SINGAPORE: The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has grabbed headlines worldwide with seething protestors, police violence and fiery rhetoric. According to news site Axios, US media coverage of the protests eclipsed that of the COVID-19 pandemic in late May.
The tragic death of George Floyd’s death aside, BLM is the story of a decades-long struggle in the US. It is a struggle for equality against the backdrop of societal indifference and apathy, and a not-so-distant history of racial segregation.
It is also a struggle over narratives. The Trump administration, struggling to frame a coherent response to the pandemic, has painted BLM protestors as anarchists, violent left-wing thugs and antifa militants.
This in turn has mobilised far-right communities who see their nation as being in peril, such as conspiracy theory group QAnon or the anti-government Boogaloo movement.
GROWING CANCEL CULTURE
Just as what is happening in the US is not just about racial injustice, BLM protests across the globe from London to Tokyo encompass multiple strands of ideologies.
Consider the UK. There is some righteous indignation in the desire to take down statues of colonialist Cecil Rhodes, and merchant and slave trader Edward Colston.
These stand for something some in society cannot tolerate any longer, and echo developments across the Atlantic where US protestors have been targeting historical symbols, such as statues of Confederate generals.
There seems to be a pent-up desire among protesters to effect tangible change. But while research suggests a majority support removing statues of slave traders like Colston, these are not underpinned by strong public understanding and awareness of institutional racism and other social issues.
I would argue this clarion call for action – despite a weak grasp of underlying issues – is part of what’s called “cancel culture”: A confrontational way of thinking tied to a perceived offence.
Concerned with the direction society seems to be heading towards, 153 writers and intellectuals, including JK Rowling and Noam Chomsky, have signed an open letter against “a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favour of ideological conformity”.
The groundswell of support for BLM may be just as much about the present polarisation of societies as it is about the past.
THE LOSS OF HOPE
Second, we should acknowledge that a seemingly monolithic group supporting a particular position can have multiple motivations within.
On Jun 13, BLM protesters and counter-protesters – including far-right nationalists and football thugs – clashed in London. Some of the latter group (who were joined by military veterans) claimed they were protecting British culture and its historical monuments, after BLM protesters vandalised Winston Churchill’s statue by branding him a racist.
Others who oppose the removal of statues have some sympathy for the anti-racism message of BLM, but feel the toppling of statues is political correctness gone mad.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, many young people felling statues have only an indistinct idea as to what or who should be put back on the plinth.
This is an age without heroes. For the young generation, this is an age of political failure.
Leaders around the world have observed that many youths, especially those from the West, are experiencing a fundamental loss of hope.
There is a feeling among protesters in the US and other democratic countries that political institutions and elites are failing them, and that society lacks fairness.
Not seeing change take place quickly enough (if at all), they seek to take their message outside the formal channels and processes of democratic society.
READ: Commentary: 2019 was a year of global unrest and rising inequality. 2020 is likely to be worse
BLM AS A SPARK
All this resentment would have ignited at some point. BLM has been a spark, certainly, but it has been further inflamed by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, with the resulting loss of jobs and income in all likelihood playing a further role in driving youth to the streets.
An added accelerant – without which large protest activity would have been impossible – is social media. Apps popular with youth like TikTok and Instagram have a virality and amplification quotient that Facebook does not.
Others, like Whatsapp and Telegram, aid the decentralised organisation of protests that escape law enforcement surveillance and enabled demonstrations to spread and scale more rapidly than ever.
READ: Commentary: Why are Chinese officials acting like Internet trolls and entertaining online fights with the US?
Many BLM activists and protests have the courage of their convictions. But there is a deeper mechanism at work.
Many, trying to cope from the anxieties of the modern age, are seeking personal meaning. Some protest and nothing more will be heard of them.
But at the extreme ends of the spectrum, the COVID-19 lockdown is an incubator for violent behaviour.
Impressionable individuals in lockdown may be spending more time in front of their screens, delving deep – perhaps too deep – into inflammatory material. Experts on violent extremism have begun to point out that more people may going down the rabbit hole of radicalisation in the time of coronavirus.
THE KNOCK-ON EFFECTS IN ASIA
Globally, the protests have served as a centrifuge for solidarity, introspection and pushback. Many struggle in Asia, particularly the less well off, but I would suggest that the fundamental loss of hope is not something seen across the board, nor has this inflected BLM-related activity in the region.
Real world and online protests in Asia have had their own local nuances and complexities – but most are without the loutishness of some protests in the West.
The Philippines, historically tied to the US, had its own issues with police brutality. BLM has brought the focus back to President Rodrigo Duterte's anti-drug war and its human toll. There have been comparisons on social media between George Floyd and the case of Kian Delos Santos, a Filipino killed by police during an anti-drug operation three years ago in Manila.
It is noteworthy that protesters against the Duterte administration’s new anti-terror bill “took a knee” in solidarity with the BLM movement. Their main message is that the new law will curtail civil liberties and freedom of speech.
In Indonesia, the BLM-aligned movement has been largely online and has led netizens to ask questions about alleged oppression and discrimination against Papuans. The #PapuanLivesMatter hashtag gained traction on social media.
Similarly in Taiwan, some attention has come to bear on the historic treatment, seen by many as discriminatory, of the indigenous minority there.
In Japan, BLM demonstrators who took part in a march in Tokyo were a mix of foreigners and young Japanese, whose platform combined taking a stand against how minorities and black people have historically been treated, and how, in the contemporary era, foreigners still face subtle racism and discrimination.
Homogeneous societies like Japan may be on the way to a greater reckoning on issues of discrimination and subtle racism.
Things are quite different in Singapore. We are, and we say we are, multiracial and meritocratic. But there are incidents that bubble to the surface from time to time.
In the wake of recent online circulation of a photograph from 2016 showing students from a premier school in blackface, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung highlighted “acts of racial insensitivity or micro-aggression against a person of another race exist in every society, including Singapore”.
It is inevitable but positive that Singaporeans are having sometimes uncomfortable conversations about race, privilege and other previously taboo topics.
The long-term challenge for governments here and elsewhere will be to deal with this in an empathetic way. This will help nurture the next generation of changemakers and activists who want to leave a positive mark on society.
Shashi Jayakumar is the Head of the Centre of Excellence for National Security and Executive Coordinator of Future Issues and Technology at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Nanyang Technological University (NTU).