In Sir Patrick Devlin’s essay on “Morals and the Criminal Law” (1965), the African elder’s judgement in a family dispute read,
“WE HAVE POWER TO MAKE YOU DIVIDE THE CROPS, FOR THIS IS OUR LAW, AND WE WILL SEE THIS IS DONE. BUT WE HAVE NOT POWER TO MAKE YOU BEHAVE LIKE AN UPRIGHT MAN.”
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong articulated the same principle from another angle during his 2021 National Day Rally speech: “Laws may not by themselves make people get along with one another or like one another. But laws can signal what our society considers right or wrong, and nudge people over time to behave better.”
The Ministry of Law has been looking at measures to deal with the harm caused by cancel culture and cancel campaigns online. Broadly speaking, cancel culture refers to a concerted effort to withdraw support for an individual or organisation that has said or done something deemed to be objectionable.
It’s often said that Law is downstream from culture. By that, it is meant that the law is often a reflection of what has been established as socially acceptable. But in the quasi-moralistic Singapore where social morality can be determined by what parliament validates, perhaps it may be said that Culture is downstream of Law.
It is well established that “cancellation” is a modern manifestation of an age-old cultural habit. The question worth asking then, is about the degree to which legal solutions are a part of the solution.
The Familiar Script of Cancel Culture
Cancel culture follows a familiar script, which goes something like this:
- A person does something or voices an opinion, or people dig up something that the person did or said in the past (e.g. old social media posts);
- A large number of angry criticisms and denunciations take place on social media, including calls for employers, business partners, sponsors, and others to terminate their relationships with the person;
- Many people distance or dissociate themselves from the person who is the target of criticism;
- Even if the person apologises, the mob is not placated, but sees the apology as an admission of guilt and intensifies its criticism.
Joining a long list of comedians like Dave Chapelle and Russel Peters who vociferously oppose cancel culture, Rowan Atkinson, famous his portrayal of “Mr Bean” and “Johnny English”, likened cancel culture to a digital equivalent of a “medieval mob” which is “roaming the streets looking for someone to burn”. In an interview with Bloomberg, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam compared cancel culture to a kind of online gang violence.
One such target of cancel culture was Anton Casey, a British expatriate who found himself on the wrong side of the online mob in 2014. It all began when he uploaded a picture of his son in a Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) train with caption, “Daddy where is your car and who are all these poor people?” He later posted a picture of his son in a silver Porsche with the caption: “Normal service can resume, once I have washed the stench of public transport off me.”
Netizens were incensed and widely condemned Casey. Casey was doxed online, and his personal details such as his employer’s details and home address were published. Although he apologised through a public relations firm, his apology was rejected as insincere. Netizens name-called and wrote nasty emails to the lawyers he hired to get social media sites to take down certain posts and pictures. There were also criticisms and threats made against his wife, former Miss Singapore Universe Bernice Wong, and his son.
In the midst of this, Minister K. Shanmugam condemned Casey’s remarks as “deeply offensive, wrong, and unacceptable” in a Facebook post, and added that there was “some basis” for thinking that the manner of Casey’s apology “showed a lack of sincerity”. At the same time, the Minister “hope[d] that Singaporeans will not attack or flame his family because of his actions.”
Casey was fired from his job at Crossinvest Asia, and left Singapore.
We Need a Cultural Shift
It’s been nine years since the incident. Now that Casey’s name is no longer a byword for elite privilege, perhaps we might be able to dust off the case again.
It is clear that Anton Casey’s situation occurred entirely outside the domain of the law. He committed no crime, and he was the target of various forms of cyberbullying, a few of which were very likely illegal. Yet, whatever legal steps that he tried to take seemed entirely ineffective, and even his lawyers became targets of the mob.
Sure, nobody likes elite snobbery, but can we really look back at this and say that he got what he deserved?
Cancel culture is a wider issue that requires a cultural shift to address. It requires a shift in societal norms towards a principle best summed up in Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s classic quote: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Our O.B. Markers
There are certain boundaries in Singapore which have been clearly demarcated by the law as limits to freedom of speech, such as racial and religious harmony, incitement of violence and the spreading of falsehoods.
Outside of these limits, however, we must collectively as a society defend the freedom of opinion, to disagree respectfully and with civility. Failure to do so results in a might-makes-right society where social morality is governed by mob rule.
Even when it comes to topics involving race and religion where there are clear norms against offensive speech and conduct, we should guard against conflict entrepreneurs who are quick to capitalise of the latest faux pas, however debatable, to stoke feelings of offence.
We should also reject types of grand narratives which promote feelings of superiority or victimhood among particular groups, such as former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s problematic views about Malays and Bumiputera rights, a narrative which simultaneously stresses both Malay superiority and victimhood (CRT, eat your heart out).
Yet, where lines have indeed been crossed, there must be room for gracious acceptance of apologies and promotion of mutual understanding, rather than turning these apologies into additional opportunities to find fault and pile on further criticism.
One fine example of such graciousness even in the midst of insensitivity can be found in the Young Sikh Association’s response in 2019 to social media influencer Sheena Phua. The influencer attracted controversy after she posted on Instagram complaining about her blocked view at the Singapore Grand Prix, calling two men wearing white turbans standing “huge obstructions”. She apologised and clarified that her post was intended to refer only to the height of the two men. Noting that some of the responses felt like “cyberbullying”, the Young Sikh Association invited her to an informal tour of a gurdwara so that she could learn more about their traditions, which she accepted.
Such responses should be the norm rather than the exception, but it takes a collective effort to achieve this level of graciousness society-wide.
Laws, on their own, are necessary but insufficient to deal with cancel culture.
Without people’s willingness to abide by them and people to enforce them, laws are but mere writings that have no effect whatsoever.
As the term implies, cancel culture involves the wider culture and society at large. As a society, we need to establish a norm of respecting people, tolerating differences of views, and agreeing to disagree, without viciously resorting to personal attacking those being disapproved of. This applies even to those who have committed moral or legal wrongs, who should also be allowed to apologise, express regret and commit to being more sensitive.
The beauty of this reality means that the response to cancel culture lies not solely in the hands of the Government, but in our hands as a people. We can choose to be part of the problem, or part of the solution.
Let us choose wisely.