Cancel culture: How Asia's woke brigade became a political force

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From children’s author J.K. Rowling to a Malaysian beauty queen and candidates in Singapore’s general election, it seems barely a day goes by without another high-profile person falling foul of “cancel culture”.

Indeed, establishment writers, thinkers and journalists have become so worried by the trend that 150 of them – including the Harry Potter author, who has come under fire for her comments on transgender people – wrote to Harper’s Bazaar magazine earlier this month, to warn of an “intolerant climate” emerging on the political left.

This new way of thinking, they said, was marked by “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty”.

J.K. Rowling recently disclosed she had been a victim of domestic abuse and sexual assault. 
PHOTO: Reuters

The act of “cancelling” someone takes place when a public figure acts or makes remarks deemed racist, sexist, bigoted or otherwise offensive.

Those who have been offended, usually organised over social media , then go about withdrawing support from their target by calling them out, for example on Twitter, or boycotting their work.

Online petitions, open letters and hashtags are among the go-to tools and techniques employed by the typical “canceller”.

As assistant professor Walid Jumblatt Abdullah, from Nanyang Technological University’s political science division, puts it: “Cancelling someone is ultimately a power play: that power can be derived from institutions and formal authority, or just popular opinion.”

Whether it works or not is a matter of some debate. The former US president Barack Obama is among those who have questioned cancel culture’s effectiveness, saying “that’s not activism ”, while his successor Donald Trump has claimed it is “the very definition of totalitarianism”.

A global problem

While the term “cancel culture” may have originated in the West, it has been embraced by many young Asians, who see it as a force for social change.

Secondary school student Sherine Josal, 16, for instance, points out that cancelling someone offers a way for victims of sexual assault or harassment to expose the perpetrators when traditional avenues have failed.

Many young Asians also see it as a way of pressuring companies they perceive to be behaving unethically.

A recent study by Zeno Group of 8,000 people across eight countries found consumers in Singapore , Malaysia and China were even more likely to act against brands they disagreed with than those in Canada , France and Britain .

While 76 per cent of respondents said they would act against a brand if they disagreed with its purpose, values or behaviours, that figure rose to 88 per cent among Gen Z and 85 per cent among millennials.

One of the more high profile cases in Asia has been the controversy surrounding Miss Universe Malaysia 2017 winner Samantha Katie James.

James caused uproar when she waded into the debate on the Black Lives Matter movement by claiming African-Americans “chose to be born as a coloured person in America for a reason”. Netizens responded with an online petition demanding the 25-year-old be stripped of her title.

Within a day it had more than 15,000 signatures. The Miss Universe Malaysia Organisation promptly distanced itself from her comments, while James’ sponsor the Malaysian make-up company Velvet Vanity dropped her saying it did not want to associate itself with “racist behaviour in any way”.

Commenting on the movement also drew flak for the Indian social media influencer Rashmi Zurail Mann. She had posted images in which her face was painted black, with the caption: “The make up tutorial we need today #blm [Black Lives Matter].”

She has since apologised for being unable to “express the colourism I intended to express” and deleted the post.

A demonstrator with Black Lives Matter holds up a sign during a protest in front of the White House in Washington, US, July 8, 2016.
PHOTO: Reuters

Such cases serve to underline how even celebrities and influencers whose living depends to a large degree on social media can be blind to its pitfalls.

As Natalie Pang, a senior lecturer in communications and new media at the National University of Singapore, points out, social media has a tendency to be “mass-personal”. Conversations that “used to happen in the context of personal and private communication settings can now become publicly and widely circulated without context,” she says.

Vote loser

It’s not just celebrities and writers who have come a cropper either. Politicians, too, are feeling the heat.

In Singapore, Ivan Lim had been announced as a candidate for the ruling People’s Action Party in the recent general election, but was forced to withdraw just days before Nomination Day after allegations of bullying and “elitist” behaviour surfaced online.

The incident prompted Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to caution against a culture of “trial by internet”. Lee said the incident set “a very damaging precedent that you can condemn somebody and write him off on the basis of an internet campaign”.

Another candidate in the election, Raeesah Khan (who is now, at 26, Singapore’s youngest MP) – is being investigated after police reports were lodged against her.

A police statement alleged Khan had said law enforcement officers discriminated against citizens, and that compared to other groups, rich Chinese and white people were treated differently under the law.

Khan later apologised for her “insensitive” remarks, saying she only wanted to highlight the concerns of ethnic minorities.

Blogger Wendy Cheng, better known as Xiaxue, took to Instagram to weigh in on the issue, labelling Khan a “radical feminist/leftist” and describing her as “poison infecting our politics”.

"One benefit of this cancel culture is that we are now hearing what used to be marginalised voices and invisible bodies," Natalie Pang, senior lecturer.

And the blogger Cheng herself felt the heat, with netizens filing police reports against her for allegedly making racially offensive tweets about migrant workers in 2010 and 2011.

The hashtag #PunishXiaxue became the No 1 trending topic on Twitter in Singapore before beauty giant Fresh announced it had ended its partnership with the blogger. In an Instagram post, the company said it would “listen, learn and evolve the way we work to fight racism and inequality in all its forms”.

Kenneth Paul Tan, an associate professor from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the NUS, said that while cancel culture could sometimes be “disproportionate”, it was also a reflection of “widespread triggering of personal experiences of being bullied … in an elite society that pays the most attention to the winners and in a shallowly pragmatic one that does not care how the winners came to win”.

For example, he said Khan’s supporters were not simply engaging in “tit-for-tat behaviour, but a means of drawing attention to the unfairness that opposition parties and politicians have to put up with”.

Where next?

Walid from NTU warned the effect of the growing cancel culture trend could be discouraging open debate and causing public figures including politicians to self-censor.

He said: “With Ivan and Raeesah, we should really ask questions about what standards do we want to set for future candidates: do we want candidates to sanitise their past – which is what is likely to happen now – and delete all their previous posts and present a fake version of themselves to the public?”

What most experts agreed on was that cancel culture was here to stay. Pang advised against dismissing the topic as an import from the West and urged greater examination of the underlying issues.

“One benefit of this cancel culture is that we are now hearing what used to be marginalised voices and invisible bodies … So it is beneficial that discourse is no longer mainly dominated by people in positions of power and privilege,” she said.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.