16-year-old faces charges for offensive video: Where Amos Yee went wrong
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16-year-old faces charges for offensive video: Where Amos Yee went wrong

“Lee Kuan Yew is dead! Finally!” blared the 16-year-old Amos Yee in his nasal voice.

Dressed in a faded yellow T-shirt, the teen continues in his pseudo-American accent:

Why hasn’t anyone said f**k yeah, the guy is dead. Lee Kuan Yew was a horrible person.

I ask myself the same question. Why aren’t we celebrating? Thankfully, the all-knowing sage explains:

Because everyone is scared, everyone is afraid that if they say something like that, they might get into trouble, which give Lee Kuan Yew credit, that was primarily the impact of his legacy.

I see. If you don’t criticise LKY for seven days, it must be because you fear him. This explains the hypocrisy of Barack Obama, Henry Kissinger and all the other sycophantic world leaders. I could do without the jarring voice and the distracting hand gestures though, Amos.

Amos then throws down the gauntlet:

If Lee Hsien Loong wishes to sue me, I will oblige to dance with him. Come at me, motherf****r.

Bravo. The word “punk” comes to mind. Will the younger Lee sue someone his father would never have bothered to even respond to? Following Amos’ logic, he will, if only to instil fear in everyone else. This would be deliciously ironic.

Or maybe, Amos is trying to challenge unjust defamation laws through civil disobedience? As if that ever worked. I’m definitely overthinking it now.

I watch on, trying to figure out why this amateur video went viral.

After a little on-screen reminder that Lee Kuan Yew is dead (as if we didn’t already know), Amos makes his first argument:

Lee Kuan Yew was a horrible leader to our country. He was a dictator but managed to fool most of the world to think he was democratic and he did so by still granting us the opportunity to vote, to make it seem like we have freedom of choice. However, during your rule you control the entire media and education, proliferating nationalistic propaganda on a daily basis.

That is an excellent insight actually. It’s the same thing scholars say when they describe Singapore as practising “electoral authoritarianism” or “competitive authoritarianism” (without using vague terms like “horrible” and misleading ones like “dictator”, of course). Elections are held regularly, votes are not tampered with, and people can vote the ruling party out if they want to; but the absence of an independent media, a strong civil society and genuine political competition by the opposition makes it difficult for Singaporeans to elect the government they really want.

So Amos is on to something here. Now he just needs to realise that most Singaporeans are, in fact, aware of this. He may also gain some perspective by looking at how common this phenomenon is internationally. But I doubt his purpose here is to convince his viewers as much as it is to elicit attention and have his video go viral.

The rest of the video features more of the same: a strident tone, more belligerent name-calling, crude references to the male anatomy and an unnecessary (and inaccurate) comparison to Jesus. If Amos’ plan was to inspire Singaporeans to vote for change in the next elections (as he suggests at the end of the video), then he failed miserably. All he has done is alienate his viewers, most of who do not appreciate being the subject of his abuse.

Amos raised a number of contentions that most of us are familiar with: defamation suits, a judiciary that is partial to the Government, income inequality (with some selective statistics), high ministerial salaries, and a materialistic culture. In case you’re wondering whether you should put yourself through an 8-minute ordeal to find out if he said something valuable, don’t bother, it’s just a ramble interspersed with gratuitous insults. He doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know.

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Parliament House, what Amos Yee is up against. Pic: Wikimedia Commons.

Counterproductive rant

What Amos did do, however, is undermine the causes that he supposedly stood for in the video. Getting the government to relax restrictions on the media, work towards greater income equality and grant Singaporeans greater political freedom, is not just a rhetorical battle, it is a strategic one. Because of his poor timing and arrogant approach, Amos achieved nothing. Instead, he has become an excellent example of why we need to keep the Sedition Act.

Within days, he attracted at least one violent threat, became the subject of over 20 police reports, and was eventually arrested by the police on Monday (Mar 30). He will most likely be charged under the Sedition Act for “promoting feelings of ill-will and hostility between races or classes of the population of Singapore.” And he may receive a fine of up to $5,000 or imprisonment for a term up to three years, or both. As he is not a juvenile, Amos can expect to face the full brunt of the law.

From what I’ve heard, Amos is a bright kid, and from the video, you can tell he’s not unfamiliar with Singapore’s political landscape. He must surely have known about Singapore’s harsh laws against making inflammatory remarks, so why didn’t he leave them out? Perhaps he wanted to attract people’s attention. Perhaps he thought he could get away with it. One thing is for sure though, it has made it hard to sympathise with him and few Singaporeans will be upset to see Amos punished. Whatever Lee Kuan Yew did, he remains immensely popular.

But this issue goes beyond Amos Yee and the little stunt he pulled. It goes to the issue of whether we should whip out the Sedition Act, with its harsh penalties, for cases as mild as these, where no one really got hurt.

Responses to Amos are indicative of our maturity as a society. Singaporeans were quick to condemn his video, and with the exception of one foolish grassroots leader who made a violent threat, no one has been incensed enough to take real action. Some Christians even said they have forgiven him. In fact, professors in philosophy classes say far worse things about the Jesus of Christianity. He is called a liar, a lunatic, and so on, but no one files police reports against these academics. All this shows that we have a society that is mature enough to tolerate criticism and weed out extremist ideas.

Singapore really isn’t the same fragile nation-state it was 50 years ago. It’s been decades since we last had a racial riot and two generations since we were unable to communicate with another race because we didn’t share a common language (English). During this time, we’ve made real progress as a society. We are now able to rebuff extremist ideas fairly quickly and prevent them from becoming mainstream.

Therefore, we shouldn’t be afraid that one arrogant punk, with just a video camera and an internet connection, might undermine decades of hard work. And we don’t need to throw him in jail or use the Sedition Act against him.

He can’t hurt us and we don’t need to hurt him.

We’re better than that.

Update: Amos was eventually charged under various other laws, not the Sedition Act.

Parliament-House-556x280  asiancorrespondent