This is a special issue emailed out to Milo Peng Funders.
In February 2020, the Ugandan feminist writer and anthropologist Stella Nyanzi was released after almost 16 months behind bars for writing a poem in which she fervently wished that Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni — an authoritarian leader who has held his position since 1986 — had died either in utero or at birth. She emerged from prison not only unrepentant, but as irrepressible as ever: decked out in a tiara and a sash that read “FUCK OPPRESSION”.
The strength of the language was neither accident nor impulse. Nyanzi embraces ‘radical rudeness’, described as “a traditional Ugandan strategy for unsettling the powerful through the tactical use of public insult”.
I first learnt about Stella Nyanzi through the Egyptian-American feminist Mona Eltahawy, herself an enthusiastic proponent of the use of profanity as resistance. For her, the moment of change came when the Egyptian riot police detained her while she was covering protests in Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring. As she told Vice News, “when you're surrounded by riot police, and they break both your arms, sexually assault you, and their supervising officer threatens you with gang rape, you're like fuck all of you. What is there to be polite about?”
“I refuse to allow those who don't recognize my full humanity to expect politeness of me,” she said. “So I'm like fuck you and fuck your civility. I will not be civil to those who do not recognize my full humanity.”
Over the years, my thoughts have repeatedly returned to women like Nyanzi and Eltahawy, and to their unapologetic fury. It’s a huge contrast from what we’re used to in Singapore, where we are reminded ad nauseam about ‘proper channels’ and ‘pragmatic resistance’ and ‘being strategic’ and ‘not confrontational’. I think of all the times I wished I could have stood up and loudly declared, to police or civil servants or prosecutors or lawyers or judges or politicians, “You know what? All this is fucked up. And I’m sick of it. Fuck this, and fuck you.” I think of all the times I’ve felt that urge and stifled it, of all the times I killed those words at the back of my throat, and swallowed hard so they would rot in my belly. Because that’s 'not done' in Singapore; we choose our words carefully and write caveats in preparation for every single bad faith reading we can possibly imagine, even if we’re just composing Facebook posts, because God knows when a minister or public prosecutor might be doomscrolling social media with defamation or contempt of court laws open in the other tab.
I’m thinking about Mona Eltahawy and Stella Nyanzi again; I’ve been thinking about them all week, ever since I read about Subhas Nair’s trial. The prosecution, accusing him of inciting ill will and hostility between racial groups through social media posts and a satirical rap video he made with his sister Preetipls, argued that calling out racism is fine, as long as it’s “temperate and dignified”. Race and religion need to be dealt with “maturely and sensitively”, the deputy public prosecutors asserted.
Wow, fuck that.
Who gets to demand civility?
One doesn’t need to adopt radical rudeness and profanity to recognise that it is always people with power and privilege who are the ones that define whether something is “temperate and dignified”. They’re the only ones with the resources to enforce the meaning they choose to prescribe to such words. Yet it is precisely their power that creates a bubble around them, shielding them from prejudice and hate’s most pernicious effects. A person might never be completely protected, but money, power and social status can do a hell of a lot. It’s easy to prioritise ‘maturity’ and ‘sensitivity’ when you’re not feeling the full force of the pain.
Calls for civility prioritise the feelings of everyone except those who have been hurt. They especially prioritise the feelings of the perpetrators of the harm, because we're demanding that responses to their harmful actions should be tempered, even if they’re deserving of not just criticism but also condemnation.
Why should the onus be on the people calling out racism or homophobia or transphobia or sexism and the patriarchy — especially if they’re from the communities being marginalised and discriminated against — to moderate their reactions? Why should they live up to expectations to be “dignified” after they’ve been subjected to conduct that showed no concern for their dignity?
To make matters worse, the goal posts can shift any time, since it’s up to the powerful to decide what is or isn’t “mature” or “temperate”. You can crack your head thinking up the ‘best’ way to present your critique, and they can still find fault with it if it touches a nerve. A calling out can quickly morph into cries of “cancel culture!” and claims of victimhood. A Facebook post can suddenly become the focus of a police investigation. A satirical music video that points out — in response to the use of brownface (not for the first time) in a national ad — that Chinese people keep “fucking it up” gets interpreted by state prosecutors as an attempt to sow hatred between racial groups, and a rapper is hauled to court.
What the fuck.
Who gets to make an ‘honest mistake’?
