From Internet Virality to Social Justice
In April 2017, a man and woman dubbed the “Toa Payoh couple” attained internet notoriety when a video of them verbally assaulting an elderly man over a table at a hawker centre went viral on Facebook. For a country of just over 5 million residents, the original video amassed over 3 million views and over 41,000 shares alone, discounting a cluster of other views and shares via reposts. In a matter of hours, reactionary internet users took to “CSI-ing” the perpetrators – colloquial forum lingo for intense profiling based on in-depth and corroborative internet searches – to identify the actors in the low-resolution video. (While local variants of “CSI-ing” borrow from hacker traditions of doxing, in which large amounts of private identifying content is released punitively, thus far practices of “CSI-ing” seem to be less intense and malicious, focused on small bytes of information such as a person’s full name, age, place of residence, and workplace).
Initially, the couple was misidentified as staff members of a bank, compelling enraged internet users to publicly denounce the services of the corporation and pressure the firm to fire the couple. Although the bank quickly clarified that the couple were not staff members, it was still up against seething backlash and fake rage-ridden feedback abounding on several social media platforms. The damage had been done.
As public outrage soared, this nugget of internet virality began to be picked up by for-profit populist tabloid websites, notable commentary blogs, and eventually, mainstream news outlets in digital and print formats. With the twin validations of internet-native virality and traditional media prominence, the police swiftly took action and the couple was arrested on the offence of causing a “public nuisance”. The internet cheered; vigilante activism struck again. The incident officially peaked and began to quickly tumble into obscurity – after all, the temporality of trends and controversies are accelerated in the age of the internet.
One week later, more precise updates about the couple were still streaming in on social media, albeit with less intensity. Fervent internet users posted updates on public forums, Facebook, and Twitter about – among other mundane information – the couple’s ages, marital status, professions, and grainy details of their business in the education sector. Close-up photographs of the couple – faces pixelated and otherwise – were unearthed from social media archives. Screengrabs of their now-private social media accounts also made their rounds. All the while, the story accumulated saturation fatigue: readers grew overwhelmed with minute packets of information to the point of disinterest, and the incident approached the death of its virality in late-April when the couple was arrested. However, public interest in the incident surged again in mid-August when the parties attended a court hearing and the woman tearfully expressed remorse to journalists on camera, only to instigate another wave of criticism on social media.
If this process feels all too familiar, it is because internet vigilantes and purveyors of public shaming blatantly rinse-and-repeat this cycle with controversial stories and situations that circulate online. Earlier in the same month, a Facebook video featuring an aggressive 70-year-old man propositioning gay sex and then slapping an American man on the MRT similarly went viral. It was recorded and uploaded by a fellow commuter in the same train cabin, and 1.5 million views and over 19,000 shares later, The Straits Times reported that the man was arrested for “causing public nuisance and voluntarily causing hurt”. Unlike the “Toa Payoh couple”, and perhaps in consideration of his old age, internet commentators did not “CSI” the elderly man to the same extent, but instead offered moralistic chidings of his assumed homosexual orientation and lack of maturity.
The efficacy of public shaming via internet virality – resulting in authoritarian intervention and social – enjoys a twisted track record in Singapore’s internet culture.
Anton Casey, who called public commuters “poor people” on his personal Facebook page in January 2014, and Amy Cheong, who posted racist remarks about Malays on her personal Facebook page in October 2012, were similarly named and shamed for their misdeeds. Prolonged public vendettas, fuelled by mob mentality, were launched against these individuals, and they lost their jobs in part due to public pressure. Eventually, both Casey and Cheong took refuge in Perth, Australia due to “threats being made towards [his] family”, and “some really nasty things” said to her, according to The Straits Times and STOMP respectively.
So the cycle goes: misdeeds are brought to light; overnight pariahs are birthed; keyboard warriors reign.
A Quick History of Public Shaming Platforms
Public shaming culture has evolved rapidly in the last decade in Singapore, in part stipulated by the affordances and politics of new digital platforms, and stimulated by the seduction of the highly profitable attention economy. As a scholar of internet culture in Singapore, I have always been intrigued by the particularities of this country that have enabled and networked such particular ways of being.
