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.
Ello Ed Mundsel Bello, formerly a nurse at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, was sentenced to four months’ imprisonment on Monday after being convicted of sedition and lying to the police.
The whole saga began when he wrote a Facebook post on The Real Singapore calling Singaporeans “losers” and saying that Filipinos would take over the country and take Singaporeans’ future, women and jobs.
“REMEMBER PINOY BETTER AND STRONGER THAN STINKAPOREANS,” he said.
The episode ignited an uproar. Some Singaporeans filed police reports, while others countered with angry insults directed at both Bello and Filipinos in general. Bello was also sacked from his job at the hospital.
In delivering the sentence, District Judge Siva Shanmugam noted that local-foreigner relations had become a fraught issue in Singapore, and that “[i]n a nation whose only resource are its people, we simply cannot afford to condone any act which poses a threat to our social stability and security.”
“(His) provocative conduct, if left unchecked, could possibly result in discrimination against the innocent and law-abiding minority Filipino residents in Singapore,” the judge also said.
It’s encouraging that judge Shanmugam recognises the vulnerability of Filipinos in Singapore when it comes to discrimination, but the logic of having to severely punish Bello so as to prevent other Filipinos from becoming victims of prejudice doesn’t quite hold up.
Filipinos – and many other immigrants from developing countries such as Bangladesh or Myanmar – have been subjected to racist, classist and xenophobic discrimination and exploitation long before Bello even posted his first word on The Real Singapore.
Foreign domestic workers, many of them Filipino, are vulnerable to exploitation. They take on large debts to work in Singapore, and the live-in aspect of their employment places them in a position of disempowerment that leaves them particularly open to abuse. These domestic workers are further discriminated against by their exclusion from the Employment Act – which stipulates maximum working hours and gives workers to right, in theory at least, to challenge unfair dismissal – and are even prohibited from falling pregnant, which encourages employers to behave in ways that completely infantilises the worker.
Filipinos have also been the subject of xenophobic abuse online, at least just as bad, if not worse, than what Bello himself had said. I wrote about the use of fascist and dehumanising language during the controversy over a proposed Philippine Independence Day celebration on Orchard Road. The Philippine Embassy also had to ask the Singapore government to investigate a blog post that suggested ways to discriminate against and abuse Filipinos in Singapore, such as buying insecticide in the presence of a Filipino and suggesting it be used on them. (Whatever happened to that investigation?)
I raise these issues not to place all the blame of discrimination and prejudice on Singaporeans while absolving people like Bello of responsibility. He said a remarkably stupid thing on Facebook, and did an even stupider thing by lying to the police during their investigation. I don’t have a problem with him being charged and convicted with telling falsehoods to the police. But I don’t believe slamming Bello, or anyone for that matter, with a jail sentence for sedition will help us deal with the challenges of a local-foreigner divide.
The Sedition Act is not a good tool when it comes to dealing with fault lines in society, be they along race, religion or even nationality. While it is purportedly there to shield us from comments like those made by Bello, it also effectively shuts down rational and mature conversations by making certain subjects too sensitive to be broached with any openness and honesty. It hauls people to court and sends them to prison in the belief that such actions will be a deterrent to irrational, emotional things like racism, xenophobia and prejudice. But while such punitive action does – occasionally – remove visible elements of such sentiment from public platforms, it does little to actually address the inequalities, power imbalances and value judgements that lead to discriminatory attitudes.
Fault lines in society cannot be erased by criminalising speech. We need to go far deeper than that, to address the lack of rights and protections for foreigners and locals alike, as well as the existence of discrimination in our society, even in state policy.