Cancelling & cancel culture: Are they relevant to us in S’pore & why should we care?

MS Explains: Cancelling and cancel culture have been hot topics of conversation recently. We look into their history, criticisms, and why understanding them concerns us.

Darryl Laiu | Jane Zhang | August 05, 2020, 04:30 PM

In the past month, segments of the Internet have been abuzz with conversations about "canceling" and "cancel culture".

Google searches for the term “cancel culture” in Singapore spiked in early July, when Xiaxue took a swing at those calling for her sponsors to drop her, after some of her old tweets resurfaced.

Conversation on the topic spiked when Xiaxue released a 19-minute video on July 22, attempting to explain the concept and criticising those cancelling her.

The conversation in Singapore has generally consisted of two main positions:

On one side, people like Xiaxue associate "cancelling" and "cancel culture" with the acts of a dangerous “woke mob” that infringes on people’s freedoms.

Meanwhile, those seeking to defend the practices labelled as "cancelling" contend that it simply seeks to demand accountability and justice for the harm caused by the individual being "cancelled".

So what’s the big deal? Why does this "Western-imported concept" matter here in Singapore?

Like it or not, cancelling and cancel culture have been part of conversations in Singapore, and will likely continue to be.

Thus, it's important for people in Singapore to better understand how these concepts affect the way we understand disagreements in the public sphere, and how we look at the role of the general public in seeking accountability for misdeeds.

No consensus on definitions

It has been highlighted that cancel culture is a "fuzzy concept", and a term often used "to refer to [multiple] things at once".

Discussion of the issue is therefore complicated by the fact that there is no "official" definition of "cancel culture".

In the U.S., from which the term "cancel culture" arguably originates, many authors who have written about "cancel culture" have different understandings of the concept, and offer varying definitions.

For example, Vox defined it as “a trend of communal calls to boycott a celebrity whose offensive behaviour is perceived as going too far.”

On the other hand, a much broader phenomenon was described in a recent open letter penned by writers, journalists, and social critics, published in Harper's Magazine, which denounced the growing "intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty."

So if there isn’t even consensus on what “cancel culture” is exactly, much less whether it is more toxic than it is effective, where do we go from here?

To better understand the concepts we are dealing with, we first look at the historical roots of cancelling and cancel culture, and try to relate these ideas to Singapore's context.

When and why did cancelling come to be?

Let’s take a moment, and start by going back to the beginning.

According to Vox, the term and idea of cancelling originated in 2015, after an American reality TV star said to his romantic interest, “you’re cancelled” during a fight.

As he explained on the show, the word "cancelled" was borrowed from a 1991 movie, "New Jack City", which he had recently watched.

"Cancelling" became a popular term on Twitter, and was used — both jokingly and seriously — as a way to signal disapproval of someone’s actions. The trend first caught on in the Black Twitter community, and its use was popularised amongst other Twitter users over time.

At around the same time, a number of high-profile allegations of rape and sexual assault came to light in the U.S.

In Oct. 2017, a number of actresses came forward to accuse Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment after decades of cover-ups by him and his associates, reported the New York Times.

This snowballed, leading to more women coming forward and sharing their stories of alleged sexual harassment and assault by Weinstein.

This caused him to be fired by the board of his own company within days.

He was eventually found guilty of sexual assault and rape in Mar. 2020, and sentenced to 23 years in prison.

With more individuals speaking up about their own assaults, celebrities like Bill Cosby and Kevin Spacey also faced numerous allegations, and in the case of Cosby, even a conviction.

The first allegation against Spacey came to light in Oct. 2017. The allegations against Cosby reached their peak when his first trial ended in a mistrial in Jun. 2017, and when his retrial began in Apr. 2018.

It might have been the conflation of these high-profile cases of celebrities finally being held accountable for their actions, and the popularisation of the term "cancelled", that led to people using the term as a tool for social advocacy.

The year 2018 — just after allegations against these celebrities were brought to light — saw also a peak in the number of people denouncing celebrities for insensitive, homophobic, and/or racist remarks, among other wrongs. People became more proactive in boycotting these celebrities, and asking for their sponsors and media partners who helped to amplify their influence to literally cancel these agreements.

Cancelling has also been employed by groups of people who historically did not have much of a voice in the public sphere, such as black people in the U.S., who have faced centuries of racism.

Vox wrote that on social media, people have autonomy to publish their thoughts, and that this has enabled these communities to speak up.

Social media therefore allows those who might have otherwise been left out in more traditional broadcast platforms to have their voices and opinions heard.

Vox also quoted Anne Charity Hudley, the chair of linguistics of African America for the University of California Santa Barbara, who wrote that if people do not have the political ability to put an outright stop to something, they do have the ability to refuse to support somebody who did wrong.

She drew parallels between cancelling someone and boycotting, although cancelling often deals with an individual rather than a company.

Examples that might count as "cancelling"

Singapore has seen similar examples of calls to collectively denounce wrongdoers as well.