For one, peer surveillance and public shaming are lubricated by Singapore’s small population. While most similarly densely populated cities around the world accord their citizens a level of namelessness and facelessness from the sheer diversity of residences and complexity of space, Singapore is an urban city-state that behaves much like a small village town: Everyone knowns everyone else’s business by virtue of space compression and the extensive intersection of social ties.
From an “intelligent island” to a “smart city”, Singapore is also the antithesis of a luddite community. Citizen data is micromanaged and high IT penetration facilitates extensive digital literacies: citizens who leave or return to the country are processed and greeted by a machine in full name; official documents can be requested via a completely online automated process that necessitates the surrender of updated profile images; the cumbersome administration of banking, insurance, tax, and other financial affairs are mediated by multi-device verifications; pedestrian crossings can be especially patient with less mobile senior citizens if only they scan their ez-link cards on a reader; young people are becoming acquainted with the newest software beginning with computer-assisted lessons in kindergarten.
These ingrained technological literacies have also fostered a high smartphone penetration rate and social media use in Singapore. In other words, given the digital footprints and tacit IT knowledge rendered increasingly compulsory for daily living, it feels more instinctive to “CSI” anyone and does not require much effort or sophistication to do so.
So it’s not that surprising, then, that public shaming viral videos are a dime a dozen in modern-day Singapore. But how did we get here?
Initial call-outs of public shaming incidents are usually first posted by everyday, ordinary citizens. But the ecology of internet-shaming networks in Singapore is intricate and diverse. This usually comprises key gatekeepers and content amplifiers, such as prolific social media users and accounts that have the ability to spread content far and wide. Also involved are a host of digital and traditional media stakeholders who are simultaneously vying for the transient attention spans of browsing eyeballs – these include for-profit entertainment websites (such as Mothership) and crowd-sourced submissions on mainstream media pages (such as STOMP).
In the last few years, a protocol of trend-making has emerged organically among such “virality amplifiers” in the local internet landscape. Singular social media posts are usually uploaded by ordinary citizens on their personal accounts, on citizen-journalism tabloid site STOMP, or on one of a few popular forums including Sammyboy, Hardware Zone, Flowerpod, and Cozycot. In the late 2000s, some of this content would be picked up by tabloid print newspaper, The New Paper, as feature stories. But by the early 2010s, organic digital media groups were taking over.
In the wake of internet vernacular and creative formats such as memes, humour-based Facebook groups run by hobbyists would fan the flames of selected content to virality through strategies including comical meme-making, challenges to followers to “CSI” the protagonists, or antagonistic calls for public repentance. The most prominent of these groups was parody Facebook page SMRT Ltd (Feedback), which evolved from a for-laughs group of trolls, to vigilante internet activists, to an advertorial platform, to a for-hire competitive intelligence service provider. While the SMRT Ltd (Feedback) witch hunts were often political in nature, other competing Facebook pages such as SGAG maintained a more lighthearted and jocular tone, choosing only to meme apolitical content within the out-of-bounds (OB) markers of official Singapore dogma.
By the mid-2010s, young people who were prolific enough to earn money on social media through advertising peaked as micro-celebrities and Influencers. Tabloid news websites began wrestling for these new advertising dollars by integrating paid ads on their platforms, and the distinction between non-monetised and sponsored content became difficult to ascertain. As such, viewership from their coverage on public shaming controversies could earn them a sizable revenue. This incentive thus motivated for-profit websites to innovate with how they instigated, framed, and prolonged incidents of public shaming. Entities like Mothership, Must Share News, and Vulcan Post mine social media for potential shaming content as fodder, often produced by the free labour of internet users (which is unevenly reciprocated with scant backlinks or namedrops to their original posts). Such sites milk the life cycle of transient viralities by breathlessly producing updates on the smallest of details in new posts, each with their unique URLs in order to maximise viewer traffic and thus ad revenue. This only serves to extend the longevity of public interest and register clickthroughs as “user engagement”. For instance, the “Toa Payoh couple” fiasco spawned at least 15 different posts with unique URLs for Mothership, which claims on its ABOUT page to have at least “180,400 page views daily”.
