Man at His Best

The Everyday Troll Behind Singapore's Progress

How to spot one in your social media circle.

BY Joshua Ip | Dec 20, 2016 | Culture

If the Internet were a giant bridge connecting people of diverse interests, then Singapore is a nation of strange, grumpy creatures dwelling under it aka trolls. No corporate Facebook page is safe, no online news item off-limits—all you need is a whiff of controversy and the local troll will be on-site within minutes, slinging insults and non sequiturs at puzzled Internet passers-by (let’s call them hobbits for this article).

Wikipedia defines a troll as “a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments”, so I’ll define a hobbit as “a person who gets all surprised and outraged when encountering trolls, as if they’d never left the Shire.” These two species share a symbiotic relationship and habitat— just scroll down to the comments section of Yahoo News.

You’ll likely find one or two mud-slinging trolls who have occupied a rhetorical corner and are vigorously defending it against all comers, surrounded by a village of offended hobbits bemoaning the ills of Internet society and “kids these days”, all threatening to lobby their MP for Internet regulation.

But when it comes down to it, trolls and hobbits share a common thread of Singaporean DNA: the need to complain. Hobbits complain when the bus is two minutes’ late or if the air-conditioning in the train is weak. In their shiny, little hobbit-hole version of the world, everything is perfect, and everything that isn’t is the fault of “the gahmen”.

On the other hand, their troll cousins have evolved into a more elevated level of complainery where they complain about the complainer, usually by provoking him or her to reveal his or her own stupidity in the process.

Yet another common Singaporean trait that trolls and hobbits share is a strong sense of justice; that there is a right way to go about things.

Hobbits vacillate between wallowing in nostalgic sentimentality and grumbling about how things aren’t the same anymore.

Trolls take it a step further by publicly shaming those they find to be in the wrong, wielding the gaze of the collective Internet like an ego-incinerating laser beam. And when they get a bit more riled up, they mutate into the next level of fantastic creature: the vigilante troll.

Singapore’s best-known vigilante troll is perhaps SMRT Ltd (Feedback), who spawned in 2011 as a nominally plausible alternative to a then-absent feedback channel in the well-reported spate of train stoppages. The CMIO pseudonym- ed admins of SMRT Ltd (Feedback) (Ahmad, Muthu, Lup Cheong and Pereira) brutally eviscerated hobbitesque complaints, such as “I wait for 30 mins the train never come” with manic glee, much to the amusement of satire-starved Singaporeans.

In 2014, however, the intrepid trolls took the next step when they declared #OpsKangKang on Jover Chew, the notorious Sim Lim Square proprietor whose allegedly unethical business practices were not policeable or CASE-worthy.

Over the course of 72 hours, SMRT Ltd (Feedback) posted humiliating photos of Chew, as well as his address, phone number and girlfriend’s personal information on Facebook. As a finishing blow, they delivered multiple unpaid pizzas to his home address.

Within days, Jover had closed his shop indefinitely, and the police were belatedly investigating his case. The term “Jovered” has now entered the Internet lexicon to mean being the unfortunate recipient of a glorious smackdown.

But what allows the vigilante troll to do what he or she does? The key to any aspiring modern-day Batman is first and foremost his pointy-eared mask.

Anonymity is the bridge that the troll hides under, allowing him or her to heave stones in any direction while remaining immune to return fire. Unencumbered by niceties such as democratic checks and balances, due process and the law, a solid troll can even rise to general prominence and goodwill by Jovering orcish public menaces. But then they chose to pick on a dwarf.

In early 2015, SMRT Ltd (Feedback) decided to go after Singapore’s self-proclaimed blogger queen, Xiaxue. She had rankled their ire by publishing a Christmas Day exposé of a rival blog company, and the trolls decided to give her a taste of her own medicine by unleashing a Xiaxue-themed exposé of their own.

Unfortunately, Xiaxue is no mere defenceless orc or clueless hobbit. If average bloggers (or “influencers” as they call them these days) are elves— stick-thin creatures with pointy ears, limpid eyes and impossibly straight hair—then Xiaxue is a dwarf. Short, nasty and utterly unfuckwithable.

The path to her blogger throne is paved with the skulls of fallen enemies, notably low-level trolls who made offensive comments about her, only to discover their family pictures outed on her page. The Internet cleaved in twain as factions gathered behind legendary troll and dwarven paragon, exchanging mighty hammer-blows in a battle for the ages.

When the dust had settled, both proclaimed victory. Xiaxue invoked the divine shield of the newly minted Harassment Act to prevent SMRT Ltd (Feedback) from further attacks, and SMRT Ltd (Feedback) managed to put a triumphant face on their refusal to reveal their identities despite being served a court order.

The question is, my fellow hobbits, who do we cheer for? No one voted the troll into office. Though many of us cheered when Jover got Jovered, we didn’t exactly have a say when the troll picked his next victim.

His dwarven opponent may have landed many shots below the belt in her storied career, but at least, she possesses a face and a name that we can make snide comments about. The troll lives in the shadows and is accountable to no man.

Yet, last month, when I got scammed by an unscrupulous site that charged me a ridiculous fee hidden in the fine print (utterly legally, mind you), I messaged SMRT Ltd (Feedback), looking for a little Internet justice to be done, in the dark places where the long arm of the law does not reach. Perhaps, there’s a little bit of troll blood in all of us.