Hard questions on racism in Singapore’s cyberspace

Aug 15, 2016 08.09PM |

by Ian De Cotta

THE past week has been open season for Singapore journalists and, in particular, sports writers. Commentaries on Quah Zheng Wen’s silence after two of his swims at the Rio Olympics hit a raw nerve among many Singaporeans who then vented their anger on social media and socio-political sites.

Full disclosure: I contributed to the firestorm with a commentary on my website.

I don’t want to discuss the merits of the commentaries. The Middle Ground’s editor, Bertha Henson, has already done this here. What I want to touch on is the racist diatribe that has been surfacing on some Facebook groups and online forums, without owners and moderators filtering them out.

A socio-political Web page, The Independent, not only allowed it to fester on its comment box, but even carried a story on August 12 with a provocative headline, ‘Veteran Indian journalist’s unfair criticism of Singapore swimmer draws fire’. More than 12 hours later it dropped ‘Indian’ from the headline and all readers’ comments, some of which were racist, after a few readers protested.

Singaporeans have a right to vent their anger and the Internet has given them the space to do so. It cannot be stopped and must not. But many do not bother about the responsibility that comes with this freedom.

The result is that characters of personalities, organisations and businesses have been maligned or assassinated.

But it has to stop when this breaches race and religion. If many of the heated responses to the commentaries are a measure, I fear we are at a stage where this protection, guaranteed in The Pledge and Constitution, is losing its power.

For one, calling an Indian journalist or person the derogatory ah bu neh neh has become acceptable. It is used with impunity on the Hardware Zone’s forum section where participants truncate it to ‘abnn’ (sic). This may be a trifle matter to some, but it stings for those in minority communities.

I was a boy during the 1965 race riots in Singapore and still remember the anger and killing rage of a racially broken society. My Eurasian dad, who could be mistaken for a Malay, and Chinese mum were in a desperate situation that endangered their lives.

We feared for family and friends then and again during the May 13, 1969 riots in Malaysia when tensions spilt into Singapore for seven days. My family and I have faced racial abuse and are familiar with the fear of walking the streets during those turbulent times and the period it took to heal wounds in the ensuing years.

So, when I read racist comments on Internet forums, I ask where is Singapore today in its quest for racial harmony?

Did we miss something along the way? Didn’t parents in the last couple of decades teach their children about the sanctity of a person’s dignity regardless of race and religion? Has teaching this become cursory in schools?

How widespread is racism in our cyberspace? Because if it goes unchecked, it will surely manifest in real life. What must be done to nip the problem in the bud before it takes on a life of its own?

Short of censorship, which I am personally against, there must be better policing by the G to suspend the licences of website owners if they don’t moderate debates in their forums or groups. Shut them down if racial abuses continue. Haul in guilty individuals and read them the riot act. Charge those who persist.

Young Singaporeans and those ignorant of the nation’s past must be made to understand that blood was spilt to unite Singaporeans in the name of racism.

It must never be shed again.


Ian De Cotta is a media consultant and former senior correspondent at TODAY.

Featured image Backlit Keyboard by Wikimedia Commons user Colin(CC BY-SA 4.0).

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