Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Race, Responsible Speech and a Hasty Response

If we desire freedom, we must take the verbal 'shit' that comes with it and be able to walk on unfazed, unbothered and unconcerned.  Remember this:  Sticks and stones may break my bones.  Words can never hurt me. 

Let me start this out with the following images.  I am a Hindu.  There'd be some expectation that I should be offended by the following images:
The image of a Hindu deity on a pair of shoes can be quite insulting.  Shoes are often accorded a 'lowly' status and taking out one's shoes and waving it at another is considered both an insult as well as a threat.  So, an image of Lord Vishnu on a pair of shoes would ordinarily (and should, objectively speaking) offend a Hindu.

If having an image of a deity on shoes is bad, this image of Lord Ganesha on slippers takes the cake.  Most Hindus are brought up to avoid stepping on any holy symbol or image.  In fact, most would scrupulously avoid stepping on books, newspapers and any other written material as well (as embodiments of the Goddess Saraswati).  If one accidentally steps on any of these, it is customary to touch the article with one's hand and to place the hand on one's closed eyes (as a mark of apologetic respect).  You can imagine how the slippers above would offend a Hindu.

This image shows some Hindus in India protesting against a swimsuit (or rather protesting against the designer of the swimsuit) containing the image of Goddess Lakshmi.  Hindus were clearly offended by the swimsuit.  No necessity here to explain why they would be. 

Where am I heading with this?  Well, there are 2 aspects to the issue of offensive acts or remarks.  There is the perpetrator and his/her act/remark.  There is then, the reaction of the group of persons maligned by the act/remark. 

The Perpetrator

The person that made the offensive remark or gesture could have done so privately with no intention for the remark or gesture to be communicated in public.  That person could have done so publicly with the intention to shock or offend.  Alternatively, although the person made the remark or gesture in public, he/she did so without realising that it is capable of offending/hurting someone. 

Whilst the perpetrator enjoys the freedom (or ought to be permitted to enjoy the freedom) to say what he wants, we do recognise that some types of speech can cause harm to society (not merely causing offense).  Incitement to commit acts of violence, incitement to commit murder and generally any form of incitement to commit criminal offences should rightly be prohibited.  The person making remarks or gestures must be prohibited by law from inciting crimes.  But, I believe that speech that is capable of offending groups or communities should not be banned. 

Whilst advocating freedom, I do not advocate irresponsibility.  It is axiomatic that the freedom enjoyed by a person must be used responsibly.  Whilst I might advocate the freedom of speech as a matter of law, I strongly believe that this freedom is one that comes with great responsibility.  My blog itself gets its name from Article 14 of Singapore's Constitution (Freedom of Speech and Expression).  I have repeatedly maintained the need for liberalisation of our laws insofar as freedom of speech is concerned. 

If the law permits me to speak freely, I would still not feel that I have a right to say anything I want.  If I may be permitted to do so, there is an ancient Tamil saying from Thirukkural: 

இனிய உளவாக இன்னாத கூறல்
கனிஇருப்பக் காய்கவர்ந் தற்று

Uttering insults whilst there are constructive words is
equivalent to eating unripe fruits when ripe ones are available. 

With a soft word, a kind utterance and a gentle smile, we generate goodwill and harmony around  us.  With harsh words, insults and derogatory comments we manifest sourness and spread hate and misunderstanding.  It is important to remember that the freedom to say what we want should be used responsibly to ideally create a positive environment around us all the time or at least to avoid creating sourness. 

Of course, sometimes when we state the truth, it can hurt.  I am not exhorting the idea of being untruthful.  But, even truth can be presented in a way that is less harsh.  One can be critical without being hurtful.  Sometimes, we have to state the truth forcefully in the face of state power or in the face of social injustice.  But, stating the truth forcefully can be done with compassion and understanding.  Even in the political context, leaders such as Mohandas K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Bishop Desmond Tutu were capable of rendering forceful anti-establishment rhetoric without violence of thought, speech or action. 

The responsible use of free speech is an ideal.  However, irresponsible use of free speech is not uncommon in those societies that provide for legal protection of speech.  That a person says something irresponsible, however, should not be the basis of legally censoring him. 

That brings me to Amy Cheong.  She has made some facebook remarks that have been objectively acknowledged by many individuals (politicians, public figures and citizens) as being offensive.  In Singapore, her comments could be construed as falling within the definition of Sedition under the Sedition Act.  A seditious tendency is defined in s.3(1) of the Act as including a tendency to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or classes of the population of Singapore.

