Cancel culture, the online trend of calling out people, celebrities, brands and organizations – rightly or wrongly – for perceived social indiscretions or offensive behaviors, has become a polarizing topic of debate.
To some, it’s an important means of social justice and holding powerful figures to account. But to others, it’s often “misused and misdirected” and has become a form of mob rule.
But one country wants to put an end to the deeply contested online phenomena by introducing what legal experts and observers say would be the world’s first law against cancel culture – raising alarm among rights activists who fear that such legal powers could be used to stifle free speech.
Over the past year, Singapore’s government has been “looking at ways to deal with cancel culture,” a spokesperson told CNN – amid what some say is a brewing culture war between gay rights supporters and the religious right following the recent decriminalization of homosexuality in the largely conservative city-state.
Authorities said they were “examining existing related laws and legislation” after receiving “feedback” from conservative Christians who expressed fears about being canceled for their views by vocal groups online.
“People ought to be free to express their views without fear of being attacked on both sides,” law minister K Shanmugam said in an interview with state media outlets in August.
“We should not allow a culture where people of religion are ostracized (or) attacked for espousing their views or their disagreements with LGBT viewpoints – and vice versa,” he added.
His comments came ahead of the historic repealing of a colonial-era law that criminalized gay sex – even if it was consensual.
“We cannot sit by and do nothing. We have to look at the right boundaries between hate speech and free speech in this context,” Shanmugam said. “There could be wider repercussions for society at large where public discourse becomes impoverished… so we plan to do something about this.”
In a statement to CNN, his law ministry said the impact of online cancel campaigns could be “far reaching and severe for victims.”
“(Some) have been unable to engage in reasonable public discourse for fear of being attacked for their views online… and may engage in self censorship for fear of being made a target of cancel campaigns,” a ministry spokesperson said.
What would a cancel law look like?
The first thing any law tackling cancel culture must do, would be to define the act of canceling – an extremely complex challenge according to legal experts, given how contentious cancel culture can be.
The phrase first originated from the slang term “cancel,” referring to breaking up with someone, according to the Pew Research Center, and later gained traction on social media. The Center published a study around the cancel phenomenon in 2021 which revealed deep public division across demographic groups in the United States – from the very meaning of the phrase as well as what cancel culture represents.
According to Eugene Tan, an associate law professor from the Singapore Management University (SMU), there remains “no accepted definition” of canceling and as such, any proposed law would have to be “very clearly defined and worded.”
“What does it mean when a person claims to be canceled? How would alleged victims show proof of being canceled?” said Tan, who once served as a nominated member of the Singapore Parliament.
“All too often, incidents are interpreted, described or remembered by people in different ways. The lack of precision could result in the law being over inclusive, covering acts which it shouldn’t,” added Tan. “But if the definition is limiting, the law could be under inclusive and not cover crucial acts when it should,” said Tan.
Given how most cancel cases take place online, the new law would also have to be specially drafted with the internet in mind and likely involve cooperation from social media giants, lawyers in Singapore told CNN.
“A cancel law will have to involve the platforms on which people typically discuss or propagate anything related to cancellation and where materials are published,” said Ian Ernst Chai, a lawyer who once served as a deputy public prosecutor in Singapore’s Attorney General’s Chambers.
Social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok could possibly be asked to police users or comply with court orders to a certain extent, Chai said – and this could also include taking down posts and tweets deemed to be “in infringement of the law.”
Special legal mechanisms would also be needed to identify perpetrators (‘cancelers’), said other legal experts. “With cancel culture, things can spread immediately online and people’s reputations can be ruined in a matter of hours,” said criminal lawyer Joshua Tong.
“It is clear that traditional legal processes are not suitable for cancel scenarios and a different process must be used. The (new) law could contain sections like intervention mechanisms to stop cancel campaigns before they gather steam,” added Tong.
In Singapore’s case, there are also already several laws governing the internet which include an anti fake news bill – punishable with fines of up to 50,000 Singapore dollars ($38,000) or possible prison sentences of up to five years – as well as laws governing cyberbullying and doxing.
So a cancel law would have to be one that’s very distinct in nature.
For the greater good or a threat to free speech?
The drafting of new laws could take months or even years and would have to be passed in Parliament, Singapore legal experts said.
While the government did not provide further details when asked about what a new law dealing with cancel culture would look like or when it could be expected – critics have raised concerns over what they say could result in further restrictions on freedom of speech and expression in Singapore.
“It sounds like yet another intimidation tactic by the government against those on the ground trying to raise their voices to demand accountability and change,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch.
“If a person or a group says hateful and discriminatory things against gay and trans people for example, others should be allowed to call them out and rebut what was said – this isn’t ‘cancel culture’, it’s social discourse and any modern, democratic society should be able to handle that without overbearing state interference.”
Free speech advocate Roy Ngerng said a law against cancel culture would be “dangerous.”
In 2015, Ngerng was sued for defamation by the Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong over a critical blog post he had written about the country’s national pensions plan. Ngerng lost his job at a national hospital as a result and said he was also harassed online.
“The government’s strategy has been systematic from the beginning – canceling people like activists, journalists and opposition politicians who they deem disagreeable,” he told CNN.
“They have adapted laws for use during the Internet era and perhaps seeing how fast conversations move on social media has prompted them to create a new law to stamp out cancel culture – prevent conversations from moving too quickly,” he said.
“We shouldn’t be worried about conversations being canceled – we should be more worried about the government coming up with new laws and ways to cancel Singaporeans.”