Cyber-harassment in Singapore: Where to draw the line?

Singapore plans more regulation over online comments. (Getty Images)
Singapore plans more regulation over online comments. (Getty Images)

Kirsten Han is a Singaporean blogger, journalist and filmmaker. She is also involved in the We Believe in Second Chances campaign for the abolishment of the death penalty. A social media junkie, she tweets at @kixes. The views expressed are her own.

The Internet is full of vile comments. Any frequent user of social media networks and forums quickly learns about trolls. It’s no surprise, really; the internet is made up of people, and people can be arseholes.

Microsoft’s 2012 study found that out of the 25 countries surveyed, Singapore was the second-highest in terms of cyber-bullying. Harrowing accounts of cyber-stalking and harassment have emerged from other parts of the world, sometimes with truly tragic ends. I don’t think many people would agree that cyber-harassment – especially when it targets minors who have done nothing to put themselves in the public sphere – needs to be looked at.

But figuring out how to manage this issue is not easy. The Microsoft study itself recognises this when it says:

“...what is seen as cyberbullying can vary between different cultures, and even among different individuals. In addition, cyberbullying, as a term, is not recognized worldwide.”

Dealing with cyber-harassment is a matter of balancing the need to protect individuals with the important principle of free speech. With no concrete definition of cyber-bullying or harassment, it is not always clear where to draw the line.

Law Minister K Shanmugam has said that new laws against harassment will be tabled early next year. It is still unclear what exactly these new laws will say, or how broad they will be, which is exactly why this is the perfect opportunity for Singaporeans to have a real conversation over harassment and free speech in our online community.

A survey done by government feedback portal REACH has been often quoted, purported to be representative of what Singaporeans think of the need for government action on online harassment. Yet REACH had only surveyed 1,000 Singaporeans, asking them if they agreed or disagreed with certain statements.

Going on the results of the survey, what we see is a troubling picture. Over 80% of Singaporeans think that the court should have the power to take down comments or posts "if they caused distress or alarm to others". Yet "distress and alarm" is a very vague term, and seems a low bar to set in trying to combat harassment. There are many things that could be said in an argument or a debate that could "distress and alarm", yet not constitute bullying. If any potential laws were to follow such a low bar, then the blow to free speech online would be a needlessly heavy one.

The number of discussions happening online will likely increase as people turn to the Internet for news and interaction. It is obvious that we cannot pretend that nothing bad ever happens social media networks, which is why it is helpful for us to start talking about how we can juggle free speech with other competing needs. How can we protect people, especially children, while also not clamping down on free speech? Where can we draw the line without mollycoddling people from sharp words in an argument? What measures have we already got in place, and do we really need even more laws?

With any luck, the government will look to this conversation and reflect upon it as they come up with their response to this issue. This is an opportunity for us as a society to talk about what we want to see in our Singapore, not an opportunity to bring in even more regulations on public discourse.