A 35-year-old Singaporean man, Zainal Abidin Bin Shaiful Bahari, who posted multiple racially offensive tweets under the Twitter handle “SharonLiew86” was sentenced to three weeks’ jail on Tuesday (8 June).
In April last year, the police said it received a report relating to offensive content by the user @SharonLiew86 against Indian migrant workers. The police eventually identified Zainal as the person behind the Twitter account.
Zainal, who was then a senior director at a computer software company, pleaded guilty on Tuesday to two charges of committing acts he knew would cause harm to the community and racial harmony, under Section 298A(b) of the Penal Code.
Another two similar charges were considered in sentencing.
In a statement, the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) said that the sentence imposed by the court was “in line with the prosecution’s submissions” that an imprisonment sentence should be imposed.
“The Attorney-General’s Chambers takes a serious view of words or conduct which wound the racial feelings of any person or prejudices our racial harmony and community relations. Offenders who commit such acts will be dealt with firmly,” it added.
Background of the case
Police investigations revealed that Zainal started the Twitter account with two friends in 2018, but he took over sole control of the account when his friends stopped posting in early 2019.
The Twitter account was conceptualized as a parody account satirizing racially insensitive Singaporeans and had attracted more than 5,000 followers.
Among his other tweets, he posted on 25 March last year that “smart Chinese” women were social distancing inside the MRT by not wanting to sit next to “smelly apuneneh”.
Zainal also tweeted on 17 April last year, “You don’t know how to behave later apuneneh coronavirus catch you”, while referencing a news article on the rising number of COVID-19 cases among migrant workers living in dormitories.
He took down the tweet about half an hour later after realizing it was going viral online and getting negative responses from the netizens.
The following day, Zainal posted a tweet insulting the pottu or bindi – a coloured dot worn on the centre of the forehead by Hindus – saying: “I thought Indian is oreadi very use to being target as they have sniper dot on forehead”.
In response to the matter, Minister for Law and Home Affairs K Shanmugam took to Facebook on 2 May last year saying that the “nasty posts” were done “deliberately to stoke anger, unhappiness, racial tensions”.
The Minister also assured that “action will be taken” against the offender.
Zainal was hauled to court on 2 July last year and charged with four counts of committing acts against racial harmony.
Deputy Public Prosecutor Senthilkumaran Sabapathy sought four weeks’ jail for the offender, citing the need for general deterrence, where “tensions in the community have been heightened and strained by the exceptional circumstances of the pandemic”.
In mitigation, lawyer Sunil Sudheesan sought a three-week jail term for Zainal as he argued that his client was “not a racist, obviously” and his followers knew it was a “parody” account.
He added that people did not know the intention of certain tweets and forwarded them without the intention of Zainal.
“Our client is very sorry for this. He should have anticipated this,” said lawyer Sunil.
He also pointed out that Zainal was married to a Chinese woman, and their son was of mixed-race.
District Judge Jennifer Marie agreed to sentence Zainal to three weeks’ jail term, warning that such offensive remarks have the potential to “amplify irreversible harm to peace and harmony in Singapore”.
“If you had indeed valued racial and cultural diversity, you should have appreciated all the more the need to observe racial sensitivity, given the multiracial fabric of Singapore.
“Your conduct on the Twitter account, regardless of whether it was a troll account made for the amusement of others, was clearly calculated to provoke racial sentiments,” the judge added.
For each charge, Zainal could have been jailed for up to three years or fined, or punished with both.