“The Amy Cheong Saga: The Benefits of the Temporal Panopticon” by Kwan Jin Yao

Approximately twenty-two hours.

That was how fast it took the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) to dismiss senior employee Miss Amy Cheong, after she had published offensive, racist Facebook posts. Beyond expressions of discomfort by ordinary Singaporeans, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong—through a Facebook update of his own—condemned the comments, asserting that they “were just wrong and totally unacceptable” (Lee). His post, which gathered over 25,000 “likes,” resonated with many, and is evidence that there is little tolerance for hate speech in Singapore. A repentant Cheong, eventually aware of the extent of her transgression, scrambled to contain the damage: she frantically published notes of apology, deleted the original publications, and eventually shut her Facebook and Twitter accounts down. Yet, Cheong’s efforts to contain the damage were too little, too late, by the standards of a burgeoning cyberspace in Singapore.

At first glance, one could relate this particular case to Mayer-Schönberger’s temporal Panopticon, which is a constraining situation—with comprehensive digital memory—in which one must always assume she “is watched by everybody” (Mayer-Schönberger 111), even in the distant future. Trapped within the temporal Panopticon, Cheong’s online words could survive, and this could have the real danger of stifling democratic discourse, since individuals would be forced to constantly self-police. Consequently, they would deliberately censor their expression on the Internet, for fear of how their opinions or actions could be interpreted in the future.

But something does not quite make sense when one puts Mayer-Schönberger’s worry about the temporal Panopticon to bear on the Amy Cheong controversy. Within the democratic space in Singapore, the reactions to Cheong’s distasteful Facebook outburst reflect a general consensus that there is little tolerance for reckless hate speech. Cheong’s misadventure does not fit the model of the temporal Panopticon entirely, because while Mayer-Schönberger postulates that the act of vigilant self-policing—which results in less virtual space for discourse—is necessarily negative and detrimental, it would appear that proactive, positive self-censorship, on Cheong’s part, would have prevented the fiasco in the first place. Mayer-Schönberger alludes to two examples. Stacy Snyder’s supervisors noticed Snyder’s drunken pirate photograph on her MySpace web-page (Mayer-Schönberger 102), while Andrew Feldmar was refused entry to the United States because a border guard discovered, via Google, that Feldmar had taken drugs in the 1960s (Mayer-Schönberger 105). When these two misbehaviours are compared vis-à-vis the Cheong incident, they show that online actions have consequences: Cheong lost her job; Snyder was denied her teacher’s certificate (Mayer-Schönberger 109); and Feldmar could not enter the country. However, while Mayer-Schönberger pays attention only to the negative effects of the afterlife of what is posted online, it seems that sometimes—as with Cheong’s racist comments—there can be positive consequences too.

Therefore, my argument is that the Amy Cheong saga, in relation to the temporal Panopticon, has the potential benefit of warning people who would otherwise engage in hate speech online; and the case shows that the nation can rely upon civic-minded Singaporeans, who are opposed to racist statements, to further reduce the frequency of such events. This essay will be anchored by two propositions: first, Cheong’s social media hate-speech disaster would serve as a cautionary tale for future discourse, encouraging individuals to take greater ownership and responsibility for opinions they express online; second, beyond hate speech regulation per se, Singaporeans can counter hate speech with more speech.

 

Amy Cheong and the Temporal Panopticon

Cheong’s online rant is a prime example of undesirable hate speech, defined as a “persecutorial, hateful, and degrading” (Tsesis 819) message of “racial inferiority … intended to harm its targets[,] and has a substantial probability of doing so.” Through her expletive-laden remarks, Cheong articulated personal annoyance at a Malay wedding which was held at a void deck near her area of residence, as well as preposterous generalisations about the Malay community in Singapore. She wrote that the organisation of Malay wedding ceremonies “should be banned” (Cheong), and that these events have led to high “divorce rate[s].” Moreover, she opined that society should not “allow [people] to get married for 50 bucks.” These were stereotypical sentiments with no logical basis, and many Singaporeans were uncomfortable that Cheong had—on the spur of the moment, out of frustration—disparaged another race openly.

The “replicability” (boyd) and “scalability” of digital information on social media platforms featured prominently throughout the twenty-two hours and beyond. boyd observes that information can be “cop[ied] [and] paste[d] from one place to another,” and “read by all people across all space and all time”; that is, social media environments allow online posts, especially controversial or offensive ones, to be saved and distributed rapidly. Cheong’s Facebook posts were instantly screen-capped, and these images were spontaneously shared across digital platforms. These screen-caps went viral, attracting thousands of “shares” on Facebook; additionally, search requests for “Amy Cheong” skyrocketed on Google Singapore, and copies of her racist post “trended” on Twitter. Despite the aforementioned attempts to delete traces of her hate speech, the “persistence” (boyd) of the screen-caps—which refers to how these online posts “stick around” for an indefinite period of time—suggests that a temporal Panopticon has been created, in which what was said in the past could be held against an individual for a long time.

