As online lynch mob targets expats, Singapore concerned about reputation
Shaming of foreigners nothing new, but worry is country's reputation could be damaged by those 'with a smartphone and an axe to grind'
Watch: A foreigner on a moped has an altercation with a Singaporean
Call them protectors of citizens or online vigilantes but you better not mess with them in Singapore – especially if you are a foreigner.
Some locals have taken to showcasing the ugly side of foreigners on the island, against a backdrop of rising xenophobia with a small but growing number of discontented citizens blaming foreigners for their daily woes – from a lack of good jobs to adding stress to existing infrastructure like public transport and housing.
The online lynch mob parade was out in full force to roast and stoke anti-foreigner sentiments on Tuesday morning when it condemned a man said to be from the UK. The man had allegedly showed a middle finger to a Singaporean motorist. The entire kerfuffle was caught on video and did the rounds on the internet.
The Caucasian man’s unverified name and the company he is said to work for were published on social media as well as on some anti-establishmentarian websites, such as The Real Singapore.
Vexed Singaporeans demanded his company give him the boot while a few, under the cyber cloak of anonymity, left racist messages online like: “He is nothing but white trash who deserves to get screwed” and “Let’s get this piece of white trash OUT!!!!”
Some though were more rational and chided others for their anti-foreigner stance, with one person leaving this message on an alternative news blog: “We are like children on a playground, running to Mother Internet for justice when called names.”
This game of ‘name-and-shame-foreigners’ is not new though.
A foreigner cyclist was involved in a road rage incident late last year when he too gave the finger to a local driver, who then uploaded the video online. Enthusiastic anti-foreigner rhetoric followed soon.
In 2012, a mechanical-engineering student from China was stripped of his scholarship and fined by Singapore’s National University of Singapore after he called Singaporeans ‘dogs’. The incident caused much anti-Mainland Chinese vitriol here.
The problem with some online vigilantism is that it can be problematic if it becomes selective.
“I have seen many people, local and foreign, make similarly rude gestures in all kinds of contexts,” said Singaporean Arti Mulchand, a former journalist and a founder of a communications consultancy. “ Take the gesture, combine that with folks itching for a ‘foreigner-related’ spoil due to all kinds of social undercurrents, add the availability of platforms that allow you to make it public and stir in a number of people willing to help spread it, and you have a recipe for disaster.”
Earlier this year, a Porsche driving British expat, Anton Casey, made international headlines when he had to run away to Perth for a while after what seemed like an entire nation, including foreigners themselves, became furious with his colourful comments berating Singaporeans. The expat, who is married to a former Singaporean beauty queen, had called those taking public transport in Singapore “poor people”. His family had apparently received death threats.
Despite all the online noise, Singapore – one of the wealthiest countries in the world – is still one of the best cities for expats. Xenophobic comments online are by a loud minority and the vast number of citizens is not against foreigners.
But there is a worry that this attitude could change or hurt Singapore’s international image.
“The combination of a smartphone and an axe to grind can be a very powerful and dangerous thing,” said Mulchand who has experience working in the digital sphere for brands. “The problem is that Singapore is small, which means things get amplified and quickly. It means people get identified and faster, and then the witch-hunt picks up even more steam.”
P N Balji, a veteran newsman who is now the editor of a new digital newspaper called The Independent Singapore, says the noise will get louder as new online sites practice a different kind of journalism.
“The genie is out of the bottle and don’t expect it to be capped in the near future,” he said. “A lot of the anger shown against foreigners in these websites is actually aimed at the government for its lax immigration policy.
“As in every society, there are the black sheep who vent their anger against a policy or against foreigners they have had unpleasant experiences with and Singapore is no exception,” he added.
Meanwhile, the new millennial culture of filming and uploading videos of those doing what they aren’t supposed to be doing is being criticised heavily by some Singaporeans.
A significant number of locals petitioned for a website called STOMP to be terminated. The site is owned by the government-linked company Singapore Press Holdings, which also runs the wealthy city-state’s most widely read English broadsheet The Straits Times.
STOMP is mainly a user-generated community news portal. Its critics say some of its content brings into question privacy issues and point to some of the usual photos, like those of commuters in public trains not giving up seats to those who need them more, as being unverified and insensitive.