How Singapore Got Hooked on the Internet of Public Shame

One of the city-state's biggest websites allows users to upload photos and videos of 'bad' behavior.

Image
Shutterstock.com

On the online portal STOMP, owned by Singapore's top newspaper, The Straits Times, Singaporeans upload photos and videos of each other indulging in behaviors that, anywhere else in the world, might be considered mundane. Typical entries include images of people eating on the subway, or making out in a public park. 

Of course, Singapore's government has a well-earned reputation as a killjoy. This is a city-state, after all, perhaps best known for its attempts to control behavior by caning people for vandalism or imposing the death penalty for some drug offenses. Singaporean STOMPers—those who tattle on their peers—in this way join rather than challenge their government in monitoring the public.

Certain themes particularly resonate on STOMP, such as 'bad' behavior on public transportation, substandard hygiene, and ill-mannered foreigners. In one recent post, STOMP contributor "mav" calls out a man for taking several seats on a bus and putting his feet up:

"Not only has he taken three extra seats, his slippers are dirtying one of them."

A more extreme example comes courtesy of a group of STOMPers calling themselves the "Kampong Boys," who posted a photo of South Asian workers passed out from drinking in a subway station on New Year’s Eve. Comments on that post ranged from xenophobic vitriol ("So many garbage all around this once clean country...sigh!") to more reasoned sentiments ("not all foreign workers are in this sorry state .. majority are doing fine earning a decent living").

Just how big of an influence does STOMP have? According to the site's editors, last year STOMP had a total of 1.2 billion pageviews and 18 million unique visitors. Singaporean journalist Kirsten Han notes that residents often joke that they are afraid to sit down in a reserved seat on mass transit for fear that they will "kena STOMP," meaning get posted on STOMP, for taking a space designated for the disabled, pregnant, or elderly (even if the train is half empty and no one on board needs those seats)

Alex Coulston, a 26-year-old American living in Singapore, says he and his friends "half joke" that they will be "STOMP’d" if they do anything out of the ordinary in public. Coulston once participated in the Hindu celebration Holi, in which revelers throw colored dye at each other. “My friends and I were taking the [subway] home with dye all over us,” he says. “Everyone was staring, and we thought to ourselves, ‘Uh-oh, I hope we don’t get STOMP’d!’ Later, we went on the site and found photos—not of us, but of others—with the caption, ‘Why didn’t these people take a shower?’”

Han and Coulston are both critical of STOMP. Coulston describes it as “only a site for gawking and gossiping.” Han argues that while citizen journalism is important in a place like Singapore, where the mainstream media “isn’t free,” STOMP panders to small-mindedness. “The problem is that a lot of people are still drawn to it,” she says. STOMP editor Azhar Kasman's response? "What STOMP's citizen journalists contribute are matters that are of concern and importance to them and their community." And STOMP has indeed won accolades, such as first place for “Best in Online Media” at the 2013 Asian Digital Media Awards.

Singapore is seeing a variety of new-ish online portals grow in popularity—including ones that question the status quo. One such site is The Online Citizen, a news portal that hosts bloggers who openly criticize state policies. As Nazry Bahrawi, the Singaporean cultural critic, wrote in 2011, "Singapore's new media landscape [such as The Online Citizen] suggests a leaning towards political activism.” Three years later, Nazry notes the rise of critical blogs, such as New Nation, a satirical site similar to The Onion. Yet despite these outlets, he feels that Singapore is still missing insightful content that might better challenge STOMP. “Some of the commentaries in these critical blogs are polemical and lack nuance,” he says.

About the Author

  • Mimi Kirk is an editor and writer living in Washington, DC.