Each of these involved people taking to social media to call attention to, and retract support from companies and individuals for their unacceptable take on certain issues.

In July 2019, Singaporeans called out an E-Pay advertisement that featured Singaporean actor Dennis Chew in "brownface". Backlash against the ad led to its removal, and apologies from the companies involved, and Chew himself.

In 2018, Singaporean influencer Daryl Aiden Yow was found to be editing other people’s photos and passing them off as his own. In the days following the reveal, netizens called for him to acknowledge the mistake, and also approached his sponsorship partners to ask them to drop him.

In 2017, Mediacorp was fined for racially insensitive content in a Toggle episode which aired in 2016. The episode featured an actor in blackface, and a character on the show saying that Indians and Africans were the same. The S$5,500 fine came after viewers took to social media to point out how problematic the portrayal was. Mediacorp has since removed the content from the episode.

Examples like these suggest that acts which could well be labelled as “cancelling” are being carried out in Singapore.

Going from "cancelling" to "cancel culture"

The spate of high-profile "cancellations" in the U.S. in 2018 was accompanied by a spike in Google searches for the phrase "cancel culture" that year.

There was a slight distinction between how the two terms were used, as the term "cancel culture" tended to carry a negative connotation.

As Toronto-based writer Sarah Hagi explains, there was a tendency to “rely on phrases like 'cancel culture' to delegitimize the criticism”.

Hagi said that this was because those accused of wrongs “can’t handle this cultural shift”, as their privilege had previously protected them from criticism.

Why is "cancel culture" criticised?

That being said, critics of cancelling (and not just its "victims") have taken issue with various practices that cancelling tends to involve, such as the involvement of an often-unruly online "mob".

They also point to how cancelling sometimes results in disproportionate consequences, while not leaving room for the offenders to grow and change.

The term "cancel culture" itself has also become associated with these practices and their resulting consequences.

Cancel culture often involves a mob

Xiaxue said in her video on "cancel culture" that it involves a mob that forms to "punish transgressors when they are perceived to have committed some kind of unacceptable social behaviour":

"Cancel culture is about a select group of people who are actively obsessed with causing harm.

In other words, it is not enough that they themselves don't agree with something... They want to make sure that everyone stands with them... and punishes the offending party until they are utterly destroyed."

The concern likely being expressed here is that the mob seems to want to collectively punish the perceived offender to the point that "they are utterly destroyed".

In the process, it does not take limits into account.

Without centralised control or regulation, online "mobs" may act prematurely, with the resulting punishment sometimes being seen as disproportionate to the offence.

Mobs may act prematurely or even wrongly

Indeed, online "mobs" can sometimes take things into their own hands prematurely, sometimes on the basis of incomplete or even wrong information.

For example, Paramjeet Kaur, the woman who refused to wear a mask at Shunfu mart while claiming that she was a "sovereign", went viral in April this year.

Before her identity was revealed in court, netizens went after another woman, Tuhina Singh, whom they incorrectly-identified as the person in the video. Tuhina's details were circulated on social media and online forums, before the identity of the actual offender was revealed.

In a similar incident, netizens harassed a man they suspected of being the culprit of a 2018 incident where a cyclist lashed out at the side mirror of a lorry.

They even went to the extent of leaving negative reviews on his workplace's Facebook page, prompting a police report by the wrongly-identified individual.

Thus, one possible criticism of the mob-like behaviour involved in some forms of cancelling is that sometimes extreme actions — in this case, doxxing — may be taken, without leaving room for the full story to be revealed.

Punishments can be disproportionate

Singapore has also seen examples of what was, arguably, overreach by those seeking to hold a wrongdoer accountable.

In Oct. 2019, netizens went after a resident of Eight Riversuites condominium in Whampoa, after a video of him shouting at a security guard went viral online.

Netizens eventually found his personal details, doxxed him, called on his employer to take action, and, according to the police, even sent him and his family threats of "death and violence (even rape)".

Going further back, in 2014, a video of a Vietnamese tourist begging for a refund went viral after mobile phone shop owner Jover Chew overcharged him by S$550 for an iPhone, using underhanded sales tactics.

The Internet quickly took matters in their own hands as they published personal details of Chew and his wife online, prank called him, and sent large orders of pizza and McDonald’s to his house.

Does "cancel culture" always go too far?

Defenders of this sort of collective behaviour, however, would say that it can be necessary — especially so when the target is someone who wields considerable influence or wealth and is able to protect themselves from actual consequences.

One example is Weinstein, who managed to avoid repercussions for his repeated transgressions prior to the #MeToo movement.

As Vox explains:

“Cancel culture, then, serves as a pop culture corrective for the sense of powerlessness that many people feel. But as it’s gained mainstream attention, cancel culture has also seemed to gain a more material power — at least in the eyes of the many people who’d like to, well, cancel it."

Closer to home, cancel culture can be seen to be a tool for demanding accountability, for instance, in the case of Monica Baey, the National University of Singapore (NUS) student who was filmed by fellow student Nicholas Lim while she was showering.

