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Commentary: Our unkindness on social media is a mirror to society

The vitriol against people caught doing something questionable in viral videos suggest we can do better, to withhold judgment and put ourselves in people’s shoes, says the Singapore Kindness Movement’s Willian Wan.

Commentary: Our unkindness on social media is a mirror to society

Photos of social media comments over recent viral videos. (Screengrab: Facebook)

SINGAPORE: How quickly the worm turns.

Bloomberg had declared Singapore the best place to be in during the pandemic in its COVID-19 Resilience Ranking on Apr 27.

Now, barely a month later, many in Singapore are wondering if we’re going to go into the next circuit breaker.

From thinking about staycations to spending SingapoRediscovers vouchers and looking forward to the Hong Kong-Singapore travel bubble, we are now sitting in our homes, eating takeaway food and watching our children do home-based learning.

READ: Commentary: Our juggling act with home-based learning last year was mental

READ: Commentary: Surviving home-based learning in the long haul may require parents to dial back on kiasuism


And how quickly we turn on each other. The positivism of the first few months of 2021 has morphed into a summer of discontent.

Online, videos of people who refuse to wear their masks or showing otherwise entitled anti-social behaviour have sprung up. And the comments have not been kind.

The recent talk of the town is of the woman who refused to wear a mask at Marina Bay Sands. Phoon Chiu Yoke, 53, came under investigation but this isn’t her first brush with the law over alleged maskless behaviour. She has been charged under the COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) Act for a similar act at Newton Hawker Centre in May 2020.

Screengrabs from YouTube of the woman without a mask at Marina Bay Sands.

Her case is pending but she seems to have been already convicted in the court of public opinion.

When the video of her behaviour towards a safe-distancing officer at MBS first emerged, friends of mine were caught in a swirl over her rationale.

What’s wrong with her, they asked, devoting long discussions on WhatsApp over what could possibly be her motivation.

One conclusion was we simply didn’t know enough to judge and we should let the authorities handle it.

READ: Commentary: Flaring tempers and public incidents – are we losing it because of COVID-19?

Yet online, she was dubbed “MBS Karen”, in a nod to the oft-maligned moniker given to entitled white women and flamed mercilessly.

Her details were exposed, doxxing laws notwithstanding, even before her name appeared in court papers. A casual scroll through Facebook would inadvertently see her name pop up, with some cruel comments attached.


She’s not the only one. In recent weeks, we’ve had a cruel walk of shame, with online vitriol pouring on the flavour of the week.

Before Ms Phoon was an unnamed Caucasian man who refused to wear a mask on the MRT. Before that was a man who accosted an expatriate family at Pasir Ris Park. And before that, we had Beow Tan, whose race-related rants have gone viral.

In a video seen circulating on social media, the woman is seen asking a commuter about their race. (Photo: Instagram/

And who can forget the scorn poured on Paramjeet Kaur, the woman who made that comment about being “sovereign” and was recently sentenced to two weeks’ jail and a fine?

Irrespective of their behaviours, which the laws will deal with, the brutal comments that have been heaped on them after they were named and shamed should hold up a mirror to society.

Whatever happened to empathy? When did our concern for our fellow man turn into fodder for finger-pointing and social media flaming?

READ: Commentary: We declare a goal of ending mental health stigma yet viciously mock the woman at Shunfu Market

READ: Commentary: Our approach to mental health needs to change. COVID-19 will force us to


Yes, we should call out bad behaviour – and the authorities have reacted accordingly – but before we go all in on condemning others and lashing out, let’s remember that jumping to conclusions and labelling people without adequate information does a disservice on three levels.

First, it does a disservice to the person in question.

Everyone is fighting a battle that we know not of. We only see what we see, or what they present. Why are we so quick to judge based on so little information?

To assume, as the pithy colloquialism goes, is to make a donkey’s relative out of you and me.

When reports of Ms Phoon’s case first came out, she was shamed online, doxxed and given the tabloid treatment. And everyone wagged a finger and felt superior.

Phoon Chiu Yoke leaving the State Courts on May 24, 2021. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

Then a local news outlet interviewed her dad, who said that she was a good child growing up but something happened after she came back from overseas. I hope that made some of us who were quick to condemn her feel some guilt.


Second, it does a disservice to the group of people that we label that person with.

After videos of Beow Tan, also known as “Hwa Chong woman”, emerged, suddenly alumni of the educational institute had to fend off jokes about their mental state.

Similarly, the maskless Caucasian man’s behaviour on the MRT train led to barbed comments about foreigners in Singapore.

And with Ms Phoon’s case, several online commentators have now come out to say - without proof - that she has a history of mental illness issues.

READ: Commentary: When we call people with strange behaviour mentally ill, we reinforce mental health stigma

Some think by attributing some form of challenging mental state to them, we are being empathetic but we are no psychologists. We should stop and think: Was there a doctor’s report that says so? Is your information credible?

If not, let’s not speculate. Why? Because this is a disservice to those who are genuinely going through mental health challenges.

Imagine this scenario: You have a mental wellness condition that you’re dealing with. You want to share it with your family and close friends, but when you try to open up, all they can talk about is “that woman, must be mentally ill lah” in dismissive tones. 

Would you now share about your condition, knowing they may inadvertently lump you in with what transpired with Ms Phoon?


Such nastiness also does a disservice to ourselves.

The pushback I often get is what if they really deserve it? Would I be as sanguine if, for example, I am near a maskless person who refuses to comply with the law, putting myself and my family at risk?

READ: Commentary: Some pain even as Singapore rises to the challenge of tighter COVID-19 measures

Maybe it’s time to look at yourself instead. Ask yourself, are you being too quick to judge? Keeping your distance from people, have you done enough to show empathy to others; to walk a mile in their shoes?

I’ve chosen to view the world through the lens of kindness, of giving others the benefit of the doubt.

Yes, it is not easy giving others the benefit of the doubt when a raging pandemic threatens us all but we must try.

I’ve written in the past about rehabilitative and restorative justice. I believe that everyone deserves a second chance.

It would be a shame if we didn’t even give them a first.

(Mental health groups have seen a surge in calls since COVID-19 hit. Who are the people tirelessly manning these helplines? Find out on Heart of the Matter.)


Dr William Wan is General Secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement.

Source: CNA/sl


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