But the internet climate wasn’t always like this in Singapore. In the early 2000s, popular social issue bloggers such as mrbrown (Kinmun Lee) and Yawning Bread (Alex Au) were respected public opinionators who wrote thought-provoking commentaries on similarly viral incidents (such as the 2006 debacle where 18-year-old Ms Wee Shu Min, the daughter of a then-Member of Parliament, published scathing elitist comments in a viral blog post). However, their approach was rarely to shame a specific individual, but to open up dialogue for making sense of such bad behaviour. Where posts carrying such community-oriented commentary served as important digital platforms and ad hoc forums for internet users to trade words and rhetorical fists, the likes of for-profit tabloid-esque platforms such as Mothership pander to the logic of clickbait and sensationalism, scraping the bottom of the barrel for web traffic and ad revenue.
And so the ecology of public shaming progressed as a semblance of public activism intertwined with for-profit clickbait. Located somewhere between the justice-oriented, crowd-sourced “citizen journalism” and the praxis of accumulating social and financial capital from viewership is the digital portal STOMP. A seething hotbed of public shaming, the platform is so prolific and influential that it has come to shape and even govern much of public shaming culture on the Singapore internet.
Peer Surveillance is the New Citizen Journalism
STOMP – which stands for Straits Times Online Mobile Print – is a citizen journalism web aggregator owned by the Singapore Press Holdings Ltd, the anchor state-owned media corporation in the country. Founded in 2006, its tagline “SHOWING YOU THE REAL SIDE OF SINGAPORE” encouraged users to submit content via e-mail, WhatsApp, and phone calls.
For a long time, STOMP categorised its user-generated content as “Singapore Seen,” in which users submitted contentious pictures and accounts spotted by chance; “Reallife,” in which users shared first-person accounts of personal challenges or achievements; and “Testimonials,” in which the site archived gratitude from citizens who used the free platform for their personal appeals. STOMP is over a decade old, and some of these categories have been retired (“Reallife”) or pushed into positions of less prominence on the website (“Testimonials”). Nevertheless, these aspects of the portal remain active, and remind us that public sharing culture is much celebrated and valued in the local internet sphere. Public shaming culture via “Singapore Seen,” in particular, is the most popular and curated category, comprising surveillance-propelled sub-channels such as “Caught in the act” and “Drivers from hell”.
The headlines from a random selection of articles from May 2017 demonstrate the extent to which borderline unethical snooping, competitive moral highgrounding, and the fetishisation of visual documentation through smartphone cameras constitute the norms of peer surveillance on STOMP: “Dear lorry driver on CTE, perhaps you should consider tying up your furniture more securely before driving off”; “Woman in her 30s injured after accident with police van along Havelock road”; “Vivian Hsu spotted with husband and baby at Founder Bak Kut Teh’s Jalan Sultan outlet”; “Making out in public: How far is too far?”; “Restaurant employee pushers rubbish into passenger lift at Downtown East”…
Careless drivers are humiliated through a full display of their license plates and vehicle makes; injured commuters are photographed like caged spectacles in a zoo; faux pas by individual service staff are generalised as bad corporate culture; young people’s bodies and social relations are policed and disciplined into eternal chastity; public figures are motion tracked and robbed of their transient city-life anonymities. In the age of mobile devices and compulsive cataloguing, the most banal of scenes hold the potential to be spun into the next viral thing. In exchange for a SGD50 eye-witness reward, anyone with a camera phone and bone to pick and become a “citizen journalist” with an instant upload.
STOMP culture has cemented its place in the everyday vernacular of Singaporeans, as citizens in public spaces echo the refrains “later you kena stomp”, “tio stomp liao”, “people stomp you then you know” as forms of lateral surveillance and peer control against potentially bad behaviour. In particular on public commutes, strings of exhausted National Servicemen in uniform and seemingly able-bodied youth have been photographed and shamed for occupying the Reserved Seating in MRT cabins, then left to fend for themselves once their identities are exposed on social media.