Mayer-Schönberger asserts that “the durability of digital remembering” (Mayer- Schönberger 111)—which has rendered online information more comprehensive and accessible—gives rise to a “constraining temporal panopticon” (Mayer-Schönberger 111). He is worried that the longevity of digital memory would inevitably yield ramifications, specifically by stifling discussions online. Mayer-Schönberger is critical of this phenomenon which extends across time and (cyber)space, because once individuals are aware of the potential implications associated with digital communication, they would rather “err on the side of caution” (Mayer-Schönberger 111), choosing to think hard before publishing information online. Since they become more selective and cautious with their perspectives, “a climate of self-censorship” (Mayer-Schönberger 112) could curtail free speech within a democratic society; as a result, this pronounced fear would severely cripple “robust and open debate” (Mayer-Schönberger 112). Individuals begin to watch their own behaviours and expressions, acting as if they are being permanently watched.

 

A Cautionary Tale for Future Discourse

Cheong—following a public outcry, widespread condemnation, and unbridled anger on social media platforms—was unceremoniously fired by NTUC before she fled Singapore for Perth, Australia. Given the buzz generated by the incident, Cheong would certainly rue the fact that a moment’s folly has cost her a career and future in Singapore, at least. It is unfortunate that she might remain haunted by this carelessness; however, it would be reasonable to think that she would be more meticulous with her words on cyberspace in the future. In Cheong’s predicament, “[i]f retrospective redemption is unattainable, what remains is prospective caution” (Mayer-Schönberger, 108). It is highly unlikely that she would be able to establish a working relationship with her former employer, or to find favour with the community she has offended; hence, upon reflection, Cheong would be more conscious about how she expresses viewpoints on the Internet, to prevent negligent lapses of judgment. Moreover, this “prospective caution” (Mayer-Schönberger, 108), which is care taken to avoid future dangers or mistakes, would expand to individuals who have witnessed how the events unfolded, as well as the speed and severity of the after-effects. Cheong, as a cautionary tale, would discourage bigots from spewing hate speech online, because they would not want to undergo the public scrutiny that Cheong experienced.

So why is Mayer-Schönberger critical of the temporal Panopticon? He observes that “the way to avoid exposure is to not criticise” (Mayer-Schönberger, 109), because the individual loses power and control over information, he does not know how his publications and “utterances” (Mayer-Schönberger, 109) would be used, or what the possible implications might be. In the socio-political domain, citizens should be empowered to keep the government in check – through rhetorical expressions or collective demonstrations – with impunity; yet the self-disciplining feature of the temporal Panopticon causes them to internalise the gaze and become their own inspectors. As behaviours in modern democracies have been altered by panoptic discipline, Foucault posits that communities have therefore been induced to internalise the “faceless gaze … that [has] transformed the whole social body into a field of perception” (Foucault 214). With this relentless monitoring, individuals never know if they are being observed, and must, for this reason, act as if they are always objects of observation.

Mayer-Schönberger is opposed to the possibility that the survival of online expressions could suppress democratic discourse. If citizens, within the temporal Panopticon, become “uninterested in public affairs” (Mayer-Schönberger 110) and refuse to engage in participatory dialogue involving contentious issues, “robust debate [would be] impoverished” (Mayer-Schönberger 110), since they fear the consequences of their speech. The reasoning is conceptually sound, but the effects of the temporal Panopticon have been hastily generalised. With reference to Cheong and her racist remarks in Singapore, a distinction needs to be made: on the one hand, there is public discourse in (cyber)space, which has to be nuanced, reasoned, and considered; on the other, this general right—or principle—can be abused through instances of hate speech or inflammatory remarks. There is little disagreement that hate speech has no place in constructive online exchanges. If the temporal Panopticon—through a prominent case study—compels observers to take greater ownership and responsibility of their online speeches, then it is not wholly negative.

Mayer-Schönberger also raises another concern, that individuals cannot be “reasonably expect[ed]” (Mayer-Schönberger 110) to know the types of “behaviour” (Mayer-Schönberger 110) which would be deemed acceptable and non-offensive. There will be no limits to the degree of self-censorship exercised, because everything—from a seemingly-innocuous photograph at a friend’s birthday party to a Facebook note on the state of governance in Singapore—is open to interpretation, could be taken out of context, or blown out of proportion. For this reason, we might self-police excessively. At first glance, Mayer-Schönberger’s worries are justified; nonetheless, the boundaries for racial hate speech in Singapore are rather well-defined. Following NTUC’s decision to terminate Cheong of her position, then Acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Chan Chun Sing remarked that he was proud of the majority’s response to the Amy Cheong episode (Huang). Singaporeans, including their politicians, condemned the insensitivity displayed by Cheong. They knew she had crossed the line. Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam noted on Facebook that Cheong’s “comments and conduct are shameful and completely acceptable” (Shanmugam), and acknowledged that NTUC’s decision sent a message that “such conduct will not be tolerated.” These ministerial proclamations reaffirm the commitment to racial harmony, and clearly establish the types of racial utterances and behaviour deemed to be offensive and unacceptable. It signals to the populace that there is no space for hate speech in Singapore.

