Behind the brat looms an oppressor still


It’s a terrible pity that Amos Yee’s thoughtless, groundless and hurtful accusation against Vincent Law has taken centre-stage. Vincent had extended a magnanimous gesture of support when Amos needed a bailor. For the boy to make false accusations against him is completely inexcusable.

It’s a terrible pity because it distracts us from examining the political implications of the state laying charges against Amos in the first place. However, even though he has soiled whatever sympathy he deserved (from being a victim of the government’s panicked rush to slay him), we should still be able to put it aside and focus on what happened at the beginning. 

I know that some people find it hard to isolate a discussion about principles from the character involved. When a character is considered distasteful, it takes a lot of effort to defend that character’s rights and criticise those who behaved badly against him. Too many react to such analysis as if it were a defence of the character’s distasteful actions. Yet we must make that distinction. Just as we cannot build institutions if we cannot delink them from personal power, we cannot advance justice (which includes due process even for the guilty) if we are unable to abstract it from whatever wrongs that person may have committed.

To recap, Amos Yee, 16 going on 17, posted a video very soon after Lee Kuan Yew died, celebrating his death. He described Lee as a “horrible person” who “managed to fool most of the world to think he was democratic.” In the course of it he compared Lee with Jesus, accusing both of being “power hungry and malicious but deceive others into thinking that they are compassionate and kind”. The middle part of the video draws on some well-known statistics that he argued would reveal the “true nature of Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore”:  longest work hours, highest income inequality, low government spending on healthcare and social security, etc.

There was also a fleeting pastiche of two persons shagging, with Lee’s face on the penetrator and Margaret Thatcher’s on the other. The government convinced a court that this was pornographic, but frankly, it was more of a “fuck ya” in graphic art style. (Oddly, these scenes now seem to have been removed from the version archived on Youtube – so I can only describe it from memory.)

Eunuchs battling imagined monsters

The first impression I had about the 8-minute video was that this was a rant by a teenager. I’d think that any sensible person would take (or dismiss) his points within that context.

Yet, at virtually lightning speed, the government made preparations to lay on charges: firstly, for Penal Code contraventions “with the deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of Christians in general”; and secondly under the Protection from Harassment Act, presumably for wounding the feelings of those who felt attached to the corpse then lying in state.

A third charge of obscenity was added at some point, over the caricature of Lee fucking Thatcher.

The speed by which the state acted can be seen from the dates. Lee died on 23 March 2015. Amos Yee’s video was uploaded on 27 March. He was arrested on 29 March – the same day as the state funeral. He was charged on 31 March.

At such speed, you can draw one conclusion: No one thought it necessary to stop and think. It smacks of a coterie of loyal lieutenants reflexively rushing to protect their masters from hearing bad news. It leaves you with a mental picture of eunuchs flailing around furiously battling imagined monsters.

It is the exact opposite of what the government at other times tries to present itself to citizens and the world as – a measured, deliberative, well-oiled, archetype of good governance. Here was personality worship and panicked reaction to criticism at their most obscene.

Protecting lazy minds

This is not to say that some people, particularly Christians, were not offended by the video. No one has numbers to prove it but it seems entirely likely that large numbers would have been upset. As Amos Yee said in the video, there is an overlap between being Christian and being rather fond of the regime, and perhaps by design he chose to attack both simultaneously.

The government’s argument is that it is very dangerous to put out such speech because riled-up people can resort to disturbing the peace. Singapore’s precious “racial and religious harmony” cannot afford to be disrupted by such easily-angered people. Therefore, we must not rile them up.

It’s an argument not without reason. The same day that Amos Yee was convicted of wounding religious feelings and obscenity – the charge pertaining to remarks against Lee Kuan Yew was eventually stood down — a blogger was hacked to death in Sylhet, Bangladesh. Ananta Bijoy Das, who had criticised religious intolerance, was attacked by masked men with machetes. According to BBC, he had received death threats from Islamist extremists.

It’s part of a pattern, for in March, another blogger, Washiqur Rahman, was hacked to death in the capital, Dhaka. He had been known for his atheist views.

This followed the February killing of atheist writer and blogger Avijit Roy, an American of Bangladeshi origin. Roy too was killed by machete-wielding assailants in Dhaka. Police has arrested a suspect, Farabi Shafiur Rahman, who had previously threatened Roy several times, including on Facebook. Farabi had previously been arrested in 2013 for making threats to a cleric for administering Islamic funeral rites to another atheist blogger, Ahmed Rajib Haider, who was murdered. Yes, a fourth one. Haider had criticised Islamic fundamentalism.

