On Sunday (14 March), Singapore exploded with furious debate following an article published by TODAY, written by National University of Singapore (NUS) student Dana Teoh, in which the author referenced the “fall from grace” of billionaire author J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame as 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”.
The article sparked a deluge of criticism over not only the transphobic undertones of the article, but also the perpetuation of “untruths and bigotry” by people in position of power.
You see, Ms Teoh’s article was submitted to TODAY for publication by Associate Professor and veteran journalist Bertha Henson who said she felt that the young student “made a point that isn’t often talked about”.
Now, while Ms Teoh enjoys freedom of speech to express her opinions like the rest of us, let us remind ourselves that cancel culture has already been long-practiced in Singapore, and it isn’t just some recent American import.
The idea that there is a “woke movement” and a citizen-led “cancel culture” in Singapore that is spinning out of control is baffling.
Let’s take these (perhaps deliberately) ill-defined and obfuscatory phrases for the moment to mean that there is excessive power given to censorious pro-LGBT and/or anti-racist groups and views.
Lest we forget, several distressing and notable incidents have happened in Singapore in the last five or six years – illustrating the status quo.
First, and perhaps most obvious, is the criminalisation/delegitimisation of same sex relationships. Consensual sex between adult men is still criminalised under Section 377A of the Penal Code. In fact, a parliamentarian even outright refused to speak to their constituents about that particular law, saying that it was not a “real problem”.
And in 2017, the Government annulled the marriage of a couple without any court process after one partner transitioned and underwent gender-reassignment surgery – resulting in a change of status of gender from male to female. The reason?
“Singapore law does not recognize a marriage where both parties are of the same sex,” said a spokesperson of the Registry of Marriages. “At the point of marriage, a couple must be man and woman, and must want to be and want to remain as man and woman in the marriage.”
How’s that for cancellation?
There is rampant censorship of LGBTQ themes in the media as well, given the many laws which regulate content that “advocates homosexuality or lesbianism” or “promote, justify or glamorise” homosexuality in any form. This usually, and rather consistently, translates to non-negative portrayals of LGBTQ people.
In 2015, Taiwanese pop singer Jolin Tsai’s song «不一样又怎样» (Different, yet the same) was barred from public broadcast. The song tells the true story of a woman who couldn’t access medical treatment because her partner wasn’t recognised as legally able to consent.
In 2016, a segment of The Ellen DeGeneres Show was cut when it was aired on cable TV channel Lifetime (on StarHub TV Channel 514). The segment shows then-President Barack Obama praising the openly gay, titular talk-show host for her role in advocating for gay rights.
More recently, at the beginning of this year, we heard about young transgender students being prevented from attending school unless they appear to be “in the closet”, and conform to the dress codes of their sex at birth instead of trying to present themselves as the gender they identify with.
Let’s also not forget that not a single person in any position of real formal authority – no Cabinet Minister, senior civil servant, senior management in a GLC, or statutory body, nobody, nada, zero, zilch – has ever been openly LGBTQ affirming.
Not even the Leader of the Opposition (LO) and chief of the Workers’ Party (WP), Pritam Singh, has spoken up against Section 377A.
Institutionalised “cancel culture” in discourse on racism
The “cancel culture” in Singapore goes beyond LGBTQ related issues as well, including discussions around race and racism. In fact, discussing racism remains subject to the most stringent conditions imposed by the Government compared to virtually any other topic.
For instance, the Hong Lim Park exception to the Public Order Act does not cover discussions of race. There doesn’t even exist a registered anti-racist campaigning body because of the fear and taboo surrounding this subject matter.
Two years ago, influencer and comedian Preeti Nair and her rapper brother, Subhas Nair, were subject to a police investigation for criticising an advertisement that employed ‘brownface’. The pair had released a song on YouTube which heavily criticised epaysg.com, an e-payment website, for being racist in its utilisation of ‘brownface’ to advertise its product.
Subhas Nair was later pulled from CNA’s musical documentary over the supposed “offensive” rap video.
That same year, there was also the stern warning issued by the police to activist Sangeetha Thanapal over a Facebook post in which she criticised the wildly popular Hollywood film ‘Crazy Rich Asians‘ from an anti-racist perspective. The police had said that they felt the post promotes feelings of ill will and hostility between the races.
We’ve also been repeatedly told that the current rule barring Muslim women from wearing a tudung in uniformed services like nursing shouldn’t be discussed in parliament. Most recently in Parliament on 8 March, Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Masagos Zulkifli said that delicate issues like this should be debated in closed-door consultations.
“This is our approach when dealing even-handedly with requests from different religious groups, especially when it affects our common spaces,” he said, in response to a question from WP Member of Parliament (MP) for Aljunied GRC Faisal Manap who asked in an earlier debate speech whether the Government would consider revisiting its stance on the matter.
All these incidents and so many more are just things in the public record that are obviously and identifiably linked to these topics of LGBTQ and racism. Anyone involved in civil society will have dozens more examples like them that are open secrets which no one dares put on the record.
If we are truly concerned about a coercive environment which prevents free expression and exchange of views and ideas, these seem like an excellent place to start, don’t you think so?
This article written by Roy Tan is a comprehensive but not exhaustive illustration of institutionalised cancel culture in Singapore. Just skimming through will give you an idea of just how much speech and media on the subject is censored and controlled – making you wonder just how out of control public-led cancel culture really is.
So, before anyone decides to complain about cancel culture in Singapore, they ought to realise that it’s not actually cancel culture that is being contested in Ms Teoh’s article, but the open discussion of discrimination and LGBTQ issues.
Now, if you’re tempted to point to the backlash Ms Teoh is facing following her article as an example of cancel culture in Singapore, think again. This is actually a clear example of how people speak out against misinformed and transphobic speech.
Much like when Pink Dot SG highlighted in 2020 that the rainbow Pride flag – a universally recognised symbol for LGBTQ people – represents “the many diverse segments” within the community. The Singapore-based LGBT movement said this in light of a controversy that arose after two members of a Christian group in Singapore, called City Revival, recently made a video demonising gay people.
Another example is the owner of Grain bowl restaurant SMOL Singapore, Charmaine Low, addressing an incident where a man ripped a small rainbow pride flag off the counter at its Lau Pa Sat outlet, and forcefully flung it against one of the staff members.
The man had allegedly told the staff: “You are the kind of people who are destroying Singapore! Go to hell!”
Ms Low responded by saying, “It is also a reminder that discrimination against LGBTQ people in Singapore is well and alive, and there is so much more work to be done to promote understanding, love and tolerance for this community.”
Speaking out against transphobic speech and other forms of discrimination and bigotry is not cancellation, it is a teaching moment.
It is also worth noting that these types of speeches and acts, as demonstrated by Pink Dot SG and SMOL Singapore, do not appear out of nowhere. It is through consistent outspoken voices empowered by social media platforms that these penetrators are taken to task for their acts.