Public shaming on STOMP has inevitably culminated in a culture of self-policing, an atmosphere of anxiety over visibilising one’s rightful claims to concessions, and fraught discussions about the equal rights to commuters to public seating. According to contemporary folklore, National Service men have since been instructed not to be seated if in uniform during their MRT rides, in order to protect the image of the Singapore Army as constantly vigilant. On forums, commuters debate about ableism in STOMP culture where a hierarchy of visible disability has to be negotiated, and then the disability conspicuously performed in order for one to stake rightful claim over a Reserved Seat. Although viral Facebook posts have also recounted kind-hearted commuters inviting foreign workers to take vacant seats in relatively empty train cabins, these incidents reveal some of society’s internalised social cues and stigma, such as when foreign workers admit they feel less deserving of seats on public transport than local Singaporeans do.
For all the social conditioning it has evoked, productive or not, the allure of virtue-signalling induced celebrity has also seduced aspirational vigilantes to fabricate recounts of social injustice and controversy. In June 2012, in an attempt to call out the transport corporation of negligence, a 23-year-old staff member at STOMP passed off a photograph she found on Twitter as her own and concocted a tale about how she boarded an MRT cabin with malfunctioning doors. Shortly after, she was exposed and fired from her post and Singapore Press Holdings issued an official apology to train carrier SMRT Corporation. In March 2014, a STOMP contributor posted a viral photograph of a uniformed NS man asleep in a train cabin seat while an elderly lady looked on. The image was discovered to be doctored to omit the vacant seats around the young man, most likely with the intention to incite public outrage against him.
In the wake of these incidents, in 2014, a www.change.org petition to close down STOMP was submitted to the Singapore Press Holdings with over 24,000 signatures. Despite promises, in interviews with its own newspapers, to review the STOMP system, Singapore Press Holdings eventually maintained the web portal. In an interview with The Straits Times, the Media Development Authority responded that they would only intervene with internet content should there be a “breach of public interest of the promotion of racial and religious hatred or intolerance”. And thus, STOMP continued to thrive in the media ecology of Singapore. A public space of private peoples then becomes the permanent panopticon of voluntary, yet inescapable, peer policing. Funny how despite the myriads of people who play the shame game, ultimately there are no identifiable faces or names for us to blame.
Staging the “Leaked” Aesthetic
As evidenced by the aspirations to celebrity by playing internet vigilante, public shaming almost always guarantees a hungry, watchful audience. In fact, so enticing is the craft that young people with savvy digital literacies began to craft exposés of themselves, creating a profit to boot.
In this topography, the private has collapsed into the public, the personal is harassed into the political, and peers are pressured into becoming social policemen. And so it becomes that revelations of the secret usually unseen are perceived as taboo but intriguing all the same. As evidenced by the allure and longevity of STOMP, the hidden-cam vigilante call-out seduces an audience – and Influencers soon made a market of it.
In August 2011, a low-resolution video-recording featuring a local Influencer known as ThyDowager engaging in a “cat fight” surfaced on YouTube. ThyDowager had apparently caught her boyfriend with another woman on the street, and was filmed confronting him and the third party at a taxi stand. The anonymous uploader then took to several forum threads asking users for suggestions of “compensation” demands in exchange for removing the video. In one particularly hyper masculine forum, users responded with colloquial onomatopoeia such as “piak piak” (implying sex) and colloquial acronyms such as “BJ” (denoting blow jobs).
These threads circulated widely on the internet as pseudonymous commentators egged on the protagonist while condemning ThyDowager for her bad decorum. Other Influencers also took to writing about the incident to cash in on viral web traffic. Five days later, a second video was posted by the same uploader, this time appearing noticeably more intentional. The video begins with ThyDowager entering a house and swiftly proceeding to kneel in front of a man’s crotch. As she slowly takes to undoing his belt and zipper, viewers are soaked in anticipation and agony, contemplating if she will actually proceed with the sextortion on camera.
But just as quickly as this sex scene unfolded, ThyDowager suddenly gazes into the camera, breaking the fourth wall, and enthusiastically chirps a la a game show host: “But that is not the way to solve your relationship problems!” It is then revealed that the Influencer was promoting a “traffic light” dating party for singles, at which people feeling trapped in their current relationships could simply break up with their partners and meet new people, instead of putting up with fights (as in the first video) and sexual favours as blackmail (as in the second video). The public had mixed reactions to this revelation: some totally dismissed ThyDowager for her crass attempt while others applauded her for instigating such a memorable controversy, and thus effective advertisement for the event. Thus the “leaked” aesthetic became canon as clickbait, and clients and sponsored turned to co-opt the genre of public shaming.
