“Siao Ah!” On Mental Health, COVID, and Anti-Social Behaviour
By Wayde Chan, Editor
The COVID-19 Pandemic has brought out different sides of people - the good, the bad, and the outright weird.
As Singapore undergoes its second Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) within 3 months, more people in Singapore will find themselves working from home, and invariably on social media a little more. Perhaps due to the increased volume of social media viewers, or just the general Singaporean’s dissatisfaction towards anti-social behaviour, online news outlets have been publishing more instances of anti-social behaviour.
Furthermore, as pandemic fatigue and unhappiness continues setting in in Singapore due to the frequent tightening of measures, such anti-social behaviour has become increasingly intolerable in Singapore.
The “Sovereign Lady” , the “MBS Badge Lady” , and “Beow Tan”  do not need any further introduction. These 3 ladies have committed various social (and legal) ills in Singapore, from their refusal to wear masks during the pandemic, to challenging public officials’ instructions and inciting disharmony between different races.
True to the Singapore online community, they have shown “virtually” no mercy to the 3 of them, with many voicing condemnation of their actions and calling for harsh enforcement action to be taken against them. The more light hearted side of the internet raised awareness of these incidents by poking fun at their ludicrous behaviour through memes, parody videos on TikTok and Instagram, reaction videos through Youtube .
Interestingly, a number of netizens have also labelled the 3 persons as ‘mentally ill’ to explain their transgressions of socially acceptable behaviour. In fact, the phenomenon goes beyond the 3 ladies, but even in general to many other socially-irresponsible actions and incidences.
Other key examples during the COVID-19 pandemic include the cases of Mohamed Ali Ramly , who shouted racist abuse at a Chinese cashier for refusing him entry into a minimart for not wearing his mask, and Benjamin Glynn , who was charged for not wearing a mask inside the MRT, and audaciously within and outside the State Courts premises. Netizens were also quick to condemn their actions, while speculating that he may be suffering from an unsound mind, leading to their misdemeanours.
“Siao Ah!” 
Perhaps, this phenomenon of linking anti-social behaviour to mental disorders can be traced back to the Hokkien saying “Siao ah!”, which translates to “Crazy!” or “Are you crazy?” in English. The term is most often used when one observes another behaving in an erratic manner, or even saying or suggesting something that is absurd or egregious.
For example, a suggestion to go out in groups of 5 during Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) may be met with the reaction “Siao ah!”, as will a suggestion to run in the rain, or feeding meat to a vegan.
This phrase has been used so often in society that even non-Hokkien speakers have taken it up, such that any behaviour that deviates from societal norms will be regarded as crazy, which extends to being mentally unsound. Hence, when one breaks the law or partakes in anti-social behaviour, it is almost overly simple to make assumptions by linking their actions to mental illness.
But is this really constructive or even meaningful? Labelling such anti-social behaviour as a product of mental unsoundness has two main unwanted outcomes.
Firstly, labelling someone as mentally unsound trivialises what they actually did, and places more focus on their mental state. People who label such anti-social behaviour as a product of mental illness often have two main purposes with the same outcome.
The first is to mock the perpetrator by hoping to pile on the abuse thrown at them by questioning their mental health, further lowering the perpetrator’s social status in the eyes of netizens. These netizens may go to the extent of making memes and parodies of such anti-social behaviour.
The second seeks to elicit empathy from fellow netizens, such that they will feel for the perpetrator and understand, if not forgive, them for their poor behaviour on account of their poor mental health. These kind people are typically mental health activists who seek to see the good in people.
Unfortunately, both chains of thought are potentially unconstructive and harmful. By removing the focus on the perpetrator’s actions and focussing it on their mental health, the plot is effectively lost.
The reason why these incidents went “viral” on the internet should be to discourage and condemn such anti-social behaviour, rather than to comment on one’s mental health. The actions of such socially irresponsible people should, and must, be taken at its face value, that it is irresponsible, unacceptable, and occasionally illegal.
Especially for the case studies raised above, labelling the offenders as mentally ill is simply missing the point through taking focus away from their offences, to the extent of even giving them an excuse for their misdeeds. In order to promote a more civic-minded Singapore, we shouldn’t mask these discussions with unsubstantiated claims on one’s mental health.
