Man jailed for racially offensive tweets under pseudonym 'Sharon Liew'

Man jailed for racially offensive tweets under pseudonym 'Sharon Liew'

Zainal Abidin Shaiful Bahari at the State Courts on Jul 2, 2020.
Zainal Abidin Shaiful Bahari was charged in court on Jul 2, 2020 over stoking racial tensions online under the pseudonym "Sharon Liew". (Photo: Hanidah Amin)

SINGAPORE: A man who made racially offensive tweets under a pseudonym "Sharon Liew" was jailed for three weeks on Tuesday (Jun 8).

Zainal Abidin Shaiful Bahari, 35, pleaded guilty to two charges each of committing acts he knew was prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony between different racial groups. Another two similar charges were considered in sentencing.

His lawyers claimed that he was "not a racist" and that he was taking over a "parody account" and "overstepped the mark" while "trying to be funny".

District Judge S Jennifer Marie said that race and religion are sensitive issues and would-be offenders must realise that careless remarks have the potential to cause social disorder.

"Further, when such remarks are published with the medium of the Internet, they have the ubiquitous reach and therefore amplify the potential and irreversible harm that could be caused to ... peace and racial harmony."

She added that racial tensions have been heightened by the continued pandemic and a strong deterrent signal must be sent.

The court heard that Zainal was a senior director at a computer software company. A member of the public called the police in April 2020 after seeing a tweet by the user sharonliew86 condemning Indian immigrants in relation to COVID-19.

Zainal was identified and police investigations revealed that he had set up the Twitter account in July 2018 with two other friends.

It was meant to be a parody account and had more than 5,000 followers, but the posts by Zainal's two friends stopped from early 2019.

Zainal took over sole control of the account. In April 2020 he posted racially offensive tweets, including slurs to Indians. In March 2020 he also posted that "smart Chinese" women have done social distancing inside the MRT by not wanting to sit next to Indians.

He also made an offensive tweet in October 2019 about the educational standard of Malays.

The prosecutor called for four weeks' jail, saying there was a clear need for general deterrence, especially in the current climate where tensions in the community have been heightened and strained by exceptional pandemic circumstances.

Lawyer Sunil Sudheesan asked instead for three weeks' jail, saying that every action by his client must be viewed "in the proper context".

"He's not a racist, obviously," said Mr Sudheesan. He and his colleague Diana Ngiam said Zainal is married to a Chinese woman and has racially diverse friends.

Mr Sudheesan said everyone who followed the account knew it was a parody, and things could have become inflamed when people who did not know the intention of certain tweets forwarded them.

"Our client is very sorry for this. He should have anticipated this," he said.

The prosecutor responded that Zainal had well crossed the line.

"This was not parody, this was not satirical behaviour, this was simply the actions of an online troll who was provoking others ... This is really not acceptable," he said.

Judge Jennifer Marie told Zainal that the language used in his tweets were in bad taste.

"If you had really valued racial and cultural diversity, you should have appreciated all the more the need to preserve ... sensitivities given the multi-cultural fabric of Singapore," she said.

For each charge of committing an act prejudicial to racial harmony, Zainal could have been jailed up to three years, fined, or both.

The Attorney-General’s Chambers said in a statement after the hearing that it takes "a serious view of words or conduct which wound the racial feelings of any person or prejudices our racial harmony and community relations". 

"Offenders who commit such acts will be dealt with firmly," they said.

Source: CNA/ll(rw)

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