Proof, no? We must not offend the religious.

Or can we draw another lesson from all this? That the really dangerous ones are those who do get offended in the name of their religion, and think it entirely justified to attack others physically. These are the animals who need to be tamed.

Singapore goes down the wrong path when we keep seeing offensive speech as threats. A hundred to one, it is the religiously inflamed who violently attack their critics, not the other way around. Even short of violence, it is almost always the religious who demand that state power be deployed to silence their critics, not the other way around. It is morally troubling that once again, the Singapore state is lending its power to aid the bigger bully.

The pandering that this signals to those who would think it entirely justified to lose control and physically harm others should their “feelings” be hurt is not only short-sighted, it speaks of a kind of mewling cowardice that deserves nothing but contempt. Even if people are sensible enough not to go berserk (as surely the great majority of the religious are), it still signals the state’s endorsement of religion’s claims to greater legitimacy and superior standing over their critics. It places at religion’s service the monopoly of violence that a state reserves to itself.

Except for maybe 1% of the faithful who are able to think out of the box, state deference to the self-claimed sanctity of religion helps advance the mindsets that most religions – especially the exclusionary type – inculcate: A self-righteousness, a wilful blindness to objective facts that contradict their dogma, an ingrained fear of questioning, and a lazy reliance on received ideas. Religion without criticism closes minds. And when we use criminal law to silence its critics… softly, softly, comes the Talibanisation of Singapore.

Obscenity now is whatever upsets the self-appointed representative of popular opinion

The same with the charge (and Amos’ conviction) relating to obscenity. The tested standard is whether the material is depraved and capable of corrupting. A caricature of an old man doing it on an old woman is not the kind that would arouse 99.99 percent of people; there was nothing even remotely titillating about it. Yet, in their haste to prostrate themselves before their masters, our obsequious officials stormed in to make a bad runny omelette of law.

I recommend Carlton Tan’s critique of this court decision in his piece on Asian Correspondent: Landmark decision expands definition of pornography law with conviction of Amos Yee:

The judge’s decision therefore involves a reinterpretation of the obscenity law to expand it to include material that draws widespread social disapproval. Now, immense moral wickedness is no longer the threshold for determining “obscenity”. It is sufficient for the material to be shocking and revulsive to the community at large.

This decision has far reaching implications on the scope of the obscenity law. The test of whether parents or teachers would approve of young ones viewing an image is a novel one that subjects law enforcement to popular opinion. It has the potential to widen the scope of the law so much so that it could possibly catch any action that may become the subject of public unhappiness based on a whim. It is arguably also a step in the direction of the tyranny of the majority and a step away from reliance on objective standards in law.

The problem with this decision ultimately is that it now grants the Singapore Government immense scope for future prosecution against other individuals who publish material that receives widespread social disapproval. No longer required to prove their case on the basis of an objective standard of social harm or the high standard of immense moral wickedness, the state now has broad discretion to go after unpopular individuals.

“We have rule of law in Singapore”, our government repeats ad nauseum, confident that Western audiences will nod with approval and quickly turn their gaze to other things.

What the Amos Yee case shows is how rotten law has become. What’s the use of rule of law when law itself is rotten? This is how we destroy Singapore.

A multi-religious theocracy

I have argued before that in many ways, Singapore can be likened to a theocracy. Objective standards, deliberative thought, even intelligent reflection, are jettisoned the moment anything comes up that challenges the prescribed dogma. High priests feel perennially beseiged by fears of loss of power and encroachment of other beliefs, junior clergy rush to enforce their superiors’ wishes, making up rules as they go along, while an unquestioning devotion to servitude enslaves the minds of altar boys and girls.

Many religions that hold fast to inflexible dogma find themselves issuing edicts of increasing absurdity as they deny unwelcome empirical facts and discomforting logic. Creationism comes immediately to mind. But the myth-making of “fishing village to First World city” under the aegis of Lee Kuan Yew is a kind of creationism too, denying and erasing large portions of vibrant Singapore history before him.

Another example: We hear of crazies opposing vaccination because it is cast as a stealthy Western plot to sterilise non-Christian or non-White communities so that their population numbers will diminish. Compare this to the argument we have here that the death penalty is absolutely essential to combatting drugs — never mind the objective facts about its absence of deterrence value — usually spoken with a hiss that arguments for abolishing capital punishment represent an imposition of complaisant, indulgent, decadent Western values on an otherwise virtuous, upright Asian society.