A year later, on 26 November 2012, a video clip titled “Holly Jean caught in bed with Ang Moh man” was posted on YouTube, featuring Influencer and sex columnist Holly Jean in close-ups with a man whose face was blurred out. The clip featured the couple in half-dress on the couch, playfully conversing about what and how they intended to film the sexual act that would follow. They are seen pressed up against each other, simulating sex, passionate kissing, and sounds of arousal, alongside more lingering upon Holly’s aroused facial expressions. In the heat of the sensual moaning, she is heard muttering “PS: I love you”.
In the days that followed, internet users, fellow Influencers, and several popular threads on internet forums indulged in lengthy discussions of the incident, while Holly remained uncharacteristically silent on social media. After six days, an extended clip entitled “The full version – Leaked Holly Jean Sex Tape” was released on YouTube, revealing that the whole affair had been sponsored by Durex to promote their “PS: I love you” campaign. In her lengthy disclosure, Holly wrote, “[…] I think it’s a great way to get the attention of the youths […] this message is more likely to ‘stick’ than merely preaching the importance of playing safe […]”. True enough, the weeklong controversy generated a good momentum of conversation, including compliments and criticism, around young people and sex and the creativity of self-shaming sex bait.
And so, public shaming had evolved further from the peer surveillance of internet forums to the amplified moral highgrounding on STOMP, and then into a self-directed publicity strategy. Although the aesthetics of such calibrated amateurism was especially alluring, the trope soon accumulated saturation fatigue and did not remain novel for long. Though self-shaming Influencers faded out, anonymous shame police took their place, this time as an organised force.
Public Shaming as Vigilante Activism
Parody Facebook page SMRT Ltd (Feedback) first debuted in 2011 as a satirical version of Singapore’s primary public transport operator, SMRT Corporation Ltd. In response to the first of a string of MRT disruptions beginning in December 2011, the page solicited and catalogued disgruntled commuter feedback through Facebook updates resembling officious announcements. For instance, one of the earliest posts on the original Facebook page read: “Dear all, if you are walking along the tunnel, for your safety, please listen to the directions of all the SMRT stations officials. Walk slowly and do not rush. And please do not pee on the tracks.
Despite their sarcastic twists, the linguistic cues of SMRT Ltd (Feedback)’s trolling proved to be too subtle for internet users who lacked the digital literacy to discern of corroborate the legitimacy of officialdom. On the Facebook page, many commentators expressed disbelief at the transport operator’s unprofessionalism – “Is this page even operated by SMRT?” – while still others sincerely called out the state’s apparent complacency in its governance – “Oligopoly Entity. Why Singapore, why?” In a display of inertia and perhaps resistance, to contemporary user experience, the official SMRT entity issued a separate post on Facebook instructing followers to use their website (smrt.com.sg) to drop them “an official note” as the primary mode of feedback. Rather than co/opt commuter feedback voluntarily streaming in on the parody page or inviting comments via their official Facebook page, SMRT added: “Any other Facebook page asking for feedback will not be recognised by the company”. More curiously, the official state arm also did not curtail the parody page, thus allowing commuter misrecognition to continue and providing more fodder for troll antics.
A turning point for parody group SMRT Ltd (Feedback) arrived in January 2014, when a pseudonymous “Heather Chua” posted a viral Facebook update demeaning an unnamed ITE graduate with a “poor family background” for his supposedly incompatible and illogical ‘marry up’ to a woman from “Raffles Girls”, who possessed a company, expensive car, and an “MBA from Cornell”. The group CSI-ed “Heather Chua” in under two days, revealing their gender, place of work, residential address, recreational pursuits, and mobile number. SMRT Ltd (Feedback) also invited followers of the saga to partake in the trolling, if they were so inclined. “Heather Chua” was later revealed to be a 22-year-old man and was under investigation by the police.
