She was harassed and received death threats. Her emails were hacked. She was locked out of her company’s financial systems and records. A sex video involving her was leaked.
This was the situation that Sylvia Chan, co-founder of local media company Night Owl Cinematics (NOC), found herself in late 2021.
Her “crime”? Abusive behaviour at the workplace.
It all started when MustShareNews published interviews with then-employees and former employees of NOC detailing her behaviour, while anonymous Instagram page “@sgcickenrice” leaked a number of audio recordings and screenshots featuring abusive comments apparently from Sylvia.
Even after Sylvia released a statement apologising that she “did not live up to the standards expected of (her)” and caused herself to be removed from NOC’s line-up of artistes, fresh allegations were made in a blog which additionally accused her of infidelity, sexually exploiting her female talents, as well as criminal conduct.
Influencer XiaXue (whose real name is Wendy Cheng) stepped in, giving Sylvia a chance to “say her piece” by speaking with her in a no-holds-barred interview.
Sylvia suggested that the entire saga was a smear campaign to “completely destroy” her, and that her ex-husband and NOC co-founder was among the people who would have “something to gain from this”.
In a later TikTok video, XiaXue denounced “cancel culture” and exposed the person behind @sgcickenrice as Brandon Mah, a 20-year-old student. Mah stated that his original intention was to speak up for the employees in NOC, but regretted that, as things dragged on, he found himself “becoming a pawn” and “collateral damage” in “a fight over assets involving powerful and rich adults (Sylvia Chan and Ryan Tan)”.
Sylvia’s behaviour was obviously wrong. But were the responses to her justified?
This was one instance of cancel culture in recent years, and the Government has been looking into possible legal solutions on cancel campaigns.
But what exactly is “cancel culture”, and why is it a problem?
Four Categories to Understand Cancel Culture
Cancel culture is the practice or tendency of engaging in mass withdrawal of support for someone to express disapproval and exert social pressure. It is related to but distinct from “call-out culture”, which involves the public criticism or faulting of someone.
Conceptually, we can divide “cancellation” efforts into four categories, depending on whether the attempts to inflict such consequences are based on allegations of fact (can be proven true or false) or opinion (belief and ideas), and whether the alleged norms (whether legal or moral) that are being violated are established or contested on a societal level.
|Category A: Factually provable acts violating established norms.|
The target’s act is one which can be proven to be true or false. The act (if true) violates an established societal norm.
|Category B: Opinions violating established norms.|
The target expresses or manifests an opinion. The opinion violates an established societal norm.
|Category C: Factually provable acts allegedly violating contested norms.|
The target’s act is one which can be proven to be true or false. The act (if true) allegedly violates a norm which is contested on a societal level.
|Category D: Opinions allegedly violating contested norms|
The target expresses or manifests an opinion. The opinion allegedly violates a norm which is contested on a societal level.
The term “act” used above encompasses both speech and conduct.
Category A and B: Transgressing Established Norms
The incident involving Sylvia Chan is an example of Category A cancellation. Everyone would agree that abusive workplace behaviour is morally and legally wrong. However, Sylvia disputed some of the accusations, even as she admitted and apologised for her bad behaviour.
Racially or religiously offensive remarks are examples in Category B. For example, in 2012, Amy Cheong was fired from her job as assistant director of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) after posting racially offensive remarks about Malay weddings and divorce rates. She was widely criticised on social media and by Ministers and Members of Parliament, and was fired from her job. She received a stern warning from the police.
In both Categories A and B, the legal and moral norms are well-established. On the other hand, Categories C and D involve societally controversial issues, where the legal and moral norms are being debated.
Category C and D: Transgressing Contested Norms
Falling into Category D are debates over lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, etc. (LGBTQ+) matters. For example, in 2018, Professor Tommy Koh shared that his friend was disinvited from a conference because this friend had signed a petition to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalised acts of “gross indecency” between males, even though the conference topic was unrelated.
