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.