I think we all know at least one person. I know of more than one. They can be quiet, even timid, very polite and civil, but their personalities are transformed online. Almost unrecognisably. From tone to topic, they are loud, uninhibited, and they can be rude, using expletives never uttered when they are talking in person, one to one, or in a group. They literally become keyboard warriors. From a nation of people who are apathetic and needing a strong push to speak up, when have we become a nation of online advocates? More importantly, abrasive online advocates. Alarmed by episodes such as the collective condemnation of expatriates including Anton Casey, the strident objections to holding a Philippine Independence Day celebration here and an emerging trend of blaming foreigners for any social ill, several civil society groups issued a joint statement last week against the surge in racism and xenophobia in Singapore.
Andy Warhol famously proclaimed “in the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes”. Today as citizens of a small global city, it seems we can be famous for fifteen minutes everyday. A democratized mass media, social media can hit at the very pillars of democracy. Tolerance for other people’s ideas and the freedom to express our own are inseparable values. Joined, they form a sacred trust that holds the basis of our democratic society. But this trust is now perpetually vulnerable to the tyrannical tendencies of the online majorities. A growing number of Singaporeans now feel compelled to speak up in ways previously unimaginable even to themselves, for those they think cannot fend for themselves or are suffering quietly. Coming from a perspective that nothing is sacred online, suddenly everything about the system and people in public positions are fertile soil to plant seeds of disgrace, disrespect and distrust.
There is an unspoken consensus online, especially among the young, that it is politically incorrect and not hip to agree with the government, or to offer a different point of view to the popular unpopular person or topic of the day or week. For the online advocates, you are either on their side or you are against them. I never thought the day would come when I have to speak up against the people speaking up in Singapore. Now I do. I happen to think that everyone, irrespective of status, is entitled to defend his or her good name. The Prime Minister is not wrong to defend himself against slander. The major overhaul of our public bus industry when the government will own all bus infrastructure is a positive development. When asked, many Singaporeans admit they have not read the finer points of what CPF is really about. It is a scheme not without its merits. Expressing these opinions, I will no doubt be seen as a coward or a pro-government flack.
There is increasing underlying unhappiness and resentment towards overcrowding and job competition ascribed to foreigners. ‘Unbridled immigration’ is now the source of sporadic and excessive bursts of cyber fury. Even with very rational people we know, they can be surprisingly one dimensional in their attacks. And their views can border on the senseless, their rant can express outright ethnic hatred crossing the line to foul abuse. The celebrations plans by the Pilipino Independence Day Council Singapore have now been cancelled for the first time in 20 years. But I see what the signatories say in their civil society statements as a turning point. They noted that the economic frustrations felt by Singaporeans should be directed at policies and structures which “were not instituted by migrants and will not automatically disappear if the migrant population decreases”. I am presently working on a movie, ‘1965’ for our jubilee celebration next year, premised on the fragility of racial harmony. How we can, if we are not careful, be racist ourselves without knowing it. Given the present societal climate, I am more convinced and motivated to tell this story.