SINGAPORE: Cyberspace may be next front in fight against racism

Tolerance advocates say Internet forums and chatrooms are effective ways to promote peace between groups

The Straits Times
Thursday, September 15, 2005

By Chua Hian Hou and Serene Luo

Two advocacy groups are considering taking their message of racial tolerance online, as debate continues over Monday's charging of two Internet users with making seditious and inflammatory remarks about Muslims.
 
The Inter-Racial Confidence Circles (IRCCs) are usually based within specific constituencies. They organise forums and visits to places of worship and hand out brochures and CDs to educate people living in their estates about different cultures.

But the arrests of Nicholas Lim, 25, and Benjamin Koh, 27, could have provided them with the motivation to move their work into cyberspace.

Mr Abdul Mutalif Hashim, chairman of Choa Chu Kang's IRCC, said the Internet might be a better way for their message to reach young people. At the moment, he admitted, the groups are mostly made up of the 'older generation'.

Pasir Ris East's IRCC chairman Ameerali Abdeali agreed that Internet forums and chatrooms could provide a useful vehicle to promote racial tolerance.

'Many people can be shy to speak up in person at live forums, but in these places you don't have to be worried about being embarrassed,' he said. 'It's definitely something to consider.'

The general mood among Internet users towards online hate-mongering, however, is already one of condemnation - and many were not surprised that the authorities have started charging suspected offenders.

Popular online writer Lee Kin Mun, aka Mr Brown, pointed out: 'Anyone who grows up in Singapore knows that making racist remarks is unacceptable, whether you write it on a piece of paper or online.

But he added: 'Internet users have yet to realise they will be held accountable for their actions online - that lesson hasn't sunk in yet.'

Now that two people have been charged, Mr Lee said he hopes Internet users will finally realise that online forums and Internet diaries, or blogs, are public in nature.

But the moderator of Doggie-Site, the pet lovers' forum where one of the two men allegedly began posting racist remarks, was not convinced Singapore's Internet users will heed this lesson.

'This will make Internet users more circumspect for maybe a while - then the same thing will happen again when people forget.'

Mr Benjamin Lee, better known as Mr Miyagi in his online journal, pointed out that online hate-mongering is not very common here.

'There are a few stupid comments here and there, but these are usually quickly drowned out by the majority of Internet users who won't tolerate such remarks,' he said.

In the light of this case, some users said they would prefer the Government to allow the online community to try policing itself, by deleting offensive content and banning offenders.

And self-policing clearly works for some blogs.

About two months ago, a racist blog called Holocaust II, which advocated racial genocide, was removed by its Singaporean creator after it was deluged by thousands of angry comments.

Others have been alarmed by the authorities' ability to track down individuals who post offensive comments.

At the Sammyboy forum, one user who went by the moniker 'air39' was so worried about being traced he decided to quit the forum altogether.

Mr Benjamin Lee said: 'People will be searching their blogs for potentially sensitive comments and removing them.'

The charging of Lim and Koh has also sparked a debate about freedom of expression, with several users bemoaning Singapore's tough laws. But, in fact, several countries already have strict controls in place to combat online hate-mongering, including France, Germany and Malaysia.

Mr Arun Mahizhnan, deputy director of the Institute of Policy Studies, said: 'There might be a dampening effect on expression online, but if that effect is on those people spreading religious and racial hatred, it's a good thing.'