Secondly, labelling someone as mentally ill when they do a socially irresponsible deed is harmful to mental health awareness and understanding itself. It is important to recall that beyond the wide range of existing mental health disorders, different people suffering from the same mental health disorder may behave in a different way. Many people who suffer from mental health disorders carry it silently, and do not outwardly display outbursts such as those observed in the examples raised above.
By wilfully labelling someone as mentally ill without any medical evidence, this will put a certain stereotype on what people perceive as mental illness. This perpetuates insensitivity whereby such a stereotype causes people to label others who act a certain way as mentally ill, or that they expect someone who is mentally ill to act in a certain way. One great danger about such stereotypes is laymen becoming skeptical over mental health patients’ condition because their behaviours do not fall into said stereotypes.
Such stereotypes and insensitivity only serve to impede mental health awareness in Singapore, and further impedes the recovery of people battling with mental health. Rather than jumping to erroneous conclusions with stereotypes of mentally ill people by equating them with socially irresponsible people, one may find better understanding and empathy through proper research, experience, and volunteerism.
Quick Note on the Mental Illness and the Law
The Singapore Penal Code (“PC”)  and Criminal Procedure Code (“CPC”)  does provide some guidance as to how offenders with mental illness are treated by the law upon conviction. A preliminary note is that one’s mental health, save for the most extreme circumstances, does not preclude the court from making out the offence. Where mental health can be considered, however, is when sentencing is concerned.
Firstly, section 84 of the PC provides for a qualified acquittal for convicted persons found to have unsound minds. However, sections 251 and 252 of the CPC then provide that such persons with qualified acquittals are to be “confined in a psychiatric institution, prison or other suitable place of safe custody during the President’s pleasure” for an indefinite term. Yet, the threshold for section 84 of the PC to be met is extremely high, and more often than not not made out.
Secondly, for non-serious offences, convicted persons who fulfill certain criteria can instead be given a Mandatory Treatment Order in lieu of an imprisonment or fine, in accordance to sections 336, 337, 338, and 339 of the CPC. These convicted persons under an MTO will need to report for treatment for their mental conditions at prescribed timings and comply with their psychiatrists’ instructions for a period not exceeding 36 months.
Thirdly, when the courts find that a person committed their crimes (in part of fully) because of their mental illness, the courts are able to exercise leniency and compassion by imposing a lower sentence on the convicted person.
In any case, the law will take a more lenient view towards offenders who possessed significant mental disorders at the time of their offence, and that such mental disorders contributed to their offence.
Therefore, it is generally incorrect to say that one will be locked up for a very long time because of their mental illness leading to their crime, unless they fall into the very narrow and strict criteria of “unsoundness of mind” in section 84 of the PC. This is because the courts are generally willing to accept that someone with mental illness may not be fully culpable for their crimes.
“Everyone is going through a battle you know nothing about” does not mean assuming one is mentally ill when they do not conform to social norms. It means to practice empathy, not to mask one’s poor behaviour with mental health, which breeds more harm than good. Instead, we should call these irresponsible behaviour out for what they are, but do so with the necessary empathy and tact.
When it comes to one’s mental health and their punishments, let us leave it to the psychiatrists, psychologists, and the judiciary to decide. Let us not “play doctor”, or even worse, play judge, jury, and executioner.
Stereotypes about mental illness are more likely than not to be destructive. The last thing we would want is to become a society who is desensitized and apathetic towards mental health issues, or even worse, regarding socially-irresponsible behaviour as “normal” because they are effects of a mental health condition.
As a society, we can, and should, raise awareness of anti-social behaviour and mental health issues, but let us not go so far as to conflate these 2 concepts, lest we leave this world in a more toxic position than how we found it.
(The author would like to specially credit Dr William Wan, General Secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement, for his commentary on Channel NewsAsia titled “[o]ur unkindness on social media is a mirror to society”, published on 29 May 2021. )
Wayde is a Year 1 freshman studying at the Faculty of Law, and is an Editor for The Convergence this year. As the most junior member of the Editorial Team, he opines that political awareness is the hallmark of an active and informed society, and should be expected of every responsible citizen. He feels that politics encompasses every part of life, and in fact was his source of life during his post-NS pre-Uni period (Read: COVID-19). He is not shy to admit that GE2020 brought a great deal of colour to his otherwise “Circuit Broken” life. Outside of The Convergence and his (mountains of) Law readings, he can either be found listening to sad Chinese songs, watching his favourite football club, Manchester United (GGMU), or failing to cure his unhealthy obsession with Japanese Mayonnaise.