I am not a big fan of this provision in the Sedition Act although I understand the historical context of its origin.  In many Western democracies hurling racial and religious insults is not considered an offence even though it might be offensive to those that are the targets of those insults.  Having said that, one should not condone such behaviour.  The state has no business in proscribing such conduct.  But, the individuals in such a society must aspire to moderate their speech in way that would not be hurtful.   It is for this reason that I do not consider it proper for Amy Cheong to say the things that she said (though she should not be legally prevented from doing so).  

The perpetrators should examine themselves.  The ones that use hate speech and peddle hateful perspectives should question themselves and see where these views are coming from.  They should see for themselves the hurt that they cause to others.  Freedom of speech brings with it the need to express responsible views.  Those that put out their views for public consumption must consider how those views would impact the rest of the community. 

Whether it is Amy Cheong, Shimun Lai, the director of "Innocence of Muslims", Lisa Burke, Sun Xu or any other person engaging in objectively offensive activity, they have to reassess themselves and the hatred that they peddle.  Racist viewpoints and racial stereotypes are often a product of ignorance, limited exposure and re-inforcement of prejudiced perspectives through anecdotal evidence. 

The victims of the insult

Those that end up at the receiving at of the stick when it comes to offensive words/actions have to ask themselves how they want to react.  To begin with, some of us are easily offended as opposed to others.  Some of my fellow Hindus would be really riled up by the images above.  The bikini design would have been particularly offensive.  As the protest image indicates, enough people were upset in India to engage in demonstrations and even Court actions.  Some would react with anger and would then let it pass as not being uppermost on their agenda.  Some would feel offended and yet decide that there is no point in pursuing the perpetrators legally or otherwise.  Yet others like me would brush it aside as inconsequential and not really take offense. 

My own perspective is that the insults, malicious comments, racist views, sacreligious actions and other negative acts are incapable of defining the person that I am.  I don't construct my identity through the perception of others and I don't draw comfort from the high regard that others have of me.  I am comfortable with my own identity on the basis of who I am.  Objectively insulting words/actions have little impact on me.  Something offensive comes my way.  I read, I hear, I observe, I ponder upon it and then I release it.  I do not see the need to react to it.  I wasn't always like this and when I was younger i used to get riled up over quite a number of racist remarks and actions.  Perhaps, age has caused me to mellow down.  Perhaps, I have simply come to recognise that no amount of external attempts by others at constructing an image of me is going to change who I am. 

I believe that those of us that advocate the freedom to criticise the state and its policies should acknowledge the freedom of others to make comments, however negative.  We will not accept incitement to crime.  But surely we can live with the messiness of the rude and crude persons amongst us.  If a person is racist and denies us a job or school or university admission on account of our race, we should rightly make that an issue to be remedied even through the use of the law.  If it just a racist comment or insult, I am sure we can grow a layer of thick skin and not acknowledge or give credence to the racist's comments.

In response to some of the hateful stuff that has been posted, some people have thrown insults and strongly worded condemnations at the perpetrators.  The perpetrators should have expected it.  There is nothing to be shocked about the reaction of anger.  It doesn't lie in the mouth of the perpetrators to suggest that victims of the insult are overly sensitive.  After all, you are being spared the long arm of the law and you merely need to contend with vitriol. 

As for the victims of the insult, I would hope that everyone would exercise restraint.  Whilst anger is understandable, violence is not justifiable.  (Earlier this year I had blogged about my views on the Shimun Lai incident when she made remarks about Indians

The Amy Cheong Affair

In Singapore, in relation to the Amy Cheong affair, the online response has been to turn on Amy Cheong like a lynch mob.  I understand the angry reaction.  But, I fail to see the need for raising the matter up to Amy Cheong's employer (NTUC).  Someone has also filed a police report.  Did we really need to resort to such measures.  Amy Cheong might have made racist remarks (some would say classist as well) but should that be the reason for having her sacked?  Just imagine if every person that makes a racist remark were to be dismissed by the employer.  Where would that leave us as a country. 

I am sure that many of us will realistically acknowledge that racist views are pretty common in Singapore and it is merely a case that much of these views have not been publicly articulated (except when those views are peddled as 'hard truths' by a certain elderly gentleman) or there have been no real avenues for the articulation of these views till now.  Today, with the availability of social media, it is possible for one's narrow-minded views to go viral.  Should every company in Singapore sack its publicly racist employee?

