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Fight intolerance with tolerance

Posted on Oct 9, 2012 6:14 PM Updated: Oct 17, 2012 4:39 PM

A racist remark is made, perhaps unwittingly, on social media. A disgusted Facebook friend or follower takes a snapshot. Before long, it’s gone viral and the person is in very hot water.

On Monday, former NTUC employee Amy Cheong followed in the footsteps of Shimun Lai and Jason Neo with a series of racist Facebook updates that attracted swift condemnation online.

Just like those two, Ms Cheong’s Facebook remarks about Malay weddings attracted name-calling and the lodging of a police report.

The fact that such a ferocious response from netizens is now par for course, coupled with Ms Cheong’s swift sacking by her employer NTUC, leads me to wonder if zero tolerance is really the way to go.

Is the cause of multi-culturalism in Singapore best served by throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the perpetrator?

My problem with this approach is that it doesn’t always work.

Ms Cheong is the fifth Singaporean in the past 11 months who has attracted criticism for racist postings on the Internet.

We are sending the same signal over and over again, but evidently people are still not getting it in their heads.

Secondly, I can’t help but feel that the sledgehammer approach will not get racists to re-evaluate their stereotypes. In the face of the barrage, the first lesson many will learn is not that being a racist is wrong but that being so out loud will get me flamed. So they are simply more careful about what they post online.

Prudence in what we say, whether it is online or offline, is of course something that should be encouraged in everyone. But that is not the lesson everyone was trying to impart here.

So while zero tolerance to racism is understandable given Singapore’s history with race riots and its circumstances as a small multi-racial country.

However it appears that people see it as the only way to react, which begs the question: why is there no room for us to act any differently? Why can we not meet intolerance with tolerance?

This is not to say that Ms Cheong should just be tolerated, but that our reaction to people like her shouldn’t just be limited to condemnation and ostracization. We could also behave in a way that exemplifies the tolerance we hope others could display.

For example, some have suggested that we could have done a “Curry Day” thing on her, and invited her to a Malay wedding or Malay gathering.

Sadly, these netizens appear to be in the minority, with many more choosing to flame Ms Cheong to the point that it almost became a competitive sport. Ms Cheong has since left the country.

A high-profile employer like NTUC faces its own dilemma, given its significant standing in the community.

But I wonder, instead of making her as an example of how NTUC does not tolerate racism, could it not have made her an example of how NTUC promotes racial harmony?

It could have retained Ms Cheong and given her more counselling, thereby contributing to her reformation. Not only that, it could have taken the opportunity to make this a learning lesson for all employees, perhaps by holding organisation-wide racial sensitivity talks.

That, in my view, would have sent a much stronger and more positive message.

Community policing is a good way for any group can regulate itself and teach the right values to members who do wrong.

But if it gets to the point where the wrongdoer thinks she is being unfairly bullied, then whatever lessons the community intends to impart to her will be moot.

Everyone knows what it’s like to be scolded to the point where you simply just switch off. After a while, you perceive the scolding not so much as a lesson, but more as a personal attack. You end up not learning anything.

Have we done this to Ms Cheong? I suspect so, given that in an interview with The New Paper last night she insisted that whatever she said “had nothing to do with race”.

We may have lost an opportunity in this episode. Let’s hope that if something similar happens again, we as a community can send the right signal.