Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Kindness is free, kindness is for everyone.

An example of trolling on a Facebook page. The motive of the troll is unknown.
I read recently Bertha Henson's post on keeping the "civil" in civil society and how it's important to take a stand against negative trolls online. There is also this article from the Financial Times - shared by PM Lee on his Facebook page - on freedom of expression over the Internet as well as its challenges, not least that of bullying by anonymous online trolls.

A week ago, civil societies and individuals concerned about racism and xenophobia in Singapore also put out this statement to urge Singaporeans to promote equality and not turn into anti-foreigner bigots. Much of the racism and xenophobia, of course, is being expressed online via websites such as The Real Singapore and SPH-owned Stomp.

Further, indignant online reactions to the statement has prompted Singapore Kindness Movement chief, Dr William Wan, to write this letter in reply. Dr Wan has also called for people in Singapore to be kind when interacting with one another online.

I am glad for all of these attempts to condemn behaviours that are increasingly causing discomfort to the people being targeted. Nevertheless, because these groups and individuals cannot enforce their will on the people, I think all of us have a duty to remind one another that using hurtful words against another is wrong. In the case of racism and xenophobia, both of which are associated with anti-foreigner views, it doesn't solve the perceived issues and it only causes hurt to people who simply came here because they had believed that Singapore was a good place to live in. I hope he won't mind me sharing this, but last year, someone I know, together with his family, was told "you foreigners are rubbish" by a taxi driver in Singapore. At the time, I was shocked that a family from another country had experienced such treatment here. I did not realise how bad things had become.

Singaporeans are avid travellers to foreign lands. We would not like it if we sent our children to study abroad, only to have them return with negative stories about how they were subjected to racist vitriol. We wouldn't like to read nasty Facebook updates or tweets about our nationality or race. We would like our family and friends to be safe when they travel, and we wouldn't wish for them to encounter threatening bigots along the way. So, why do we subject people from other countries to such treatment?

Some have argued that the reason for the racist and xenophobic slant in public discourse is that Singaporeans are becoming more frustrated with their lives. They are not entirely wrong. Although it looks like Singapore is experiencing good times, it is not easy to eke out a comfortable living in Singapore. According to this 2011 survey, which interviewed 12,000 employees from 85 countries, of the 95 Singaporean professionals polled, about 18 of them said that they worked 11 hours or more per day. Almost half of them said they had taken work home more than three times a week.

The recommended daily working hours from our Ministry of Manpower is actually up to nine hours. A significant number of Singaporeans are working beyond these recommended hours, or even working from home after office hours when they are supposed to be spending time with their families. If one has a low salary, it can be argued that one can cut down on spending. But what happens if one is short of time because there's too much work to be done?

With so little time for rest and relaxation, it is no wonder that stress and frustration levels are growing. It seems that some people have chosen to translate their frustrations about life in Singapore into nasty behaviour. But I think it's precisely because life isn't easy that we have to be more accepting and nicer to one another. After all, venting frustrations on people around us or singling out certain groups to verbally abuse simply causes that frustration to spread around, causing somebody else to be unhappy and leading to retaliation from aggrieved parties. Eventually, it makes life in this country more difficult.

Finally, I would like to call for our politicians to take the lead and be kind as well. Since the case of the "CPF blogger" came up, I have read a lot of comments online urging him to "take responsibility" for defaming the PM. There are strong calls online for the PM to "make an example" out of him, exact a high sum of damages from him so that nobody will dare to make unsubstantiated allegations about our political leaders ever again.

I understand that Bertha Henson as well as a few others calling for a nicer civil society actually support the lawsuit.

I beg to differ. My reason for not supporting the lawsuit is simple. If we want a kinder society, we have to start with forgiveness. Being kind is not just about being friendly or saying nice things. Forgiveness is the kindest act of all, because it requires so much kindness for someone who has been wronged to willingly relinquish his right to hold on to the grudge, so that the person who wronged him might be relieved of the burden of the "crime".

That is not to say that we cannot punish someone for defamation. In fact, we must and we should, but the punishment ought to be proportionate to the impact of the defamatory statement, and it ought to be considered if the impact of the defamatory comment is reversible or something irrevocable.

I would like to draw your attention to a different case of a man who was not forgiven. Because of three cheques that were made out to him instead of to his party, he was charged and convicted locally for embezzling SGD2,600 from his own party. Next, he was threatened with disbarment so that he would never be able to practice law again, i.e. he would lose his livelihood and the means to support his family.

The original story from the Straits Times is here.

Fortunately, his appeal against the disbarment was successful as the court in Britain overruled the initial conviction, accepting his defense that the cheques were made out to him because they were meant for him rather than his party. The overrule, however, was not viewed favourably by others, thus prompting the following action to "plug the loophole" and ensure that only the Singapore court could control who was to be disbarred.

The full story from the Straits Times is here.

It was a different case but coincidentally, the individual above was also a vehement critic of the government.

Back to the Roy Ngerng case - if you told me that we need to be responsible for what we say online and that we should not say things to incite anger or provoke conflict between different groups in society, I would stand with you. If you told me that a person who posts malicious, defamatory words against another online should be punished, I would wholeheartedly agree with you.

However, if you told me that it is necessary to metaphorically whack the living daylights out of that offending person, make an example out of him to strike fear in others, shame him so that he can't lead a dignified life again, and drain his savings so that he will not be able to provide for his loved ones, I would question the logic and reason behind such vindictiveness.

For too long, Singapore has been a society that is unkind to the people who do not agree with our political leaders.

As much of the online discourse also relates to politics, apart from speaking up against racism and xenophobia, we ought to also speak up against the ongoing condemnation of people for having different political views. Incidentally, former Nominated Member of Parliament Calvin Cheng has been referring to various people who disagree with the government as "radicals"on his Facebook updates. He has even gone so far to say that these "radicals should be ostracised". Just what he means by "ostracised" is anyone's guess.

In fact, I feel that driving the new racism and xenophobia that have arisen in recent years are the polarised views of the political parties and their supporters. The Population White Paper is associated with the PAP government while the idea of checking the flow of immigrants is associated with the opposition parties. As our political scene becomes more vibrant and people are rising out of apathy to become more interested in politics, if we continue our habit of condemning one another because of differing political views, the discourse, both online and offline, is bound to take an ugly turn, with foreigners becoming the punching bags of the public and some sort of political leverage for the politicians to use to ensnare each other in debates. It will be best if, instead of trapping each other with the issue, both our political parties in Parliament can reach a consensus about the relevant policies.

Indeed, we have to create a strong environment where people will stand up against all types of online bullying. But to get to the specifics of it, where racist and xenophobic comments are concerned, to stem the tide of nasty online behaviour, especially on websites that provide socio-political news, we also further have to develop an environment where disagreeing with one another politically is okay. We can debate and hopefully come to a consensus; there's no need to condemn someone for having a different view of the government's policies in Singapore. While curbing unwanted comments and posts is an efficient way to get rid of negative information (or mis-information), it doesn't add value to the quality of our citizenry, nor our political scene. It's far better to encourage respectful debate.

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