By NUS Communications and New Media

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I’m scared of saying what I feel, and my friends feel the same way

By Alvina Koh

PHOTO: LIANG LEI


Yes, you heard right — I am scared of saying what I really feel. I’m even more scared of saying so. Like here. Now.


If young people are supposed to be incredibly brave, individualistic and daringly vocal, then I don’t fit the mould. I hold myself back from saying what I truly think or feel, especially when posting online. I am afraid of the repercussions that may follow.


Like how my youthful online shenanigans could affect my job hunt when I finally graduate. It is no secret that employers or HR personnel have extended background checks to social media accounts and online activity of job applicants. Do they sieve out applicants based on how silly or politically incorrect they’ve been? Do they go, look at the silly person waving a Kate Spade bag as if her life depends on it. ‘Nuff said.


I don’t resent the process as employers would naturally want to hire individuals whose values and image best align with their company’s ethos. I mean, you wouldn’t hire a green activist if you were in the oil or petrochemical industry right?


But my fear goes deeper than that. It is about the pressure to post only what is politically correct, lest someone decides to misinterpret my words. How did this come about? How did social media become less of a free space to post wandering thoughts and more like an informal LinkedIn profile for prospective employers to scrutinise my character and employability?


Is the fear that my words online might be taken out of context irrational? After all, my Facebook profile is meant for “Friends Only’’.  We share articles, memes, and the occasional silly video. But I am hyper-conscious of what appears on my timeline, even the ones friends tag me in. I consistently avoid interacting with posts that may be seen as anti-establishment or indicate what cause I am for.


What a climb down for this digital native!


I have been on the Internet since I was 11. I grew up with a gamut of social media platforms: MSN, Twitter and even Plurk. My parents were concerned with my online activity and would often instruct me to be careful with what I post online. I always thought they meant divulging personal information, such as where I lived or studied. Perhaps they were prescient enough to anticipate the age of doxxing.


So have I become more and more reticent? Definitely. I am increasingly cautious about what I say online, worried about judgment from my peers and strangers who want to take a peek at my life. The rules on fake speech have made me even more timid, never mind that I don’t say all that much in the first place. I know satire or personal opinions do not come under POFMA, but why risk an offhand remark or rant anyway?


I am not alone in feeling I am being watched virtually for missteps. Many of my peers agree with my sentiments.


Enter Friend A, who fears not being able to land a distinguished job within the government sector because of his old Facebook posts. He ended up deleting them all for a clean slate, which meant binning comments on several state policies or actions that were made exclusively for his Facebook friends. His friends told him the posts were more thought-provoking than rabble-rousing and that potential employers would not take issue with them. But Friend A stood by his position that they would someday threaten his chances of being employed by the organisation.


Friend B constantly reminds herself — and others — of the kind of destruction that has happened to people who have said or done something wrong online. She cited the DBS employee who was fired because the image he had shared on Facebook was taken as an insult to Singapore. Now, she is only interested in reposting funny memes and sometimes dog videos.


Friend C has, instead, dropped social media altogether. Previously an avid social media user, she now takes her social updates via messaging apps. She finds it easier to keep her online records clean by not using them at all. If anything, her Facebook functions as her second LinkedIn profile. It’s littered with posts of motivational quotes and her internships — and photographs of her with old classmates and colleagues. Her life, on a polished platter for potential employers.


It’s evident from my friends’ preemptive actions how quick we are as a generation to censor our words and actions online. The older generation tells us that we are the ‘future of Singapore’ and that we should be braver with what we say and do.

But we are also careful not to become unwitting victims. We filter our thoughts so much that our words are a regurgitation of mainstream or socially acceptable ideas. We censor ourselves with out-of-bounds (OB) markers we set, based on what we feel is unacceptable.


Herein lies the problem: those who are willing to break away from the norm — and say so — are labelled as dissidents and sometimes punished. It doesn’t matter which side of the political divide you stand. A maverick, including a well-intentioned one, would have to post anonymously to protect himself from harassment.


If you were to ask me if this was a good or bad thing — well, I’m too scared to answer.


Read the buzz over free speech here.