A mature society is marked by its ability to accept, assimilate, and act upon criticism.
It’s intriguing but disconcerting to follow the tribulations of Amos Yee, the brave young 17-year-old who has dared to question the majesty of the late founding father of Singapore. Several worrying issues come to mind, involving both modern and archaic concerns that touch on Singapore as a society.
In case you missed it, Amos posted a video titled “Lee Kuan Yew is finally dead!” to his YouTube channel four days after the Singapore strongman passed away. He expressed some controversial sentiments. Among other things, he called Lee a horrible person and said he hoped he would not rest in peace.
The video went viral, and within two days Amos had become the most infamous person on the island, leading to his arrest under charges that include offences against Christianity, which he did insult. But these charges were secondary to his actual crime, which was insulting Lee Kuan Yew.
Two important issues immediately come to mind, the first being the rise of social media witch hunts following viral online postings. In this day and age, when an issue, topic, or person could trend worldwide in the blink of an eye, going on the Internet and making comments is much like stepping onto a rifle range and changing the targets with your own body. The Internet hive mind has shown to be relentless and at times vindictive, leading to several prominent suicide cases over the past few years.
The question is, do we have the right to privacy and security in the age of social media? It’s an interesting issue to ponder upon. Posting a video, status, or picture in the public domain opens the door for people to backtrack through your history, your previous thoughts and opinions, that tweet you sent half drunk while slouching on your couch.
In the case of something controversial going viral like Amos’ video, does he have any right to privacy when the entire world has heard his name and wants to know everything about him? Does he have the right to security against those who take offence at the contents of his video?
It’s a First World issue that has been debated upon intensely, and no one has come up with a satisfactory answer yet.
The second issue is the Singaporean police state. We Malaysians would like to believe that we live in a repressive society where our every move is policed. That’s true to quite an extent, as the recent spate of arrests makes clear. But Singapore is worse, if only because it is a police state that is highly regulated. Dissent is controlled through a sedition law and civil litigation. Indeed, Kuan Yew was famous for using the sedition law to dispose of his political opponents.
That a 17-year old boy can be publicly crucified in such a manner is appalling, even if he made distasteful remarks. He made legitimate criticism of Lee and the formula he used to nurture Singapore into the power that it is today. Criticism is essential in a democracy because you are using your voice to express your opinions, and the more those opinions are well-formed and informed by facts, the more valid and worthy of debate they are.
The truth is that Amos had a point. Underneath the profanity and angst, he made some well-rounded observations about Singapore’s controversial founding father. The cult of Lee Kuan Yew wishes these sentiments to be wiped out as Singaporean history is rewritten to make it seem like Lee single handedly built Singapore, brick by boring brick.
A hallmark of a fully mature society is its ability to accept, assimilate, and act upon criticism. Attempting to silence dissent only leads to more dissent, something we Malaysians are very familiar with. In the case of Amos, we have a bright young man who is being dragged through a trial for the sake of satisfying some collective ego. But mark these words: Amos Yee will be a rock star the instant he walks out of the courthouse, for his voice represents the voice of a generation that dares speak against Singapore’s official history.