Many religions restrict the freedoms and rights of women – they can’t drive, for example – for all sorts of (un)reasons, including the argument that giving women mobility leads to irresistible sexual temptation for men. Here, the restrictions and criminalisation are imposed on gay men, and any affirmative speech in favour of their rights or cinematic depiction of sex is labelled “promoting homosexuality”, and cast as a society-destroying seduction of straight boys and men.

In other words, you see in Singapore the same descent into mindlessness. You see our public life infused with the same tendency to unthinking insecurities. Policy and governance in Singapore have many characteristics of religion. Add the power of a state to ban, fine, jail, cane and kill, and we’re not just talking about crazy cults, but a ruling, oppressive theocracy.

Coming back to the charge of wounding religious feelings in the Amos Yee affair, there is also a lazy, simplistic attachment to the idea of “peace and harmony”, with no one asking whether we’re really talking about silence and conformity, where utopia is imagined to be a place of benevolent authoritarianism (how different is it from a popular conception of heaven?), where dissent – even searching questions — is seen as indistinguishable from blasphemy and apostasy. Where inquisition and burning at the metaphorical stake are seen as acts of moral purification and lasting examples for the edification of the masses.

16 Responses to “Behind the brat looms an oppressor still”

  1. 1 BT 17 May 2015 at 16:02

    “Behind the brat looms an oppressor still”

    Alex should not be concerned about the imaginary “oppressor”, but the manipulators such as Jolovan and Roy who are exploiting the case for their own political agendas.

    Good thing that Amos points them out too.

    • 2 Daniel L 20 May 2015 at 00:58

      “Agenda”- the insidious word casts aspersions on anyone who is accused of it.

      Everyone has an “agenda”when helping others. What is important is that either you are transparent about this agenda, or that achieving this agenda is merely incidental to the help. In other words, one must be sincere about helping.

      Two simple examples are St John’s ambulance brigade, a Christian medical order, and Ren Ci Hospital, a Buddhist one. Their good works are done in hope of spreading their faith. But nobody accuses them of “having an agenda” because at the end of they day, they are sincere about helping too.

      So, is Roy sincere? I could be wrong, but I’m not sure how much he has done to actually help others. Rather, he seems to think that being a government critic/matyr entitles him to sympathy donations and an MP’s paycheck. It seemed pretty important to him to be publicly seen standing in support of the matyr du jour Amos. In all, I’m not very convinced.

      What about Jolovan? I’ve seen him in action at HOME. Say what you want, but he’s made real sacrifices to help migrant workers.

      I think Vincent falls into the same category as Jolovan. Sure, he probably held hopes of successfully mentoring Amos or even bringing him back to the fold, and the positive press which would have ensued must surely have been at least a small part of his motivation for stepping up. But overall I think he genuinely wanted to help- and I think that’s what counts.

      Sincerity should not be judged by whether someone had an agenda- everyone does- but rather by whether this agenda was the main motivation for helping. And by that measure, most of those who stepped up to help passed muster.

  2. 3 Qiao Zhi 17 May 2015 at 17:31

    In truth, the govt sees NO intrinsic values in religions beyond the fact that heads of religious organizations, e.g. the Catholic Archbishop and heads of other Christian Denominations, the Mufti, the Chief Abbot, etc., are willing collaborators of the govt in keeping their respective faithfuls well check behind the ‘red’ line (to quote what one minister had seen it fit to describe ‘crime’ of the Amos Yee).

    The most recent words of praise by PM LHL about the followers of Buddhism on the occasion of the Buddhist ‘concert’ to mark SG50, tends to reiterate and confirm this ‘open secret’ about the true govt attitude towards religions here.

    One would note too, that NOT a single head of local Christian denominations/organizations had stepped up to make its stand known vis a vis the charge Amos Yee faced, preferring to meekly leave it to the ‘secular’ authorities/powers that be, viz, the AGC to do as it sees fit! Silence is golden (and mightily safe!).

    Religious followership and affiliation is very often like club membership in Singapore, bereft of any real fervor and belief in what ones religion stands for and what it means and obligates oneself as a true member of the religion or faith. In a manner, it is not unlike how we viewed local ‘hippies’ in the seventies – all form but no substance as in the ‘hippyism’ of the USA, the subculture’s land of origin.

    • 4 yuen 20 May 2015 at 09:53

      yours was a somewhat innocent comment; all governments make use of community leaders, as willing or reluctant collaborators; the british were specially skilled in this, and some of their knowledge was inherited by their successors; what is the big deal?

