What "prevailing woke movement"?

Last year, shortly after the general election in July, I began to notice people talking about “cancel culture” in Singapore. There were moderates who felt trapped between two opposing sides: the ruling People’s Action Party, and opposition-supporting “Internet lynch mob” that might just “cancel” you for expressing political opinions they disagree with. I wrote this piece in response to such sentiments, arguing that we should always remember power dynamics and not draw false equivalences between those with real power, and people who are noisy online.

Since then, there have been occasional mentions of “wokeism” in mainstream discourse, usually adopting the framing of “woke culture” as an overly sensitive milieu of easily mobilised collective rage. Say the wrong thing, use the wrong pronoun, make the wrong joke, and the mob will descend and “cancel” you!

If you’ve been in the Singaporean corners of social media platforms over the past few days, you’ve probably already seen the latest instalment of this discourse: a “Gen Y speaks” op-ed by 24-year-old Dana Teoh in which she professed ignorance of transgender people and issues, but claimed she was too afraid to ask for fear of being “cancelled” by the “hella woke”.

[NOTE: I’ve not linked the original article because I think we’ve all given enough clicks to TODAY now. But if you’d like to read it, there’s a peer review on Rice Media that quotes the piece.]

The article has attracted a torrent of criticism; it’s been called out for transphobia, dog-whistling, the lack of research and substantiation, and just not being very good writing. Not all the criticism has been directed at the author, especially since it emerged that Bertha Henson, a veteran journalist formerly of The Straits Times, had been the one to send it to TODAY. Dana had submitted the piece as part of the module she was taking at university; Bertha, her teacher, thought it was the best piece in the class, and chose to send it on to the news website, where (surely) at least one editor must have looked at it before deciding it was worthy of publication.

I’m not going to go into a dissection of the piece. What interests me more is this apparent belief, clearly not unique to Dana, that there is a “climate of fear” caused by “woke culture” in Singapore.

What/who is “woke”?

Here’s some background of the word “woke” from the Merriam-Webster website:

“…stay woke and woke became part of a wider discussion in 2014, immediately following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The word woke became entwined with the Black Lives Matter movement; instead of just being a word that signaled awareness of injustice or racial tension, it became a word of action. Activists were woke and called on others to stay woke.”

To be woke, then is to identify with social justice causes, such as racial justice and other progressive issues like LGBT rights and feminism. At least, that’s what it means when used by the political left.

But the term has also been hijacked by far-right or right-wing conservatives in the United States and elsewhere to conjure up the image of irrational, intolerant leftist mobs, prowling around online spaces, workplaces, and college campuses in search of unwitting targets to shame and harass. In the same vein as past cries of “this is just political correctness gone mad!”, this right-wing narrative frames people who are woke as oppressors, mercilessly “cancelling” people by silencing them, ostracising them, boycotting their work, or depriving them of their livelihoods because of real or perceived infractions, like expressing a dissenting opinion or using the wrong pronouns.

Singapore’s prevailing *checks notes* woke movement 🤨

In a statement that called for civility amid the backlash against Dana’s op-ed, Robbie Goh, the dean of NUS’ Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, described Teoh’s work as her views on “whether there can be room for free discussions amidst the prevailing woke movement and cancel culture”.

But… what prevailing woke movement?

Who is woke in Singapore? If we follow the term’s definition, Singapore’s “woke movement” will likely include:

  • ethnic minorities critical of policies that primarily convenience or cater to the Chinese majority, like people who talk about Chinese privilege or supremacy

  • feminists who seek to dismantle patriarchal systems and attitudes and challenge “traditional” gender roles

  • LGBTQ+ activists, and the communities they represent or work with

  • critics of capitalism and policies that prioritise GDP growth

  • critics of colonialism and imperialism, including the “Singapore Story” narrative that frames British colonisation as a “net benefit” for Singapore

  • critics of Singapore’s exploitative relationship with its neighbours, like how we destroy the ecology of other Southeast Asian nations when we buy sand from them for land reclamation, or how we import other Southeast Asian men and women to bully as migrant workers

  • human rights defenders interested in intersectionality, such as those who oppose or criticise policing, surveillance, and incarceration on the grounds that they disproportionately affect marginalised communities

Does this strike you as a list of people who occupy positions of power in Singapore? Or a list of social and political positions supported by the establishment, or even the majority of Singaporeans?

The reality is that Singapore’s rich and powerful are not woke. Singaporeans who are woke do not wield significant amounts of influence over the national agenda, policy-making, or public discourse. We are not given much airtime in the mainstream media. Some of these communities and causes are actively censored or excluded from national platforms. There are performances that are given classifications restricting their audience (such as M18, which means you have to be 18 and above to enter) because they touch on some of these above-mentioned issues or topics. Many woke Singaporeans are still young, and might be studying in institutions where they have less power than their lecturers, tutors, and school administrators who are absolutely not woke (case in point: Bertha Henson).

Singaporeans who are woke do not wield significant amounts of influence over the national agenda, policy-making, or public discourse.