Baey took to Instagram in Apr. 2019 to share her dissatisfaction with NUS' handling of her situation, calling for the university to do more to protect and support victims of sexual assault, and seeking concrete consequences for all perpetrators of sexual misconduct.

"Since the trial is over n i feel that justice hasn't been served, i'm no longer keeping quiet", she wrote.

Baey's chosen course of action — which could be characterised as "cancelling" — created massive pressure on NUS to change its policies, when her Instagram stories went viral.

Her story sparked a massive response against both Lim and NUS, including a comment from then-Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung on the matter, calling the penalties given by NUS "manifestly inadequate".

By May 2019, Baey shared that NUS had reached out to her to "acknowledge that the current disciplinary system dealing with sexual misconduct cases in the university is inadequate", that NUS had organised a town hall to hear students' concerns and, and that it was forming a Review Committee to make changes to its system.

Arguably, the changes would not have happened as swiftly, had Baey not shared her story in such a public way.

Baey subsequently acknowledged that Lim "[did] not deserve to be bullied online by trolls", nor to "have his punishment meted out by anyone on the internet", including Baey herself.

However, she also stood by her stance that she did not owe it to Lim to keep his name private, saying that too many perpetrators of sexual harm go unnamed and get away with their crime.

The case would point to the effectiveness of rallying public pressure in cases where formal consequences for offenders are inadequate, or seen to be inadequate.

Doesn’t leave room for growth and change

Another criticism of cancel culture is that it does not leave room for the individual being cancelled to recognise their mistake and to grow, even if they have the genuine desire to do so.

In Singapore, one example could be actor Tosh Zhang, who faced online backlash after his past homophobic tweets resurfaced in May 2019. This was after he was announced to be one of Pink Dot 2019’s ambassadors.

In an Instagram post, Zhang apologised for his past tweets, saying that he felt “awful & disgusted” that he had spoken in that way and that he had changed since then.

Two days later, Zhang took to Instagram again to announce that, after “thinking it through thoroughly”, he would be stepping down as a Pink Dot ambassador.

Both posts have since been removed.

In a statement, Pink Dot organisers said that Zhang’s decision came as a surprise to them, and that they believed that “the evolution of Tosh's views over the years is a demonstration of the empathy and understanding that many Singaporeans are capable of”.

Critics of cancel culture argued that Zhang stepping down was an example of the cancel culture “mob” taking down yet another individual, without regard for the fact that he had grown in maturity over the years.

Critics might regard Zhang’s case as an example of the unforgiving nature of cancel culture.

However, its defenders would likely point out that people who are cancelled often don’t face lasting consequences after they have made their apologies.

Zhang still has over 300,000 followers on both Twitter and Instagram.

In a parallel example, Kevin Hart, who withdrew himself as host of the 2019 Oscars after he faced outrage over his past homophobic tweets, retains much of his initial popularity as a comedian and actor today.

Hart had initially declined to apologise, calling for his accusers to "stop searching for reasons to be angry". He eventually apologised, although the sincerity of his apology was called into question by many.

Restricting dialogue, leaving no room for disagreements

Critics of cancel culture also feel that it restricts dialogue and debate, by deciding what viewpoints are right and wrong.

According to Harper’s Bazaar, individuals subjected to cancel culture are often reduced to being either good or bad, with no room for nuance or discussion about disagreements.

The article quotes psychotherapist Lucy Beresford:

“The process is like air-brushing someone or something out. It doesn’t allow for the possibility that two sides could ever agree, or learn from each other, or could persuade each other of their arguments — or even agree to disagree.”

However, advocates for cancelling argue that there should be limits to the opinions that should be tolerated, because certain opinions cause harm.

Singaporean activist Jolovan Wham echoed this sentiment, saying that an individual’s expression should not harm a marginalised group:

Where does all this leave us?

The points covered in this article are just some of the points that have been raised, for and against cancel culture.

Singapore has seen incidents of people collectively holding wrongdoers accountable, and online mobs going after individuals — although the terms "cancelling" or "cancel culture" may not have been used.

It is therefore likely that the concepts of "cancelling" and "cancel culture" will continue to be a topic of conversation in Singapore.

As the debate continues, the following questions could perhaps be used to guide our thinking about future cases:

  • What are the intentions of those who are engaging in "cancelling"? Can we understand their rationale outside of extremes?
  • How do we ensure wrongdoers are held accountable, while also recognising human fallibility?
  • How might "cancelling" and "cancel culture" be used to play a constructive role in Singapore society?

Mothership Explains is a series where we dig deep into the important, interesting, and confusing going-ons in our world and try to, well, explain them.

This series aims to provide in-depth, easy-to-understand explanations to keep our readers up to date on not just what is going on in the world, but also the "why's".

Top photo adapted from Instagram / Tosh Zhang, Facebook / Marceino Tng,, and Instagram / Xiaxue.