A word carries far
By Toh Hsien Min
One of my favourite novels of all time is Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim. More than the other Conrad novels that are typically celebrated, such as Heart of Darkness or Nostromo, Lord Jim has seared itself into my memory with its irrepressibly human story about shame and the difficulty of coming to terms with and atoning for a mistake. The events of the novel unfold in a 19th century where, to find a place where he will not be constantly hounded by stone-throwing members of glasshouse society, Jim has to flee from the centres of commerce to the remote village of Patusan in the Malay archipelago. Even here, all that is fundamentally good in Jim cannot ultimately escape the iron vice of his past. I first read the novel as a teenager, and intuitively understood its observations about the cruelty of a society from which one cannot wholly separate from; but I could not have foreseen that within a couple of decades, an atonement that had been virtually impossible would become, virtually, impossible. Just ask the British fund manager whose disparaging comments about Singapore's public transport users went viral, or the trade union director who had a little too much to say about Malay weddings in void decks. Given how the Internet never forgets, their moments of indiscretion will forever be tied to their names.
That's why there is a piece of legislation tabled in Parliament this April that is important to be enacted. No, not the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill (POFMA), but the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA). If the amendments are passed, then the act of "doxxing", which involves the publishing of someone's personal information such as their contact numbers or employment details with the intention of harassment, will be criminalised. Whatever one's thoughts about justice and how it might be administered, it is rarely the case that justice by lynch mob delivers a more equitable form of justice. And if anyone cites the NUS peeping tom case: yes, the perpetrator got off lightly; yes, there is a case that he could have been more severely punished; but also yes the police were transparent about how they decided upon the case and there has been no evidence that they had incorrectly fulfilled their duties; yes the victim's emotional needs may not have been met and yes she may have wanted to start a debate and yet yes she did not have to do so by taking justice into her own hands; and yes the victim was fortunate that the amendments had not yet been passed because yes she would have correctly been prosecuted under the new law. Two wrongs do not make a right.
I could go on for rather a long time about the difference between disagreement and conflict and how a large chunk of this difference might be the presence or absence of empathy, but I shan't. What I shall point out instead is that none of us is perfect, and to have any one of our imperfections captured like a butterfly pinned beneath the unforgiving gaze of a perfect mob should not be pressed upon any one of us "trusting we shall manage yet to go out decently in the end - but not so sure of it after all - and with dashed little help to expect from those we touch elbows with right and left".
As for the POFMA, while I do have some understanding of the situations it is intended to avoid, however one might question its specifications, Lord Jim too has something to say: "They wanted facts. Facts! They demanded facts from him, as if facts could explain anything!"
Conrad's novels are dominated by the sea, so it's a happy coincidence that a couple of the short stories in this issue involve the sea in more than a passing reference. Other themes are streaked through the issue, not necessarily by design; the Middle East appears in two poems, Chinese New Year occurs in a story and also in a poem, but I had declined to pair the two poems on mangosteens that we had inexplicably received this issue. Otherwise, we had a bumper crop of essays, of which the trio we selected were the pick - one of which, coincidentally, explores the literary urge to make us think sub specie aeternitatis - whereas Criticism went the opposite direction, shrinking down to just the one review this time. Which, I might wager, is nothing to do with any of the new protections, since this is where safely, nobody, nobody can be good enough.QLRS Vol. 18 No. 2 Apr 2019