This harmonised vigilante activism peaked again in November 2014, when the page picked up a viral video of a tourist kneeling and weeping for his refund in a Sim Lim Square phone shop known as Mobile Air. In a movement the page dubbed “#OpsAirKangKang” (translation: Operation Air Job), the anonymous admins behind SMRT Ltd (Feedback) CSI-ed shop owner Jover chew, who had scammed the tourist. They pranked him with home deliveries of pizzas, published provocative photos of him in bed, charged him to refund the customers he had scammed, and raised funds to reimburse the tourist for his loss.
In an interview with Vulcan Post, SMRT Ltd (Feedback) asserted: “We didn’t plan to be involved in any vigilante activities but […] no authoritative figure has rise [sic] up to take concrete action. We filled that gap.” While it is impossible to verify this intent without personal consultation with the entire group, it is evident through numerous comments on the Facebook page that users were inspired and invigorated by this new form of active social justice unfolding before them. Many commentators lamented the lack of intervention from the authorities and appeals for SMRT Ltd (Feedback) to deal with subsequent “villains” poured in. Indeed, the group’s highly publicised intervention and nail-biting updates eventually prompted the state to respond by arresting Jover Chew, and regulating and penalising errant shop owners in the now-notorious Sim Lim Square mall.
By August 2015, at the height of Influencer commerce and after several exposés by the Facebook page, one of the key stakeholders of SMRT Ltd (Feedback), known as Azly J. Nor, strategically outed himself. Besides publicising the group’s history, he also offered the group’s new barrage of services including “viral content”, “native marketing”, “Influencer marketing”, and “online vigilantism” – formally institutionalising virality via public shaming as a marketing strategy.
We, the Shame Police of Singapore
The latest iteration of public shaming in Singapore is call-out culture, usually initiated by prominent social media users. Such instigators include those with a niche following or sizable audience, or those who have some form of mainstream media celebrity that translates to a public profile in digital spaces on the internet.
A call-out is usually a public declaration that one has experienced or interpreted offense, whether this be personally experienced, or vicariously outraged and championed on behalf of an imagined other. This declaration of displeasure operates as a compass for moral highgrounding, wherein instigators, supporters, and challengers shape the boundaries of compliments, compliance, criticism, and critique.
Call-out instigators are anchored on various social media and adopt the cultural norms of each platform to reach their audience. Prominent on Facebook is playwright Alfian Sa’at, whose lengthy status updates, both witty and poetic, brim with ethnographic description and personal reflections on racial and religious politics in Singapore. On Twitter, multi-author accounts such as The Local Rebel incisively string together 140-character posts detailing the latest legal infractions or breach of socio-cultural norms in society. Elsewhere on her personal blog and several digital media outlets, freelance journalist Kirsten Han sheds light on human rights issues including the rights of foreign labour and the death penalty. With their digital savvy and social media literacy, such call-out instigators become opinion leaders to whom the internet masses turn for commentary and direction whenever an incident occurs.
Yet, despite the great potential and impact of such initiatives, many other internet users seemingly partake in call-out culture only because they have been seduced by the prospect of transient virality and celebrity, and in their attempts fall short and even jeopardise the cause of public social justice.
The two misfires on STOMP described earlier are keen examples of such misdirected senses of justice. Most recently in July 2017, a man was accused in a viral Facebook post of taking an upskirt photo on the MRT. With over 800 reactions, a caption in Chinese loosely translated to “Pervert. What his phone is secretly recording will anger you.” As it turned out, at that time no hard evidence was discovered in the viral video or otherwise, but the man had been identified as a schoolteacher and verbally attached by hordes of Facebook users. In response to the incident, the Singapore Kindness Movement asserted in an interview with Channel News Asia that there is “a risk of the public becoming overzealous“, and that in light of Singapore’s “very good police force”, witnesses should make a police report rather than post call-outs or publicly shame online.
However, interventions by the police only function if the public violations being called out deal with clearly defined legality. As evidenced by the enthusiastic supporters of public shaming instigators, from SMRT Ltd (Feedback) to Alfian Sa’at, call-out culture today has evolved to address the more illegible and fuzzy terrain on social-cultural issues, including racism, sexism, and ableism, to name a few. These actions target community incidents that do not clearly fall under the jurisdiction of the law, but are micro-interventions with the potential to enact change based on open, active, and cordial dialogues online.
