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Singapore talks "cancel culture" and punishment

Earlier this week, I published a long read on Hong Kong and Singapore, which was emailed out to Milo Peng Funders. You can check it out here.

Thinking about justice and punishment

A creep who tried to strangle his ex-girlfriend and pressed his thumb against her eye until it bled was given a detention order of only 12 days, five months’ counselling, and 80 hours of community work, with no criminal record after completing the sentence.

There was, understandably, an outcry. Yin Zi Qin won’t even have a criminal record after assaulting a woman, but others have got far harsher penalties for things like publishing misinformation in a Facebook group for 15 minutes, and getting criminal records for performance art? What does this say about how seriously we take violence against women?

The National University of Singapore has suspended Yin, a dentistry student. Following public reaction to the sentencing, the Ministry of Home Affairs has also said that they’ll be reviewing the penalty framework for certain criminal cases.

As Jolene says in her Twitter thread below 👇🏼, it’s one thing to get outraged about how some sentences don’t seem to fit the crime, but we should be careful not to see the issue as “fixed” just because sentences get harsher.

It’s a good thing to be thinking about rehabilitation and restorative justice. But the problem is when we only emphasise rehabilitation in certain cases, while hammering home a message of “zero tolerance” and “tough on crime” for the rest of the time. When the discourse around criminal justice in Singapore consistently mistakes harsher penalties for justice, it’s no surprise that people get upset when they see sentences that they think are disproportionately light. If we want to shift the way we approach cases, then we’re going to have to change the way we talk and think about crime and punishment, and to ask ourselves what we really want to achieve.

Is “cancel culture” a thing?

There’s been some talk on social media about “cancel culture” recently, with Marshall Cavendish’s recall of a Chinese language children’s book in which the school bully was depicted as a dark-skinned, curly-haired boy, and also with influencer Xiaxue claiming that she’s been a victim of an online “woke mob”.

But what is “cancel culture”? People who claim to have been victims of it — Xiaxue is one, J.K. Rowling is another — say that it’s toxic behaviour that suppresses people’s right to freedom of expression. The term certainly makes it sound like some new, scary thing, a new fascism on our social media platforms waiting to leap on unsuspecting people.

Personally, I’m highly sceptical of the term “cancel culture” and the people who use it. Firstly, the specific actions that are involved in this “cancel culture” are nothing new: public call-outs, boycotts, protests (in various forms) and other mobilisation. And people are entitled to participate in these actions. In Xiaxue’s case, she accused the Workers’ Party’s Raeesah Khan of playing “race politics” and said that “radical feminists/leftists” shouldn’t be fielded as candidates in Singapore. People then pointed out past instances of Xiaxue’s own racism, and asked brands with working relationships with her not to support or amplify an individual who has been so unapologetically racist.

None of this is new. It’s the same sort of organising that people do when they demand that companies take responsibility for human rights or environmental abuses in their supply chains, or when their senior executives turn out to be massive creeps who hunt endangered animals while on safari or are sexual predators (or both).

When these things happen, I think the focus should always be on justice. After all, people can mobilise and organise for all sorts of reasons; not all protests are just, and not all boycotts are bullying. We shouldn’t forget that the same tactics demanding accountability from Xiaxue for her racism have also been used to pressure public agencies, companies, and brands to censor and remove their support for LGBT rights and equality. The tactics aren’t necessarily the problem; the motivation and the purpose are what’s key.

In these situations, there will never be one dependable, objective authority who will decide when it’s standing for justice and when it’s “cancel culture”. This is where we all have to exercise our own judgement and learn to engage in knotty problems ourselves, and to make our own informed decisions on what we want to support and participate in, and what we don’t. It’s all part of the messiness of democracy, and we’ve all got to do the work.

It’s also important to remember that brands and companies aren’t always being just in dropping or firing people, either, and even if the person did deserve it, it doesn’t always mean progress when a company distances themselves for PR/branding purposes.

(Beyond this, I’m also sceptical of how many self-identified victims of “cancel culture” have actually been “cancelled” or silenced. Last I checked, J.K. Rowling is still a millionaire, and Xiaxue still has all her social media platforms where she can continue to spew whatever she wants.)

Alamak, corruption case

Henry Foo, a former deputy group director at the Land Transport Authority, has been charged with receiving bribes. He’d taken loans from contractors and sub-contractors worth over $1.24 million in return for advancing their business interests with the LTA. Seven others have also been charged under the Prevention of Corruption Act with him. On top of this, Foo has also been slapped with counts of cheating for getting his colleagues to extend loans of about $726,500 to him, without telling them it was to cover his gambling habits and debts.

COVID-19 in the dorms

Singapore’s patting itself on the back for the low COVID-19 mortality rate despite the huge number of cases. Professor Dale Fisher, an infectious diseases expert, says that the country had adopted a “very novel” strategy when it came to the coronavirus spreading in the dormitories, where those deemed to be of a higher risk were isolated first. His comments confirm that, when it comes to the dormitories, the strategy prioritises keeping the death rate low rather than preventing transmission, since there’s not enough capacity to isolate such a huge number of migrant workers.

This is what you get when the starting point is an institutionalised practice of overcrowding.

It’s been over three months, going on four, since the first dormitories were gazetted by the authorities and locked down. We’re still seeing over a hundred new cases from the dormitories every day. (Here’s a valuable site that crunches the numbers.) Multiple employers have posted frustrated testimonies on Facebook about how the situation is being managed (there seems to be a lot of confusion); in one case, a survey test turned out to be an individual test, but it took three weeks for the worker to find out he was positive because of an administrative mess-up.

Mental health has always been a concern, and the longer the workers are being confined, the more urgent a problem it is. MOM has acknowledged one case of a worker who clambered up onto the ledge of his dorm during a dispute with an employer; fortunately it was resolved and the worker is safe. I’ve heard of other incidents, but I’m still having trouble verifying them; I’ll update in future issues once things are clearer.

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