Saturday, 31 March 2012

Did NUS student Sun Xu get what he deserved for online rant?

Debate rages over whether punishment for Sun Xu was adequate
By Leonard Lim & Bryna Sim, The Straits Times, 30 Mar 2012

FIRST, they wanted him punished.

But now that the National University of Singapore (NUS) has meted out the punishment to the foreign student who made derogatory comments about Singaporeans, the debate has turned to whether justice has been done.

Earlier this week, Mr Sun Xu was given an official reprimand, a $3,000 fine, and an order to do three months of community service before he can graduate.

The Chinese national's misdemeanour: He ranted on a blog post last month that there were 'more dogs than humans' in Singapore.

Some are demanding his expulsion, because of Mr Sun's status as a Ministry of Education scholarship holder and the behaviour expected of such individuals.

'It's too light. I'd have sent him home and taken away the scholarship,' said Ms Paramita Bandara, a retired principal and an educator for close to four decades.

'The punishment was a drop in the ocean. It should have been a deterrent, make it so drastic that people are warned.'

Many in the online community have also been asking for his pound of flesh.

'When other people make racist remarks, they may be liable for jail terms,' wrote Mr Sebastian Ng on a Facebook page titled 'NUS should revoke Sun Xu's scholarship'.

Those in this camp also point to last year's case involving Chinese national Wang Peng Fei.

The then 24-year-old was expelled from the private school East Asia Institute of Management for mocking Singaporeans in a four-minute video, and making racist comments against a minority ethnic group.

But some like Tampines Junior College principal Helen Choo felt Mr Sun's punishment was just. 'The school has sent a strong signal showing students that they have to be careful about what they say at all times,' she said.

Some netizens feel the same way.

Mr Ahmad Anis posted on Facebook: 'Just let him off already... we all make mistakes.'

Former Raffles Girls' School principal Carmee Lim called the punishment 'a bit heavy'. 'Maybe what he did was in a fit of anger,' she said. 'Give him another chance, and have more compassion as a society.'

NUS declined to reveal the specific deliberations that led to the verdict, but said that the seriousness of the offence and the risk of harm involved were among the factors considered.

One element that Ms Lim and others felt was missing in the punishment of the final-year engineering undergraduate, though, was counselling.

Retired school counsellor Karen Choo said: 'Counselling helps because we need to find out why the students do what they do.'

She felt that NUS could have engaged counsellors to help him with issues he may have been facing.

'Was he being bullied? Did he have some negative encounter? Or was he simply up to mischief?' she said.

Mr Hri Kumar Nair, a member of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education, agreed, saying: 'The objective must be to deal with his views.'

Yesterday, the MP for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC also posted a Facebook note on the furore surrounding Ms Shimun Lai, the Nanyang Polytechnic (NYP) student at the centre of another furore over her racist remarks about Indians.

Writing that his initial reaction to her comments was of 'anger, disgust and exasperation', he said he had also encountered racism himself through, for instance, rude remarks by schoolmates.

Ms Lai, Mr Sun and others who cross the line should not just apologise and accept punishment, Mr Nair added.

He suggested that they ought to get to know and befriend those they attacked.

'They should have an obligation to help in the healing process,' he said.

Another minority MP, Ms Indranee Rajah, also put up a Facebook post on Tuesday reflecting on the incidents.

'Ms Lai's comments were particularly hurtful to Indians, and were wrong and completely uncalled for,' she wrote, adding that she was glad, though, that the student had apologised.

Attention now turns to what sort of punishment Ms Lai will receive, especially after a police report was lodged against her for the remarks she made.

Polytechnics and universities said they have their own codes of conduct for students, with breaches resulting in warnings, fines, suspensions or expulsion.

Some, like Nanyang Technological University, have explicit rules for Internet behaviour, advising students against making derogatory, seditious or racist comments.

Ms Lai's school, NYP, sends students regular advisories to remind them to be responsible and mindful of posting insensitive comments or articles online.

Lawyers pointed out that more inflammatory comments than Ms Lai's and Mr Sun's have been made in the past. Those individuals have been convicted under the Sedition Act.

In 2005, private student Gan Huai Shi, then 17, was put on probation for two years and ordered to do 180 hours of community service with Malay organisations. He had posted racist remarks against Malays.

That year, two men were put behind bars for posting inflammatory racist and vicious remarks about Muslims and Malays. The pair, Nicholas Lim and Benjamin Koh, then 25 and 27 respectively, became the first since 1966 to be jailed under the Sedition Act and the case was viewed as a watershed moment in Internet expression.

In Ms Lai's case, lawyer Amerjeet Singh felt it was 'racial abuse' rather than outright sedition.

'She wasn't trying to bring down an entire community,' he said, referring to the fact that her comments were made in a tweet accessible only to friends.

He added that sedition usually involves making a comment to the general public which demeans a racial group and has the intention of causing racial unrest.

