giving guys presents, and I’m just happy that you all are showing interest in one another, and believe in heterosexual relationships. Now today, we are going to learn about alternative (she said it in a very dirty manner) relationships.”

Mr Lim said he “just up and left the class”, noting his “low tolerance for bullshit”.

“My classmates who stayed behind got a full-blown denialism steeped with bigotry and Conservative Christian Moral Panic,” he added.

Mr Lim said he never went back to those classes, and also encouraged his course mates to write to the university to express their “disgust and outrage” at allowing a teacher to let her religious views get in the way of teaching the course material.

“Thankfully, our professors and the school administration were understanding of the situation. They barred her from teaching the course in the future, and (perhaps unofficially) she was never allowed to teach a sociology course in NTU again,” he said.

Relaying the memory back to the current article by Ms Teoh, Mr Lim said, “For all I know, Bertha does not allow her beliefs to creep into her classes. She might have been even-handed about LGBT issues in her classes.”

“But because she liked that transphobic article enough and deemed it worthy for national publication, I am now even more concerned for the LGBT people that are taking her course,” he said.

Noting that Ms Teoh is not altogether blameless, Mr Lim said that it is crucial to recognise Assoc Prof Henson’s role in giving the aspiring journalist a “soapbox” in the first place.

“And for her to allow Dana to send out that piece, flawed as it is, and to not show wise counsel and judgement just strikes me as a staggering failure, both as a mentor and as an educator,” he added.

“Dana’s article today showed just how much hostility there were to trans people today. But Bertha showed just how people in power continue to perpetuate untruths and bigotry on vulnerable, marginalised communities,” said Mr Lim.

Relating a similar experience with a lecturer who was similarly homophobic, activist and blogger Roy Ngerng referenced Mr Lim’s story on Twitter and said that he also had a homophobic professor in NUS who taught family structures in sociology.

“She went on to becoming a nominated member of parliament and started spreading her homophobic views on national platforms,” he claimed, without naming the professor.

Commenting on Ms Teoh’s article, journalist Kirsten Han, in a tweet on 14 Mar, said that it is ludicrous to cry about a “climate of fear” from the “woke movement” in Singapore in a situation where “the establishment is CLEARLY on the author’s side”.

“Didn’t we just talk about transphobic discrimination in schools, and see activists arrested for protesting this?” She questioned.

“Oh, to live in this reality where the worst thing that could happen is to get “cancelled” on Twitter, as opposed to police investigations/court cases/defamation suits/imprisonment/smear campaigns involving powerful politicians + establishment media/blacklisting from employment,” Ms Han added in a separate tweet.

Adrianna Tan, director of product management for the City and County of San Francisco pointed out in a string of tweets on 15 Mar that the platforming of opinions such as those espoused by Ms Teoh is symptomatic of a larger problem.

While some people may “mistakenly perceive the state’s bumbling” on LGBT rights as something that it had simply forgotten to address, she opined that the State’s “cruelty” to marginalised people “is the point”.

“The neglect and the ignorance is the point, and the outcome of very clear anti-LGBT policies,” said Ms Tan.

@ikanselarkuning, a Twitter account that regularly publishes commentaries on Singapore’s sociopolitical developments, observed that Ms Teoh’s “tantrum” highlights a larger phenomenon on the rise, namely “an anxious state media”.

“The institution’s monopoly on narrative is declining, as marginalized communities use social media to bypass its gates.

“Gone are the days where one had to hope that state editors would publish one’s critique,” they said.

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