  3. 5 D 17 May 2015 at 23:53

    I think there is a distinction to be made when one criticizes religion as compared to insulting religion for the purposes of inciting hate or simply willful insult Sure, there might be some grey area. What constitute ‘valid criticism’ and what constitutes ‘insult and agitation’ but clearly there are some areas where it is plain to see that it is but an attempt to insult. For example, in the aforementioned case, the teenager in question has noted that he knew he is insulting Christians (before he actually filmed it) and admitted that (from one of his posts) that he expected and wanted to elicit a response. To give another example: the Charlie Hebdo case. Of course, insulting one’s religion can never ever be justification for murder but does that accord someone unfettered freedom to consistently and constantly abuse and mock another religion where this abuse could, possibly, elicit a reaction?

    (Suggest you have a look at this if you haven’t already:

    Sure, I agree with you that the ‘dangerous ones are those who do get offended in the name of their religion, and think it entirely justified to attack others physically’ but do we see these people around? Have anyone in Singapore committed such acts in the name of defending their religion? No we have not. What we are seeing is immense restraint and tolerance – instead of taking matters into their own hands, people who are offended lodge a police report instead trusting that the government will handle it appropriately.

    To use your own words; It would be truly morally troubling if someone repeatedly insults another religion/sexuality/ethnicity and the state turns a blind eye to it under the reason of ‘freedom of speech’

    If you can be a little self-reflexive and think about what you said and applied it to the LGBT community or even yourself: how would you react if one of your close friend passed away, who is gay, and got insulted for his sexuality? What if that someone also abuses you for your sexuality?

    Sure, you may not bludgeon the person to death but would you prefer to have some form of recourse? Or are you able to brush it off ?

    • 6 yawningbread 18 May 2015 at 09:29

      > Have anyone in Singapore committed such acts in the name of defending their religion? No we have not.

      And there goes the justification for those laws.

      > how would you react if one of your close friend passed away, who is gay, and got insulted for his sexuality?

      It has happened before. Many don’t even need to die to get insulted for their sexuality. There aren’t strong calls for such speech to be banned (though I don’t speak for everyone), certainly I won’t support such a ban.

  4. 7 The Pariah 18 May 2015 at 14:27

    As statistics do not exist in such situations to establish the level of purported “offence” caused by Amos Yee to the Christian community (in/outside of Singapore), perhaps a proxy could be official press releases by The Vatican (or at least The Roman Catholic Diocese of Singapore) and the equivalent leaders of the various Christian communities condemning the profanities and vulgarities of a bratty teenager against Jesus Christ.

    In fact, there are worse profanities and vulgarities by adults (some in very high places) if you should hear them cuss not infrequently (outside the confines of their homes/work places, and in public places of, say, restaurants, club houses, etc) – conjoining Him, their own mother and the fornication process with three short words.

    1. Were there such press releases by the various church leaders?

    When push comes to shove (eg, if an absurd law is passed to ban all religions in Singapore or if one race turns against another by murder/arson), then Singaporeans will take to the streets even when an assembly of 5 persons or more is an illegal assembly based on laws passed by the PAP Government.

    2. Were there protests even within church grounds?

    The human tragedies arising from ISIS (or the murders of bloggers and journalists in Pakistan/Bangladesh) are a manifestation of a religion (Islam) being politicized.

    The tragedy arising from the Amos Yee saga is a manifestation of a religion (Christianity in this case) being exploited for partisan politics.

    For good sense and public order, the singular concept should be that Politics and Religion should NEVER ever be allowed to mix anywhere in the world.

    3. Yet, PAP partisan politics was mixed with Christianity at (A) state level (based on the haste and heavy-handedness of the law that descended upon the teenage brat) and (B) street level (based on the police reports lodged and The Big Slap by Neo Gim Huah).

  5. 8 yuenchungkwong 18 May 2015 at 23:04

    you should have made the comments earlier; with his molest claim, apology, re-claim, etc, it is now difficult to take him seriously as a web freedom fighter; whatever merits his postings might have had, they are overshadowed by subsequent events

    again I ask: what is your view of the charlie hebdo cartoon mocking mohamed? such material is banned in SG; is this good or bad?

