To endure is to win. To endure is to be patient. To endure is to shelter. To endure is to cultivate. That which endures, survive. The inner spirit is untouchable and unbreakable.
-Ivan Throne, The Nine Laws
Last week my fiancee wanted to write a post about her struggles with eczema. But she was afraid. Afraid that people would mock her and laugh at her and tear her down. This is what I said to her:
They don’t matter.
How far are you willing to go to stand at the roof of the world?
I started blogging when I was 16 years old. I was young and dumb, moved more by hormones and ideals than principles and reason. Even so, I didn’t let self-doubt or fear of consequences stop me. I began blogging and never looked back.
It was the epoch of the Singaporean socio-political blogger. The government promised a ‘light touch’ towards new media. New blogs sprang up all over the place, roundly criticising the government for its failures and shortcomings. Bloggers became the Internet celebrities of our time, with socio-political bloggers billing themselves as the alternative to state-controlled media. They were the people of the Internet age, young enough to be comfortable with the Net, yet old enough to remember a time when the government ruthlessly dealt with even the slightest hint of dissent.
And then, there was me. The youngest blogger of them all, a kid in his first year of Junior College.
We spoke out, gathering allies and contacts in academia and elsewhere. We discussed ideas, organised events, held protests. We formed group blogs: New Asia Republic, Wayang Party, and the one I co-founded, The Online Citizen. The state didn’t stand by, of course. The local press called us cowboys and the lunatic fringe. They said we wanted an online free-for-all when all we wanted was to set up a citizens’ consultative committee to discuss controversial speech instead of reaching for censorship and police powers. When we reached out to government organisations, politicians and ministers for comment, we were met with the same response: silence. And for bloggers who crossed the line of defamation or hate speech, they were on the receiving end of lawyers’ letters and midnight knocks.
We didn’t let them stop us. We carried on.
In school, people learned who I was. I became the Benjamin Cheah, the blogger, the rabble-rouser, good for a laugh since he was the only guy with skin in the game and to him fell the brickbats. Schoolmates mocked my blog on theirs. Trolls descended on my blog, insulting visitors and impersonating me. People talked around my back, getting my schoolmates to relay messages to me. People cheered when I spoke, but otherwise they would never say a word in my defense. One of my teachers liked insinuating that I enjoyed flaming people online. My own parents said it was too dangerous to blog, that the only thing I could do online was praise the government.
I was alone.
I didn’t let them stop me. I continued blogging and writing.
You wanna git gud, you have to put in the time.
When I entered National Service, I toned everything down. For one thing, I just didn’t have the time and energy. For another, it was against a military directive. During my time, I required a security clearance to carry out my duties. It was completely routine, normally granted to regular people. Instead, the Military Security Department denied my clearance. No reason was given. At that point, I was a model citizen. No criminal record, no history of harassing anyone, just a teenager who maintained a blog about politics. Nobody saw a reason why I was denied. But the message was clear: we cannot trust you.
I kept writing.
After National Service, I went back into blogging more regularly. I wanted to get back into the game, help the local alt journalism scene grow, maybe even create a viable alternative to the news media. But the days of the light touch were over, and few people wanted to support the group blogs financially. The government gazetted the group blogs, slapping on paperwork and legal requirements on what was previously a loose network of bloggers. Fundraising became a significant concern. The government continued its policy of suing people who defamed them and arresting people who spread hate speech.
We carried on. Until they turned on me.
Singapore’s government is centre-left. Its approach to economics focuses on monetary policy and free trade, but its model of governance is reminiscent of democratic socialism. Social engineering is everywhere, from public education to National Service to public housing, and the government exercises de facto control over critical national functions from public transportation to the unions to the press.
However, every dissident I can name labels the government as ring-wing. And they responded by swinging even further left.
When I critiqued the idea of rape culture, I saw the first hint of the divide between me and my former colleagues. Bloggers I thought were rational thinkers started spewing buzzwords, nonsense and insults instead of discussing things calmly. When I criticised SlutWalk Singapore, the social justice warriors came, shrieking and spitting hatred and vitriol all over Facebook. For the first time The Online Citizen had to issue warnings to tone down. When I addressed arguments from feminists on social media, the SJWs returned.
I didn’t start the flame war, but it found me.