In its present day incarnation, call-out culture in Singapore is a compassing of personal politics, an attempt towards soliciting like-minded others through Likes and Retweets and, very often, a herding of oneself into the correct crowd of social justice ethicists. More valuable and sustainable intervention feels outsourced to everyone but no one in particular, broadcasting an externalised sense of responsibility to unspecified others, since the labour of instigation is achievement in and of itself. But this dynamic only functions as a self-sustaining mechanism if it remains what media theorists refer to as “lateral surveillance”, or the mutual watching and policing by equals in a neutral setting. What happens when the powers that be attempt to use the vocabulary of social media to partake in public shaming?
In June 2017, Minister of Home Affairs and Law, K Shanmugam, published a Facebook post to name and shame a Facebook user for gloating over the death of a Traffic Police officer. While other state officials, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Member of Parliament Baey Yam Keng, have used their official social media accounts to highlight the good deeds and achievements of citizens worthy of praise, publicly naming and shaming an individual ahead of official news coverage on the incident is a rare occurrence. In his emotive post, Minister Shanmugam cited being “deeply upset and angry” over the perpetrator, Thomas: “People like Thomas are sick in the head. No decency or any sense of right and wrong […] You wonder what human decency people like Thomas have – to be so self-centred, smug and making nasty remarks about an officer who died doing his duty […]”.
Unlike the anonymous forum posters, the concealed vigilantes of SMRT Ltd (feedback), the opinion leaders a la bloggers like mrbrown and journalists like Kristen Han, and the everyday ordinary citizens on Facebook, Minister Shanmugam speaks from a position of relative power and authority. The Facebook account from which he posted is an official outlet for this public ministerial persona to disseminate information and interact with the citizenry. To call out the perpetrator on social media through his public portfolio, instead of making a statement through the “proper” channels of the press, seems to imply that Minister Shanmugam tacitly endorses call-out culture and pressure through social policing. Moreover, as a bystander, the Minister is not seeking redress from the perpetrator, but rather, using his position of authority to parade ill-behaviour in a didactic opportunity to cultivate a chilling effect against other would-be perpetrators.
More pressingly, given the tight censorship of the media and political critics in Singapore, spaces on the internet are the rare few public domains where citizens can air some dissidence and grievance. Yet this incident of a Minister loud-hailing into a platform traditionally peer-governed by equal citizens comes across as a disruption of citizens’ lateral surveillance and an intrusion by the censorious state. Should such despotic call-out practices become more common or even become the norm on social media, lateral surveillance could insidiously give way to a super-imposed hierarchy of moral assessment and blame assignment, according to one’s relative position in society. Consequently, the democratic potential of using spaces on the internet to seek redress where the state apparatus has come up short withers away and stifles valuable spaces for public negotiation and meaning-making.
Progressive Internet Vernaculars
The early days of internet forum shaming opened discussions of OB marking; the peer surveillance of STOMP policing made it common for the mundane minutiae of life to become fodder for public shaming; influencers professionalised the aesthetic of the “leaked” tape to feed viewer voyeurism; parody vigilante justice internet users canonised the glory days of social justice witch hunts, but eventually succumb to the institution of the market.
And so, here we are, at the next iteration of public shaming culture in Singapore, where internet users in their self-fashioning via digital literacies, linguistic acrobatics, social justice passions, vicarious offence, and call-out culture, renegotiate the promiscuous and the permissible of local internet culture. And while the previous iterations of public shaming wax and wane with time, they continue to inculcate generations of internet-literate Singaporeans with the different forms and functions of calling out on the internet; hordes of middle-aged Singaporeans still continue the legacy of public shaming on various internet forums today. The difference among the new cohort of internet vigilantes is that they are increasingly young, vocal, and aware, and equipped with instigative vocabulary to mobilise networks of support and initiate change through prolific and self-branded social media accounts. Best if the tone is drenched in didacticism, humour, sarcasm, or whatever aesthetic appeals to the subculture of the moment, since virality almost always registers impact, if not through action then at least through awareness.
Ultimately, better static than stasis, better fight than sloth. Productive frictions, righteous anger, and the public allies are beginning and will continue to invigorate discourse and values through capillaries of passionate and community-minded internet users – as long as the state allows these public spaces to grow organically.