From what I have seen online, some individuals that have in the past written pretty nasty stuff about 'PRC' individuals and FTs, have now turned holier-than-thou and are hurling brikbats at Amy Cheong. 

Some of our Ministers that had advised Singaporeans to be accomodating towards Sun Xu have now condemned Amy Cheong's FB post and even applauded NTUC's decision to fire her. 

Firstly, we have to recognise that no human being is perfect.  Everyone has some level of stereotypical views about other races, religions, communities, nationalities, etc.  Even the best amongst us would have at some point in time expressed racial/racist comments.  We have to have the wisdom to understand that the real racism that we want to fight is the kind that deprives communities of opportunities.  Insults cannot break our bones. 

Secondly, if we must respond to insults, it would be best to do so by pointing out to the person the error of his/her ways.  There is no necessity to descend into the gutter with that person. 

Thirdly, (and this is why I decided to blog on this matter) we have to ask ourselves whether an employee should be sacked on account of his/her facebook comments (however racist they may be)?

Was NTUC right in sacking Amy Cheong? 

On Sunday night when I saw Amy Cheong's FB post going viral, I thought to myself how sad it is that this nation is still finding it difficult to rise above race.  I then came across Amy Cheong's apology (which curiously was a PAP style apology that says, "I am sorry that my actions hurt you" as opposed to "I am sorry about what I did.").   I noticed that there were those calling on NTUC to take some action against her.  I expected NTUC to state that they do not approve of what Amy Cheong said and that they have asked her to deliver a public apology.  I was honestly caught off-guard on Monday when I saw the breaking news online that NTUC had fired Amy Cheong. 

There must be an unfair dismissal somewhere in there.  How did a comment on FB spiral out of control to a point where the very next day (being the 1st working day of the week), the employers sacked the writer on the spot.  Whatever happened to giving notice of termination?  Fine.  It is possible that the contract would have provided for some eventuality that would entitle the Employers' to terminate forthwith.  Assuming that the condition for immediate termination was pertaining to discipline or for bringing NTUC into disrepute, it is still shocking that within a period of less than 24 hours NTUC was able to arrive at a decision that the relevant contractual provision had been infringed.  No due process.  No attempt to notify the employee of the intention of NTUC to fire her on account of the allegation.  No attempt to afford the employee an opportunity to explain herself or to make amends. 

In its swiftness, NTUC probably estimated that it would seize this opportunity to perform a public relations coup.  I can imagine that the close association between the PAP leadership and the NTUC would have meant that criticism of Amy Cheong would have tainted the NTUC and that tainting would then have tainted the PAP as well.  There must have been a flurry of activity within the Cabinet and the decision must have been taken to sack Amy Cheong.  A calculation could have been made that this would portray Lim Swee Say (PAP Minister and Labour Chief) in a good light as a decisive individual willing to make the right decision.  It would have been calculated that this would add to  PAP's reputation for a no-nonsense approach to race related issues. 

Of course, I could be wrong.  Lim Swee Say could have acted on his own and felt that this was the right thing to do. 

Whatever the reason for the sacking, it is truly a step in the wrong direction and a very bad precedent to be set for all employers.  The National Trade Unions Congress, more than any other company, institution or organization should be intimately aware of and highly protective of the rights of employees.  Instead, NTUC (or Lim Swee Say) has acted in a high handed fashion in the manner of a large corporation willing to run roughshod over its employees. 

Apart from the question of whether NTUC conducted a proper investigation of the issues at hand before sacking Amy Cheong, there is the issue of whether a person's personal Facebook posting should be the basis of an employer's decision to sack that person.  It would have been a different matter if Amy Cheong had in the course of her employment insulted a customer by using a racist statement.  (Recently, a SMRT bus driver was disciplined (not sacked) for referring to a passenger as Ah Kua.)  Clearly, Amy Cheong's comment was not made in the course of employment. 

What could NTUC have done?  Since a police report had been made and assuming Amy Cheong was being investigated for sedition, NTUC could have suspended her pending the criminal proceedings.  If she was eventually convicted, NTUC could then have relied on an appropriate contractual clause to terminate her. 