 

A “Neighbourhood Watch”: Countering Hate Speech with More Speech

Let’s take stock. It has been established that the temporal Panopticon is likely to be beneficial in Singapore following Cheong’s well-documented woes, as individuals would be inclined to exercise due diligence before penning online statuses or updates. Furthermore, the scale and the speed of the responses to Cheong’s out-of-line remarks suggest there is a civic conscience online. Even if regulation proves to be redundant, a “neighbourhood watch” (Wolf 552)—which, in this case, is a community of Singaporean netizens—would be mobilised to combat the hate speech. Paradoxically, without downplaying her obnoxious posts, the Cheong saga highlights not the dangers, but the comforting and positive effects of the Internet.

Regulation is a weapon that is frequently deployed by administrations. Proponents believe that legislative rules and prohibitive directives, coupled with harsh, punitive sentences, would prevent the manifestation of online hate speech. Such legal strategies for the Internet are undeniably well-intentioned, “because the messages transmitted through that social space have physical, psychological, and cultural effects on real places and real people” (Tsesis, 863-864). This means that vitriolic invectives, such as the statement that got Cheong into trouble, can impact the rights of others, and inflict emotional or material harm upon individuals and communities. Tenuous social fabrics will not be spared. Regulation could therefore put an immediate stop to the publication and spread of these pernicious comments.

What legal experts such as Tsesis might not have considered, is the point that regulation has its drawbacks, and should not be employed in isolation. First, criminalisation of repugnant hate speech means that the authorities would have to heighten the present levels of Internet monitoring and surveillance, and many users would be disturbed by such protocols. Foucault and Mayer-Schönberger would be alarmed, because these developments would strengthen tendencies for individuals to disciplinarily watch themselves. Rather than expanding the space for more democratic discourse, netizens could be even more cognisant and conscious of what they post, for fear of disciplinary repercussions. Second, the “shield of Internet anonymity” (Wolf 550) and the “viral nature of online hate” (Wolf 550) mean that users with malicious intent could hide behind pseudonyms to spread mindless hate. Given the “borderless nature of the Internet” (Wolf 550), where jurisdiction and norms are almost-impossible to establish, a confluence of these virtual characteristics has rendered legal policing a futile endeavour. Third, regulation is no silver bullet. Troubled by a tumultuous history which is dotted by tenuous race relations and contentious geopolitical conflicts, the ruling People’s Action Party has not taken the contemporary status quo for granted. In Singapore, the Sedition Act has a provision against racist comments; specifically, sub-section 3 of the Act prohibits publications that “promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or classes” (Attorney-General’s Chambers). However, this did not stop Cheong from posting her callous and reckless comments on the Malay community.

Hence, “[a]n equally important and powerful tool against hate speech is the voluntary cooperation of the Internet community” (Wolf 551), a movement Wolf terms a “neighbourhood watch” (Wolf 552). In other words, rather than relying pedantically upon legal instruments to clamp down on hate speech, the regular users of the Internet should become more vigilant, and band together to counter these expressions with more speech. The metaphorical cyberspace neighbourhood means that everyone should be looking out for one another, especially those who might be susceptible or vulnerable to these online abuses. The sustained promotion of these collaborative methodologies would complement legislative ones, allowing ordinary folks to deal with the scourge of hate speech. Cheong’s racist post galvanised a series of counter-speech (Wolf 551), as netizens began to expose it “for its deceitful and false content” (Wolf 551), whilst “promoting the values of tolerance and diversity.” Hardly anyone was in support of Cheong’s actions. Many seized the opportunity to espouse the importance of acceptance, and the spirit of giving-and-taking in a multi-racial society.

Despite the merits, opponents would also point to the limitations. While the general response has been heartening, some—often behind pseudonyms—have taken the opportunity to counter Cheong’s hate speech with hate speech. Take for instance a discussion post on REACH, the government’s feedback agency, whose author made ludicrous claims: that “[t]he reason that [Cheong] is being attacked so strongly is because she is Chinese” (Guest), and that “Indians ***** racists are out in full again.” These baseless accusations are clearly non-constructive, but regulation, especially with the element of anonymity, could require greater administrative efforts, in terms of tracking down the ones responsible, before bringing them to justice. In fact, a more rigorous community of responsible netizens would ensure that further hate speech is countered by more speech, and to rein in racist remarks productively.

 

Conclusion

It has been tough on Cheong. Even as the controversy dies down, her grievous mistake will persist in cyberspace for an extremely long period of time. Amidst the flak she has received, she could probably take solace in the propositions that her misadventure could force Singaporeans to think twice before posting something irresponsible or offensive online, and has galvanised civic-minded Singaporeans who are opposed to racist sentiments. In the words of the Prime Minister, “[l]et us be more mindful of what we say, online and in person, and always uphold the mutual respect and sensitivity that holds our society together” (Lee).

 

 

Works Cited

 

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