Issues that would be associated with being woke mainly exist only on the margins of Singaporean national discourse. Even those that have broken into the “mainstream” consciousness—such as discussions of LGBTQ+ issues, or race—measure their “prominence” only by occasional appearances in the local media, or lip service paid by politicians. But this once-in-awhile recognition doesn’t translate to actual power or change; for example, despite years of organising, large public rallies, and social media campaigns, LGBTQ+ groups like Pink Dot still can’t shift Section 377A of the Penal Code, and LGBTQ+ youth still report discrimination in schools that bar them from living their full, authentic lives. Despite years of testimonies from minorities about how micro-aggressions and prejudice impact their lives and livelihoods, there’s still no anti-discrimination legislation in Singapore, and establishment-organised discussions are still suggesting that there’s no such thing as Chinese privilege.

If Singapore really had a “prevailing woke movement and cancel culture”, you’d think we’d have done a hell of a lot better than this.

Framing the “woke movement” as the oppressor

Where then, does this sense of the “woke movement” as the oppressor come from? Why are people like Dana Teoh and Bertha Henson feeling all this apprehension about being “cancelled”?

As an independent journalist and activist—and someone who was recently labelled the “self appointed leader of the deranged wokies in SG”, even though I don’t remember ever having described myself as being woke—I initially found it absolutely bizarre to hear claims of a “climate of fear” caused by progressive Singaporeans. Minorities have been investigated for parody rap videos and Facebook posts, LGBT students have been policed by their teachers, anti-transphobia protesters have been arrested, climate strikers have been been given stern warnings for solo “illegal assemblies”, and someone lodged a police report because they didn’t like a photo of an activist flipping off a surveillance camera.

Yes, there is a climate of fear. But it ain’t coming from the “hella woke”.

That said, I can kind of see how some conservative (I’m using this term somewhat broadly here) Singaporeans might be more worried about “wokeism” than about the government and state organs. If your opinions are more or less aligned to the establishment and its dominant narrative—or at least not in direct opposition to it—you’re much less likely to be “cancelled” by the government. In contrast, vocal, progressive Singaporeans who have finally found an outlet to express ourselves without having to deal with the gatekeeping of the mainstream media or government forums might seem more noisy, unfamiliar, or threatening.

As I wrote in my previous piece on “cancel culture”, it doesn’t feel nice to be subjected to criticism, or see backlash against one’s work. But that’s not the same as being “cancelled”, and conflict is not abuse (incidentally, the title of a book I’ve been meaning to read for some time). And I’d just like to add that it’s actually kind of a privilege to only have to worry about what woke people think, and not all the other stuff that civil society activists have to deal with.

This, of course, is not to condone or dismiss abuse, threats, and harassment, online or off. I haven’t seen any myself, but I’m pretty prepared to accept that both Dana and Bertha have experienced some abuse online over the past few days, because women can and do get harassed for all sorts of things. Such harassment should not be tolerated. But I’ve also seen comments that have clearly equated criticism with “cancellation”, which doesn’t strike me as being in good faith. If all criticism is “cancel culture”, then what people who decry “cancel culture” are really saying is that one should be able to say anything without having to deal with pushback, no matter how bigoted, poorly argued, or problematic the opinion.

False equivalences

On the institutional, and even national, level, the problem of allowing this discourse about “wokeism” and “cancel culture” to take root is that it’s all too convenient a tool for the elite to use to undermine progressive activism that challenges their power.

Careless use of “woke” as a label makes it sound as if people support LGBTQ+ rights or feminism simply because it’s the “trendy” thing to do, and not because of personal conviction or belief, or because there are serious ethical and moral reasons for taking these positions. It makes these issues sound like the new-fangled, irrational posturing of impressionable youth, possibly “just a phase” and not to be taken seriously. It creates a conceptual skew: while the government’s positions are always framed as sensible conclusions drawn from sensible deliberations (no matter how ludicrous they might actually be), progressive arguments for reform can be brushed off as the delusions of the “woke movement”, possibly imported from abroad because our young people are consuming too much American content on Instagram and TikTok.

While the government’s positions are always framed as sensible conclusions drawn from sensible deliberations, progressive arguments for reform can be brushed off as the delusions of the “woke movement”.

Building the idea of an oppressive “cancel culture” perpetrated by activists who are woke can serve a similar purpose. It causes confusion and presents a false equivalence between the government and progressive activism, as if one is just as powerful and capable of exacting penalties as the other. This is simply untrue, especially in the Singaporean context. But when these power dynamics are hidden by the fog of “wokeism” and “cancel culture”, it becomes easier for the government to argue that it has to exercise its powers in the interests of national security and law and order, rather than the reality: a dominant force exacting disproportionate costs from a relatively tiny number of Singaporeans trying to exercise our rights to advocate for issues of importance.

From “political correctness” to “wokeism”

None of this is new—people used to moan about “political correctness”, now they complain about “woke culture”. For some, it’s a way to get attention and pander to a base. For others, it’s about their unhappiness over being challenged, or told that some of their views are dated, inappropriate and/or offensive. There will probably always be some people who’ll feel threatened by “prevailing woke cultures”, whether they’re really there or not, and whether anyone in Singapore has actually been “cancelled”.

It’s important that we collectively resist this sort of lazy framing that erases differences in power, influence, and responsibility. It does nothing for us; it only dumbs down discourse and hinders us from engaging with analysis that will help us learn and grow.