Finally, Category C involves debates not only over whether certain acts are right or wrong, but also over whether the act was committed in the first place.
Influencer XiaXue’s experience in 2020 illustrates not only Category C cancellation, but how all four categories can overlap. After she criticised ‘woke’ ideology and then-Worker’s Party candidate Raeesah Khan, police reports were lodged against her for tweets about migrant workers of a certain nationality in 2010 and 2011. XiaXue was also criticised for earlier posts about Islam, obesity and transgender people. A number of sponsors and partners dropped their partnerships. However, the police decided to take no further action against XiaXue, because “the elements of an offence have not been established beyond a reasonable doubt”, suggesting a factual uncertainty about her actions and intentions.
Cancel Culture as Bullying and Cyberbullying
The Media Literacy Council defines cyberbullying as “any behaviour over digital devices by a person or group that intentionally hurts someone else emotionally or physically”, including harassment, denigration and exclusion. While efforts to seek accountability for legal or moral wrongs can sometimes be justifiable, “cancellation” efforts can quickly descend into a form of bullying and cyberbullying if left unchecked.
Participants in cancel culture often aim to shame and inflict the consequence of social exclusion against people for actual or perceived wrongdoing. Due to online anonymity and the unrestrained nature of the mob mentality, such consequences can quickly become disproportionate to the wrongdoing (if any). In a 2014 speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong likened such “abusive hateful mobs” to “a pack of hounds hunting”.
In a cancel culture, there is no room for forgiveness, grace, moral growth and reconciliation. At least in the minds of the mob, the wrongdoing is “unpardonable”. Even after Amy Cheong left Singapore, people continued to track her down and harass her at her home and online, and she was still receiving nasty messages years after her offensive remarks. She has been – in her words – “punished over and over again” for her error.
Where legal or moral norms are contested, attempts to “cancel” others on such bases risk heightening societal polarisation and division into opposing identity groups. This is characteristic of the “culture wars” that the Government has cautioned against, where opposing groups try to “brow beat and shut up opponents”.
Cultivating a Better Culture
In the face of the harm caused by cancel culture to individuals and to society, we need to cultivate a better culture.
It would be helpful to consider changing the way we speak and react to others. Interestingly, the word “sensitive” has two potentially opposite meanings: one can mean being “delicately aware of the attitudes and feelings of others”, and the other is to be “easily hurt or damaged”.
On one hand, one should seek to be “delicately aware of the attitudes and feelings of others” when speaking. In a culturally diverse society like Singapore, we need to speak in a manner which is respectful, measured and empathetic towards others, while confronting differences honestly and truthfully.
On the other hand, one should be less “easily hurt or damaged” when listening. This includes learning to interpret the words of others charitably, and to consider their intention and context, instead of jumping to judgments, conclusions and condemnation.
We should also be willing to show grace, forgive and reconcile when wrongdoers apologise and make amends for their errors. People are complex and imperfect; they may make mistakes from time to time. Once amends have been made, a conscious effort must be made to move on constructively from those incidents and to provide second chances (or more, if necessary) to those who have erred.
On debates over moral or legal norms, it is rare for people to change their opinions immediately, and may need more time to think, reflect and be persuaded or not persuaded of different ideas.
This better culture is the precise opposite of cancel culture. It is the path towards creating a more wholesome and tolerant society, where different individuals and groups can coexist peacefully and harmoniously.
* Note: We do not necessarily agree or disagree with the allegations made by the various individuals or organisations cited in this article. The examples raised are merely to illustrate how cancel culture operates.
Darius Lee is the Executive Director of Cultivate SG, an organisation dedicated to “cultivating culture together for the common good”. He is a lawyer by training. He holds a Masters of International Law and Human Rights from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and a Bachelor of Laws from the National University of Singapore. He has published a range of peer-reviewed academic articles on topics including constitutional law, international law and human rights.