Lawyer Samuel Seow said material that promotes ill will and hostility between races or classes is also seditious.

Counsellors and educators said that whatever the outcome of the investigations, Ms Lai should be counselled.

Ms Rachel Tan, a volunteer in racial harmony efforts at, said: 'Help her surface the root cause of her views, and create awareness for change.'

Netizens too quick to cry foul?
By Feng Zengkun & Tessa Wong, The Straits Times, 30 Mar 2012

THE national outcry over recent offensive online postings has given observers cause to reflect on whether netizens have matured or not in their online behaviour.

Are they too quick to judge, chastise and demand justice? Where are the rational voices in such debates? What about a call to action from the ground up, rather than the usual cry to the authorities to step in?

Media experts decry the fact that after nearly two decades of being on the Internet, Singaporeans still have few spaces online for reasoned, rational debate that does not quickly degenerate into a verbal lynching.

At least two students here have faced severe repercussions after their online insults went viral. Nanyang Polytechnic student Shimun Lai, 21, whose Twitter and Facebook insults about Indians became widely circulated earlier this week, is now under police investigation after a police report was lodged.

The furore over her posts came barely hours after another student, Mr Sun Xu, 25, a Chinese undergraduate scholarship holder at the National University of Singapore (NUS), was fined $3,000, reprimanded and ordered to complete three months of community service by the university. He had made derogatory remarks about Singaporeans on a blog.

'But such offensive stuff is posted online often in other countries and there is hardly any outcry,' said Mr Shiladitya Ghosh, 19, a student.

Even in Singapore, racist insults are nothing new, said assistant professor Elizabeth Cardoza, in her late 50s, who teaches at the NUS Department of Communications and New Media.

But ironically, netizens have a lower threshold for such remarks online because the platform is more public. They are also quick to condemn because of the ease with which they can post their comments.

'These people may not be in organisations but on a social media platform, if they are agitated, unhappy or have a cause, they can raise them easily,' said Prof Cardoza.

She noted that in Mr Sun's case, other factors may have been at play. 'He was a foreigner holding a Singapore scholarship. Some people may be angry that the scholars were not vetted properly.'

But even as they are quick to cry foul, Singaporeans are loath to take up any action to redress what they see as bad behaviour. For example, online groups could have made efforts to call for a dialogue or meeting, say, between two groups - of foreigners and Singaporeans, or of Indians and Chinese.

They would rather leave it to a higher authority to act or mediate.

Many are unwilling to get personally involved when they come across such insults, said Mr Gui Kai Chong, 36, a lecturer at the NUS Department of Communications and New Media.

'They may think there is a personal cost or risk to approaching the individual privately, or that the authorities would be more effective in getting the offending person to change his behaviour,' he said.

The recent incidents have rekindled the debate on the need to regulate behaviour on the Internet, rather than rush to report any transgressions to the authorities. Some observers are advocating for a code of conduct, similar to what was mooted by Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts Yaacob Ibrahim, late last year and again this year during the Budget debate in March.

When asked by The Straits Times what this code should be like, a Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts spokesman painted it in broad strokes: that it should be a 'language of social values, developed and accepted by the community'. And every netizen should have good etiquette, and be considerate and respectful of others.

Those who are for such a code say it would lead to more constructive and rational debate online.

Mr Cheong Yip Seng, who chaired the Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society (Aims) from 2006 to 2008, said a code should encourage civility and respect for differing views, and disapprove of netizens posting blatant untruths, inflammatory statements, and personal attacks.

Professor Ang Peng Hwa, director of the Singapore Internet Research Centre, said the Government should craft the code with input from the Internet community. He proposed that the Media Development Authority appoint a panel of citizens to look into instances where the code is breached. Netizens could then turn to this panel to complain about inappropriate posts, instead of the police.

'This sort of situation needs the judgment of the community, and over time, through the panel's decisions, a social norm would be established. And it would be established by citizens, not judges,' said Prof Ang.

The code could contain a list of graduated punishments, starting from an apology for the first offence, to community service and counselling for subsequent offences. If the perpetrator is recalcitrant, he would then be referred to the police.

But website owners expressed scepticism that it would work, given the diverse voices on the Internet.

Said Ms Elaine Ee, editor of sociopolitical website Public House: 'The players in the vast and borderless online space cannot be herded to adhere to any agenda... the Internet is an open arena for a proliferation of views and exchanges.'

Mr Richard Wan, editor of Temasek Review Emeritus, noted that some sites have implemented their own codes of conduct. For example, his site removes racist, seditious or defamatory comments, and also censors some comments with expletives.

But Mr Cheong felt that while it would be difficult to enforce, a broad code would still be worthwhile, since new media is now virtually mainstream.

'Not everyone will agree to be guided by the code. But if it gains widespread support, moral pressure can conceivably change the tone of public debate online, for the better,' he said.

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