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Penalties for Online Racism: A Case Study of @SharonLiew86

4 min read

If you have been lurking around social media like I have this Circuit Breaker, you will likely have come across @SharonLiew86, a netizen who posted that Chinese women do not want to “sit next to smelly apuneneh” and labelled the coronavirus as an “Apuneneh Coronavirus” (screenshots above). “Apunenehs” are colloquially understood to generally refer to the Indian community.
While other netizens have reported the offensive tweets against the Indian community and the account has been subsequently deleted, such commentary was done deliberately to stoke anger, unhappiness and racial tensions. Furthermore, police investigations have found that “Sharon Liew” is neither a female, nor Chinese! @SharonLiew86 is actually a 34-year-old man.
Now, let us examine the likely charges such an offence will attract under our Penal Code (Cap 224).

Wounding racial feelings

Under section 298 of the Penal Code, it is an offence to deliberately intend to wound the religious or racial feelings of any person by uttering words or making any sounds which the person is likely able to hear (such as within earshot); by making any gesture or placing any object within the sight of that person; or by causing any materials or matters (however represented) to be seen or heard by that person. If found guilty, @SharonLiew86 may be fined, jailed for a period of up to 3 years or both.
“Any person” here can refer to anyone whose racial feelings are wounded regardless of whether they belong to the Indian community.

Promoting racial discord and jeopardising the maintenance of harmony

Under section 298A of the Penal Code, it is also an offence for a person who knowingly promotes (or attempts to promote) racial disharmony or feelings or enmity, hatred, ill-will between different racial groups by saying something, writing something or posting visible signs or representations. Furthermore, if the person commits an act which he/she knows may harm or disturb the maintenance of harmony between the different racial groups, he/she may also be fined, jailed for a period of up to 3 years or both.

Racial Harmony in Singapore

But what about @SharonLiew86’s constitutional right to freedom of speech?

Singapore has done so much to forge a cohesive, multi-racial society since our early days as a nation which has experienced many deadly racial riots. Under Article 14 of the Singapore’s Constitution, while Singaporeans do have the right of freedom of speech, it is not an absolute or primary right. Rather, this constitutional right is qualified by public order considerations couched in terms of protecting racial (and religious) harmony.
In light of the high premium placed on racial harmony in Singapore, it is understandable that under section 4 of the Sedition Act (Chapter 290), any person who has seditious tendency, which is a tendency to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races in Singapore, shall be guilty of an offence and liable to pay $5,000 or be imprisoned for a term of up to 3 years even when he/she is exercising their constitutional right to freedom of speech.
Granted, @SharonLiew86 does have a constitutional right to freedom of speech, but this right should not be flippantly exercised at the expense jeopardising or disturbing the racial harmony that we have sought so hard to preserve.

Impersonating as someone else online

Under section 416 of the Penal Code, if someone pretends to be another person online, the offender may be charged for cheating by personation. It does not matter whether the person being impersonated is a real or fictious person. Such an offence is punishable with an imprisonment up to 5 years, or a fine, or both. However, “cheating” as defined in section 415 is when the impersonator dishonestly cause another to deliver any property (such as money) to him. Hence, @SharonLiew86, while likely guilty of impersonation, is unlikely to have “cheated” by causing another to deliver property to himself.
Investigations are still ongoing and we still do not know what action will be taken against @SharonLiew86. While the account’s 5.7k followers are divided into camps – one group celebrating its demise while another group defending the account as a satire account, perhaps the key takeaways from this episode is for us to realise the virtue of respecting diversity and appreciating our distinctive identity as a melting pot of different cultures and races.

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