Currying the Right Words

The online world is a scary minefield these days. One careless word and you might detonate an entire chain of explosive blasts. Just take the recent news article in the local papers about neighbourly disputes for example – one that you are most likely to already be familiar with. 
A Chinese national family met up with a local Indian family through the Community Mediation Centre (CMC). It seemed like the former family, unfamilar with curry in China, are very affected by the strong scents of the latter’s curry cooking habits and would like to put a stop to it. The Indian family compromised by agreeing to cook up their favourite ethnic dish only when members of the Chinese family are not around.

You would have though the matter would have rested here seven years after the mediation, but this incited a furore among online netizens and sparked off an intense debate, both online and offline. 

While the entire issue itself is a tangled mess of wired bombs that mix in a little xenophobia, a little nationalistic pride, a little immigration policy and a little poor judgement just to name a few, one of the thing that really surprised me is the article itself. 

In case you missed it, the article highlighted an increase in neighbourly disputes over trivial matters, with many of the cases directed to CMC for mediation. One of the reasons mentioned was a lack of communication between neighbours, and the unwillingness to engage each other directly but instead preferring to go through a third party. It also mentioned that there was an increase in cases involving immigrants.

Interestingly, one of the fine examples chosen to showcase the CMC's mediation abilities was a case dating about seven years back, where a Chinese national family took issue with their local Indian neighbour's culinary practices – they could not stand the smell of curry their neighbours were cooking. 

While smell is certainly a sensitive issue, there are many ways to resolve the matter without resorting to a mediation centre. But more ludicruous was the proposed solution – limiting curry cooking only to the times when the Chinese family was not at home. The case alone could warrant an extensive diatribe from me, but there are enough people doing it out there that I’ll pass. But it didn’t surprise me that there were others like me who wouldn’t have accepted that solution if it happened to them, and would have done something about it to stand up for their “rights”.  

With all the online activity going on these days, it should no longer come as a surprise that any sensitive issue will be sure to touch someone’s nerve in the online community and invite a flurry of commentary, some civil, some not so. The newspapers, of all groups, should be most keenly aware of the pitfalls of sensationalism, and should tread carefully to navigate around potential landmines like this. 

Yet, despite the climate of unhappiness with foreign talents amongst many Singaporeans, the papers included a snippet of something potentially explosive. This seemingly innocent example overshadowed the main article itself, and few people I spoke to even knew what the original article was talking about, remembering it only as the source of the “curry incident”. 

No doubt the incident itself is interesting and potentially newsworthy, but it also puts the CMC and the particular mediator as a target board for online attacks. There are sure to be many other interesting examples that abound, why chose the one that is most definitely a flashpoint for immigration policies? 

Moreover, the original article clearly implies that the incident was recent and the solution was suggested by the CMC mediator. Only later did Mr Shanmugam clarify that the incident was actually about seven years old and the solution suggested by one of the parties involved did some anger quell. Of course, a conspiracy theorist could also argue that the clarification was a cover up to take the heat off CMC, but I digress. 

By then, the damage was done. A widely-popular “Cook a Pot of Curry” Facebook event was created, and amusingly drew more Facebook support than the presidential elections following a week later, if the fan counts were anything to go by. 

Following closely on the heels of the curry incident, another landmine detonated over the comments of a Filipina lady on MP Penny Low’s Facebook. A few days later, someone stepped on an online booby trap when he commented regarding religious matters on McDonald’s Facebook. People, learn to perk up your online radar! 

Without diving into the delicate intricacies of the issues above, the World Wide Web is definitely a potential source of fireworks these days. One can certainly express your views freely, but perhaps you might want to reconsider the actual wordings lest you end up exploding into the forefront of yet another online fiasco. 

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