Anthea Ong wasn’t correct, but she was right.

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COVID-19 has affected Singapore in unprecedented ways, and tensions from circuit breaker measures have led to some unusual situations. One such example is the video of a woman refusing to don a mask by claiming that she is a “Sovereign”.

This video became viral and was featured on a Channel News Asia (CNA) article written by NMP Anthea Ong. Within, she denounced the public ridicule by netizens labelling the woman as crazy. Her article garnered praise for urging greater sensitivity for mental health, and criticism for using this video to this particular, and peculiar end.

NMP Ong’s advocacy against mental health discrimination is certainly commendable. We do want to destigmatise mental illness at home. But are her criticisms warranted? There are two main objections to her commentary to consider.

First, it is presumptuous to assume the woman as mentally ill while her mental condition is still being assessed at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH). If IMH finds the woman to be mentally sound, wouldn’t her criticisms have been misplaced? Now, I’m no psychoanalyst, but while we await IMH’s diagnosis, allow me to offer a layman’s observation on why the “Sovereign Lady” seems to have been of sound mind, thereby availing her proclamations to public scrutiny.

a. The woman was able to articulate why she thinks she does not have to abide by the circuit breaker measures.
b. The woman was aware that people were filming her and attempted to shield her face.
c. The woman filmed the two police officers who were questioning her. Perhaps for her own protection. Perhaps to intimidate them. Either way, it seems she took calculated actions when confronted.

Also, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam shared on his Facebook (a week before Ong’s article) of a “Sovereign Movement” whose adherents reject all forms of authority.

This is strikingly consistent with the woman’s rejection of authority and claims to sovereignty. While I am persuaded that an anti-authoritarian ideology best explains her behaviour, I have no need to presume the woman’s sanity. We should defer to IMH’s findings when it is out.

The second objection I find, pertains to Ong’s call to abstain from public disapproval. Netizens were concerned that this would excuse similar antics and erode societal standards. Others complained about the loss of free speech.

I sympathise with these concerns. The public should be free to comment on public life. Some will do so out of ignorance, some bigotry and some from maturity. A diversity of opinion is unavoidable. Our task as a maturing citizenry, however, is to move the tone of public discourse toward the degree of sensitivity and sophistication we wish to see, by first embodying it.

Nevertheless, Ong’s main point remains valid: it is insensitive to publicly shame mental health sufferers. A saying comes to mind “The freedom to swing my fist ends where your nose begins”. Free speech must be exercised with wisdom. Words can hurt, and even kill. If we are unaware of whether or not someone is a sufferer of mental health, perhaps it would be wiser to bide our time and adopt a wait-and-see approach before making our own public assessments of the situation.

So even though I think NMP Ong was mistaken to make this episode about mental health, we should still not miss the wood for the trees. There is much merit in NMP Anthea Ong’s on the issue of mental health stigma. Times are hard. Let’s try to be gentle with each other.

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