Moral vigilantes subvert justice

THE three-week jail sentence handed down to Neo Gim Huah for slapping teenage blogger Amos Yee demonstrates the severity with which the Singapore courts view vigilantism.

It has to be curbed because of the pernicious nature of what drives vigilantes - believing they are acting in the public interest, they tend to go overboard. Neo said that he had taken offence at portions of a video posted online by Yee which he found disrespectful to Singapore's founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. And he believed that it would be difficult for the criminal justice system to deal effectively with Yee because of his age. However, by taking the law into his hands, Neo challenged the authority of the very law which he felt ought to be upheld in the case of Yee. By punishing Neo for his excessiveness, the court has made it clear vigilante justice is a contradiction in terms.

There are good reasons for this implacable view. A fundamental principle of justice is that it cannot be meted out by an aggrieved party in a case but must be administered by an impartial entity which has no personal interest in the outcome. Otherwise, law would degenerate into vengeance, which would invite retaliation. That would ignite a cycle of violence which could lead ultimately to anarchy and undermine the very rationale of law as the basis of order.

A related reason is that the law exists to protect the weak from the transgressions of the strong. Vigilantism represents the opposite principle. Usually, it is the physically or socially more powerful who attack the weak. This is evident particularly when a group gangs up on a person or persons believed to have committed a wrong. Yet another reason for acting against vigilantism is its unconcern for consequences. Road or air rage as a way of settling scores, for example, endangers the safety of people unrelated to the dispute.

Vigilante acts in the digital world are often no less reprehensible than vigilantism in the physical world. The mob-driven shaming of individuals whose acts or views are deemed disagreeable, particularly the release of information that identifies their whereabouts in the real world, is a form of public lynching. While the victims might have initiated the spiral of vendetta through provocation, good netizenship requires respect for privacy and the law. Flaming targets online is a temptation that must be resisted at the personal level. When conduct is egregious, the full weight of anti-harassment laws should be applied.

Personal security and public order are intrinsic to the quality of life in Singapore. They have been achieved by adopting a non-negotiable approach to law. No matter what the provocation, real or imagined, vigilantism is never the answer.