The recent controversial op-ed written by National University of Singapore (NUS) student Dana Teoh contains language that is “clearly dangerous to a vulnerable minority group” even though it seems to have been written without malicious intent, said journalist and writer Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh in a Facebook post on Tuesday (16 Mar).
The said article was published by TODAY earlier on Sunday (14 Mar), which sparked the ire of social commentators and activists around Singapore who called out the author’s clearly transphobic language as well as the fact that it was submitted to TODAY by the author’s lecturer, Associate Professor Bertha Henson.
Assoc Prof Henson, a veteran journalist, had said in a couple of comments on Facebook 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 noted.
In his post, Mr Vadaketh quoted an excerpt from the article to highlight the problematic language:
“But as a young person who lives on the internet, I would never ever admit that I think being transgender is a little out there for me.
“Being transgender is a concept that I (a straight, cis person) still grapple with — I do not fully comprehend the trans experience.
“I still get weirded out by photos of post-op bodies, and still struggle with the argument that trans children should be given hormone blockers.”
He then proposed an “easy smell test” to see if the language is problematic. That is, to swap one group for another.
Mr Vadaketh wrote, “Would it be acceptable in Singapore to write a commentary that said ‘…being Muslim is a little out there for me’ or that ‘..I still get weirded out by photos of circumcised Jewish males/hairy, dark-skinned bodies’?”
“No. So why should the language be acceptable when used to describe a transgender person?” he asked, adding too that he is not suggesting that minority groups and issues are the same.
Mr Vadaketh stressed that “the right to offend does not imply a duty to offend or insult,” explaining that the commentary is “dangerous” – though probably unintentional – in its humiliation of a vulnerable group.
“There is a long but discernible line that connects such dehumanising language to hate speech and violence,” he remarked.
In a post-script, Mr Vadaketh explained that the definition of “hate speech” is subjective, adding that it has been debated over by everyone from social media moderators to governments.
Imagine if, instead of “….I still get weirded out by photos of post-op bodies..”, the author had said “…I consider post-op bodies disgusting…”.
It is easy to imagine the author (or a reader of hers) making that jump. The latter formulation would for many people cross the threshold for hate speech.
Ms Teoh’s points reflect “right-wing hyperbole” and are filled with “straw man arguments”
Moving on, Mr Vadaketh noted that some of Ms Teoh’s points are fine though they reflect “right-wing hyperbole” and are filled with “straw man arguments”.
He suggested that the real obstacle to genuine discussion in Singapore is not “cancel culture” or the policing of speech by the woke “mob”. Instead, it is the “ruling party and its apparatus, including the paper that saw fit to print this”.
“The great irony of this moment is that the same conservatives who have long shut down dialog on important national issues (see detentions without trial; see censorship in the arts; see ‘the tudung issue’) are now pivoting to position themselves as the guardians of free speech, under the misguided notion that it should be OK to say anything anywhere about any group or person,” Mr Vadaketh elaborated.
Noting that there are countries, like the United States, which are more tolerant of offensive or hateful speech, he believes that “these dangerous words” should never have been published by a national paper since they are in a position to foster a climate of change towards the transgender community.
These words should have been discussed in an academic or educational setting instead, said Mr Vadaketh.
“Quite shocking” that the article was submitted and published in the first place
He then touched on Assoc Prof Henson, specifically saying that it is “quite shocking” that she pushed her student to published this and that the editor at TODAY gave the green light.
“Each is a colossal misjudgement from a person who should have known better,” Mr Vadaketh lamented.
“If indeed Singapore’s culture wars on speech mimic the US’s—I’m not so sure—then this incident shows that the balance of power lies clearly with the right,” he emphasized.
Mr Vadaketh went on to explore the question of whether cancel culture is even a problem in Singapore. Once again in comparison to the US, he asserted that he has not seen many examples of dubious “cancelling”.
The only notable recent incident he cited was when “provocative, MAGA-hat-wearing” influencer XiaXue said about South Asian migrant workers: “..they molest people and fuck our maids and leer at girls and flood little india!!”
“No action was taken against her at the time; she only recently deleted the Tweet; and has never apologised for it,” Mr Vadaketh highlighted.
He also stressed that it is “totally justified” to cancel a racist influencer, as he asked why should brands endorse a racists.
Mr Vadaketh further questioned, “So where are the excesses of “cancel culture” in Singapore? I haven’t seen.”
Going back to the American comparison, he cautioned that “the danger to Singapore is not the importation of excesses of the American left, but the excesses of the American right”.