  6. 9 Chua Gabriel 19 May 2015 at 01:38

    Be a good Singaporean and keep your opinions to yourself Amos, if it doesn’t fit in with the MAJORITY shut up. Hope you learn your lesson now.
    Western freedom of speech and human rights is overated! To me and other Singaporeans who doesn’t hate Singapore, Amos is worse than all the other kids who steal, or those bullies who drive other weaker kids to depression, or violent kids who go into physical fights in school our outside, or those who join gangs and do drugs IMO. Only mad people dare to criticize Singapore and PAP. What Amos did is the worse, because he insult our creators. So I can understand why so many true Singaporeans who do not want to see Singapore go down in riots would desire to see Amos to be charged and put in prison, and some even openly wish worse things upon him once he is imprisoned, and be jobless when he is older as no REAL Singaporeans would want to hire him anymore. He insulted our father and disregard REAL Singaporeans emotions and sensitivity (religion and LKY)! That is unforgivable.
    As a God fearing lamb, blasphemy against our lord is an unforgivable sin as Jesus have said so HIMSELF. Being a child even if you are 3 years old is no excuse if you insult our CREATOR!!! Lee KY is the creator of Singapore and God is the creator of man. To insult them is to be ungrateful for your existance and a great sin. And to the eyes of us God-fearing righteous people, sinners deserve to be tortured and punished in hell for eternity. Being charged for blasphemy is the least of his worry. He will have to face GOD HIMSELF!
    If not for these harsh laws, Singaporeans will be very uncivilized people as LKY HIMSELF predicted. Singaporeans need harsh laws to control us. If not there will be riots and disorder like in the past.
    Everyone who makes insulting remarks should be charged as a criminal, and all rebellious children should be sent off for rehab to correct their thinking and ‘wake up their idea’. However, sinners against GOD like LGBT people and their communities do not have the right not to be offended, because they are offensive to Singapore’s conservative society. We are not a western society that people can su-ga su-ga anyhow ruan lai. Buai Sai Buai Sai lahh!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Responsive speech undersrtand!!!!

    • 10 yawningbread 23 May 2015 at 00:00

      Is this rant satirical? Or are you proving my point, through a flamboyant display of (un)thinking, that Singapore is a kind of theocracy.

      Gee… “Lee KY is the creator of Singapore”? Many people will disagree. It’s not incontestable truth, you know…

      As for “God is the creator of man”, that’s not incontestable truth either. Many people will disagree too.

    • 11 The 23 May 2015 at 15:07

      Not sure whether you are being facetious.

      Amos is certainly guilty of blasphemy. The only question is – against which God – that in Jerusalem, or that of No Mercy.

      Jesus was your CREATOR? I thought it was your father and mother.

  7. 12 Emma 19 May 2015 at 13:01

    Hi Alex, the “obscene” image wasn’t just a fleeting moment in the video. It was a post by itself:

    It is unclear if this led to the criminal charge though, as this post is still accessible to the public while the video has been set to private following his conviction.

  8. 13 dxm55 19 May 2015 at 13:53

    Behind the brat lies an oppressor still. True.
    But this brat, is a mirror image of his oppressors, with his ego and elitist attitude to those he considers beneath his perceived intellect.

  9. 14 kala 25 May 2015 at 15:00

    I don’t think bloggers have to worry about posting these following kind of comments.

    For once, I know in certain stat board, having a religion faith is one criteria that justifies promotion. I don’t think this is a slander and I don’t think they are worried that people know this.

  10. 15 kala 25 May 2015 at 15:07

    To elaborate my point above further.

    Technical qualifications and capability is not a sole criteria for promotion in this stat board that I mentioned. Besides qualifications, employees have to say at some point of employment some justifications such as

    1. I have to support my family.
    2. People like me has nowhere to go…where can i go and I need to feed my family
    3. Strangely, religion faith is also one of the valid reason. One has to demonstrate it to the degree that they believe it and that will be sufficient.

  11. 16 yujuan 27 May 2015 at 14:25

    Can’t understand what’s the big fuss about Amos’ video. Being a Christian I dun seem to be offended. Those so called offended Christians have an Agenda behind, taking advantage of a Kid’s rant to reveal their intentions, mixing politics with religion. Our Malay Muslim bros and sis are also amused by the whole saga.
    The real Agenda was criticism of LKY, but bear in mind not all Singaporeans are enamored with him. We see it as persecution of an immature “brat” who dared to take on Lee.
    We have a real local talent on hand, quoting from the “brat’s mother, “He’s an extraordinary son, just born at the wrong place.”
    Dun like to see Amos shackled and bound, before the guilty verdict is announced.
    If this is not barbaric, what’s the word.

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