Let’s be slow to offend, slow to take offence

February 03, 2015

WHEN Filipino nurse Ello Ed Mundsel Bello working in Singapore posted racist remarks about Singaporeans, social media erupted in concerted objection.

This happened around the time of the shooting at French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo last month. In the wake of that tragedy, both local and international media sought to unpack a “fundamental tenet” of democracy – the freedom of speech.

In Singapore, we stand by a definition of free speech that excludes inflammatory and hate-filled elements. We support the idea that free speech should be both responsible and fair.

Unfortunately, the line that separates fair from free is not always easy to draw.

As a matter of social etiquette, we are taught to avoid giving offence, particularly in our Asian context. However, because of different degrees of sensitivity, it is unsurprising that some of our thoughts may be offensive to others. Even perfectly innocent statements may inadvertently offend.

But should we stop expressing ourselves for fear that someone, somewhere might take offence?

We cannot use indignation arising from oversensitivity alone as a measure of what should or shouldn’t be expressed.

All conversation is a two-way street. Just as we should strive not to give offence, we should also apply the effort not to take offence too easily.

This was the point made by former Nominated MP Calvin Cheng on his Facebook page. His words may have been too blunt and provocative for some, but the reaction illustrated his point perfectly – many were insulted and have savaged him.

Why did we take offence at a hypothetical insult? Could it be that we chose to be insulted? Have we somehow come to enjoy, even revel in, playing the role of the victim?

Recently, another group of offended “victims” took to social media to protest against the upcoming Singapura: The Musical, a story about the lives and struggles of Singapore’s journey toward independence. As it happened, the composer and lyricist behind the musical are Filipinos.

We rightly objected to Mr Bello’s racist social media posts. Should we not equally object to the offensive racism demonstrated by these protesters?

Singapore is turning 50 this year, and I wish for a more mature Singapore where our people are slow to offend and not easily offended. Casting ourselves as tragic heroes in our own imagined tragedies will not help us celebrate as a gracious, let alone resilient, nation.

Dr William Wan
General Secretary
Singapore Kindness Movement

First published in The Straits Times – February 3, 2015

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