It’s not just about ridiculous criminal charges. “Further action” might be taken against Progress Singapore Party NCMP Leong Mun Wai after he was accused of breaking parliamentary rules. He’d been pinged for stating in Parliament that the former senior management staff of Keppel Offshore & Marine, who’d received stern warnings from the police after an investigation into corruption, were “actually guilty”, when the reality was that only one had plead guilty in the United States, while the others had been mentioned but weren’t defendants. Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam also took issue with a (now amended) Facebook post Leong wrote, in which Leong had characterised part of Shanmugam’s parliamentary response on why Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Suet Fern had been publicly identified as being under police investigation as being something that could “muddy the waters”.
Before I go any further, I have to make it clear — because, as I’ve written above, we live in an environment where caveats are important — that I’m not saying opposition politicians should get carte blanche to say whatever or behave however they want. It’s fair enough for Leong to apologise for describing individuals who had never been convicted in a court of law as “actually guilty”. There have been times when he could have been more precise and polished with his statements in the House. But we’ve seen all this stuff about “next steps” and “further action” before. It’s the sort of thing that seems to only happen when opposition politicians misstep.
It reminds me of a conversation I had with a young journalist once. They talked about wanting to do more investigative and critical reporting, to dive deeper into issues of justice and human rights abuses and labour exploitation and social inequities, yet not feeling guided or supported enough to navigate topics that the authorities would likely be sensitive about. Learning on the job can be intimidating at the best of times. It’s so much worse when you’re also acutely aware — from the parade of POFMA orders, police investigations, prosecutions, lawsuits, fines and unnecessarily personal government press statements — that if you get on the wrong side of power, there will be people ready to pounce on any error or poorly phrased sentence to accuse you of pushing ‘agendas’ (the connotation is always negative) instead of giving you the benefit of the doubt. It’s little wonder if young journalists feel they aren’t ready to push the boundaries or do more hard-hitting stories, much as they might want to do them.
The same goes in other fields; I’ve met history majors who were clearly bright and well-informed, yet unwilling to tackle Singapore history for their projects and dissertations, preferring to work on periods or events from other countries’ pasts. School-kids who asked me if I thought they’d get in trouble if they wrote about political issues and activism in assignments. Young volunteers in civil society groups who lack the confidence to step up and take on leadership roles or help draft statements, because they fear they don’t have sufficient expertise to come up with the ‘right’ responses. They worry about inadvertently getting in trouble because they haven’t got enough experience to have developed better instincts about how to navigate the ambiguous ‘red lines’ that are part of Singapore’s political reality.
It’s normal to feel uncertain, nervous or anxious about having to feel our way through trial and error, and to worry about getting things wrong. But the stakes are higher when it comes to activism and criticism in Singapore. You can’t learn or grow without making mistakes, but what do you do when it feels like the margin of error you’re allowed is zero? A society in which people feel like they can’t speak up unless they have the ‘right’ words, spoken at the ‘right’ time through the ‘right’ channels in a “temperate and dignified” manner, is a stunted society doomed to remain politically immature and unable to cope with anything that strays outside the tight little box we’ve allowed ourselves to be confined in.
Right now, the more powerful watch and police the less powerful in Singapore, and accountability is demanded from us when we stumble or break the rules they’ve set. Yet the same doesn’t apply in the opposite direction, because they’re the ones who set the terms of engagement at all times, even when they’re the ones who’ve fallen short. It’s. So. Incredibly. Infuriating.
Which brings me back to Stella Nyanzi and “radical rudeness”, Mona Eltahawy and her refusal to be polite to oppressors. When facing power imbalances, authoritarianism and discrimination, anger is logical and appropriate, even valuable. We should be angry about injustice and oppression. And we should be allowed to feel that anger, to express it and use it to work towards better futures. Our priority should always be to end oppression and injustice, rather than making ourselves palatable to those who wouldn’t hesitate to be uncivil to us if we displease them.
It's not easy to break the habits we've learnt for the sake of social norms and self-preservation. Even now I'm wondering if I should caveat this piece further, if someone is going to pop out of the woodworks accusing me of encouraging people to rage and rampage through the streets and inciting disorder and violence by encouraging people to be angry and rude and aggressive. That's what repeated demands for civility do — it turns everyone into unwilling players of respectability politics, and makes you feel like you're the one in the wrong if you dare to express yourself differently from what they'd expect or allow. What we must learn to do is to tell these imposed feelings of pre-emptive guilt and shame and fear to fuck off.
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