Now that NTUC has decided to behave like a high handed employer, what kind of example does that set?  Well, I guess some of the more cynical amongst us would say that NTUC was never really a worker's union.  It was a body set up to manage workers' expectations whilst bending over backwards for business/corporate interests.   I am, therefore, not surprised, after some reflection, that NTUC sought to 'save face' and to avoid the ire of the lynch mob. 

The reaction against Amy Cheong was speedily and irrationally turning against NTUC and had the potential to turn against the PAP.  Perhaps, Amy Cheong was the sacrifical lamb. 


Anonymous said...

In short, two emotional wrongs do not make a rational right. Didn't know there is a sedition act. Question, how would the ordinary citizen, who is not legally trained, know when a line has been breached? Do we hand out law books to our kids when they collect their IC, and new citizen during the swear-in ceremony with a warning - read these thoroughly and you will henceforth have no excuse to say you did not know them?

Subra said...

Anon> What you raise is a valid and often mulled over problem. There is a principle that ignorance of the law is not a defence. However, many people are in fact ignorant of the law. In a case before a judge, the judge will not entertain the suggestion by the citizen that he did not know that there was such a law or that the law was to be interpreted in a particular way.

It is precisely because ignorance is not a defence, one of the requirements of the rule of law is that the state must disclose its law; it must ensure that laws are publicly made and that laws are publicised; it must ensure that laws are accessible and that those laws are clear and can be understood. These 'good practices' in law-making are seen by some jurists as features of a legal system based on the rule of law.

No legal system accomplishes this perfectly. But, we can aspire. Many modern societies go beyond merely the public enactment of statutes. They sometimes actively carry out a public education campaign on a particular law in order to raise public awareness.

Anonymous said...

Dont see what you have suggested in para 2 and 3 been done in Singapore or have we the public missed that already? Doubt it can be summarized into a page or be squeezed down into ten like those of Moses ... Where is justice then if the system fail to do its part to educate and enlighten all and demand ignorance is no excuse? Or do we have to accept it like you don't have to know all the laws of physics but when you break it, the price you pay (pain or death) will alert you to that and for others to learn from your experience? Is that that way law education for the general public to be conducted?

Anonymous said...

Yes. Agreed. What happened to the spirit of the law ? "innocent until proven guilty" who should judge her ? The court, public or NTUC ?
In this aspect, NTUC already judged her racist. Bad for a establish co-op to do such things.

George said...

Subra, judging from the very strong reactions from the Malay community, Singaporeans and perhaps, non-Singaporeans, online or elsewhere, to the Amy Cheong's case, we can tell that many people are offended and shocked with the things she said. I am one of those who did and I am a Singaporean Chinese.

For something to happen at this scale, we should not be surprised that she is taken to task by her employer or the authorities. For the police, they are still investigating?

For the employer, I feel they have done the right thing to terminate her services because what she has done does not gel with what NTUC is doing. I know you disagree, but if you were in NTUC's position what would you have done?

Also, you felt that Amy may have been unfairly dismissed without given the right to a fair hearing, or she was not informed about the termination of her services.

This is not true based on what the media has reported on NTUC's statement (see below).

Amy admitted that she wrote those offensive comments. Given this, I guess the due investigation process would be very much shortened.

NTUC said that they have "counselled the staff and impressed upon her the seriousness of her action". Based on this, I infer that they would have heard Amy's views and spoken to her. So, it is fair to say that due process was done and she was given the opportunity to give her side of the story.

Amy's service was terminated, not dismissed or sack, which carries a different tone altogether. Termination means that she was given notice by the employer that they are ending her employment. So, on this note, Amy was informed of their decision.

At the end of the day, Amy was the one who the wrong thing and she has been duely punished. We should not blame the employer for doing what they did in terminating her services as it has nothing to do with them.

"terminated with immediate effect the services of Ms Amy Cheong, Assistant Director, Membership department after establishing with her that she did post offensive comments... on 7 October 2012".

"Regrettably and rightly so, her comments have upset members of the public, including many union members. We are sorry that this has happened. We have counselled the staff and impressed upon her the seriousness of her action. She is remorseful and has apologised for her grave lapse of judgement,"

Anonymous said...


The unresolved issue, post event, is on how the zero tolerance for racism yardstick is to be applied to instances where it is not black or white, different degree and specific contexts going forward, now that the emotions have subsided. The concern is, has Amy case pushed the pendulum to the extreme?

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