The Amos Yee affair

Partisanship versus Principles

When it comes to free speech, there are those of us that are absolutist (not sure if that is possible), others that believe that only speech that can cause ‘harm’ (which is variously defined) should be restricted and still others that believe that any speech that may offend or be insulting should be banned.  There are many arguments advanced in favour of the different positions adopted and to be fair, the spectrum is much wider than just the 3 that I stated above.

The point of this post is not to argue in favour of a particular position.  This post is a call for consistency.  The latest ‘free speech’ saga to hit our society is the one involving the 16 year old Amos Yee.  I have my reservations about what he said and the way he said it.  I also have issues with the heavy handed response.  More than anything else, I am somewhat alarmed by the readiness of my fellow citizens to file police reports in relation to offensive online statements.

These police reports appear to have a partisan motive.  We need to get off our partisan horses and address issues on the basis of principles rather than the particular political (party) position that we come from.

Over the years, there have been several incidents involving individuals making statements that could potentially be seditious under our laws.  There has been much attention on how our authorities have appeared to have treated some individuals ‘lightly’ or pursued others vigorously.  Amidst the public outcry over the Amos Yee video and the corresponding outcry over the excessive response to the video, there is something that I couldn’t help but notice.  Whether you supported Amos Yee or were against him appeared to depend partly on whether you were pro-PAP or anti-PAP.  (I emphasize on ‘partly’.)

Clearly the lynch mob that has been calling for Amos Yee to be hit hard under the law is not of the same composition as the ones that called for Jason Neo (YPAP member) to be charged in 2011.  Jason Neo had posted a picture of a bus carrying Malay kindergarten children and captioned it as “bus filled with young terrorist trainees?”  Police reports were filed.  There was much disquiet online over that caption.  Apologies were made by a couple of MPs in relation to that incident.  Given the fact that Jason Neo was a YPAP member, there was little doubt that those that were calling for his conviction were primarily anti-PAP.  Were there Muslims that felt offended?  Understandably, there were.  There were also many others that chose to brush it aside.  I know of this from among my own circle of friends.

The Amos Yee video is allegedly insulting towards the Christian faith.  However, it does appear that the lynch mob that has turned against Amos Yee has done so because his video was maligning LKY rather than because of the reference to Christ.  This fact is plainly obvious from the numerous facebook comments that flooded in when Amos Yee’s video came out.  One of those that filed a police report against Amos was a lawyer by the name of Chia Boon Teck.  It may appear that Mr Chia was quite offended by the remarks made against the late LKY.  In a letter to the Straits Times appearing on 27 March 2015 (a day before we found out about the police reports ), Mr Chia had written as follows:
 I have heard many disrespectful jokes and opinions regarding Mr Lee Kuan Yew over the past few weeks.
With his death, let all Singaporeans stop tolerating such disrespectful comments made against Mr Lee and take the individuals who make them to task, by raising the issue with the relevant authorities or the individuals’ respective professional or governing bodies.
 There is a limit to freedom of expression. “
There were many netizens that got quite riled up about the eventual arrest of Amos Yee and they started raising older cases involving allegations of sedition.

Naturally, questions were asked about Jason Neo’s posting.  Some brought this up, obviously, by way of contrast to highlight the difference in treatment.  The stark difference being that Jason Neo was a YPAP member and Amos Yee criticized the person that is virtually godlike in PAP mythology.

The case of the Filipino nurse, Edz Ello, who made disparaging comments about Singaporeans was also brought up. That issue started in December 2014 and was quite hot in January this year eventually resulting in his firing on 9 Jan 2015.  Police investigations were still ongoing.  The swift arrest of Amos Yee resulted in netizens questioning the police about the Edz Ello case (with the police responding on 1st April that he was still under investigation ) and the latter was eventually charged on 7 April 2015.

Many netizens also highlighted the Amy Cheong case (in 2012) where she made comments about music from a Malay wedding at the void deck.  There was swift reaction from NTUC on that occasion in dismissing her (in relation to which I have some concerns about due process and I blogged about it here).  However, many anti-establishment persons view the authorities as having acted in a lax fashion in allowing her to leave the jurisdiction without getting charged.   Eventually in March 2013, the police issued a stern warning against her.

I’ve used these examples as a sampling of the kind of ‘debate’ that is going on online.  It’s a plainly (and often painfully) partisan debate.  A person could be a ‘free speech proponent’ one moment when protecting or defending Amos Yee and could be part of the lynch mob braying for blood the next moment when the individual involved is somewhat identified with the ‘establishment’.  In the case of Edz Ello, the identification with the establishment has arisen as a result of his Filipino nationality.  Part of the anti-establishment rhetoric in Singapore coalesces with the anti-foreigner sentiment.  In the case of Amy Cheong, her employment at NTUC and her foreigner status are factors that helped to place her in the ‘establishment’ camp.

At this point, I have to state that many genuine free speech proponents have been consistent over the years and I don’t see them insisting that any of these individuals should have been charged as criminals.  There is, in fact, a concern that the law is being used inconsistently with a possible partisan approach.  Certainly the swift approach in Amos Yee’s case stands as a contrast to the Jason Neo incident.  (Edz Ello and Amy Cheong should be seen as mere distractions as the ‘establishment identification’ is somewhat tenuous.)

The concern that I have is not so much about the staunch free speech advocates nor even those that have consistently advocated in favour of tough speech laws on a purely principled basis.  That is a different debate and one that is worth having and that is capable of being rationally engaged in.

The concern I have is with the pro-establishment or anti-establishment motivation behind some of the arguments thrown around either in support of Amos Yee or against him.  After the death of Lee Kuan Yew, there appears to be a mushrooming of mini-LKYs asserting a return to the knuckle-duster days.  (I’m not sure if those days ever ended. :-) ) .  Clearly, these PAP sympathizers can be seen to lambast Amos Yee whilst finding justifications for the lax treatment of Jason Neo.   On the other hand, there are those that are advocating for the release of Amos Yee whilst at the same time advocating that someone like Jason Neo ought to be brought to task or rejoicing that Edz Ello has now been charged.

I do not wish to engage in a naming and shaming exercise by stating who these individuals are.  I hope that they recognize their own inconsistency.   If you want to assert that the speech-based offences should not be formulated in the way that they have been in Singapore, then a consistent position to be adopted would be to assert that Amos Yee, Edz Ello, James Neo and Amy Cheong should not be charged.  If you want to assert that such offences as currently formulated are necessary for the maintenance of order in this society, then you should be a staunch advocate for the equally expeditious prosecution of these parade of characters that we saw earlier.  (If you want to be really principled about it, there are plenty of examples online, almost on a daily basis, of objectionable and legally actionable comments that I can direct you to and you will find yourself in police report heaven.)

Let’s get real about this.  The only reason for inconsistent positioning with regard to the different incidents is our own party-political standpoint.  ‘Find excuses if he is our guy but whack him senseless if he is from the other camp.’ – This seems to be the prevailing attitude.  This has led to the madness of filing police reports.  I would prefer that the limited resources of the police force be channeled towards real and substantial crime-fighting instead of citizens distracting the police by piling up the police reports because they feel offended by online rants/posts.

Can we all just come to our senses and stop this nonsense at once?  Can we not have a serious and rational debate instead of being partial about it or running off to the police for protection because we are not thick skinned enough?  This should not be about ‘us’ versus ‘them’.  If today we want to whack one of ‘their’ chaps under the law, then we must be prepared tomorrow for one of ‘our’ chaps to be whacked under that same law.  Consider the merits of the law and not who should get whacked.

Oh yes, whilst we are at it, can we not grow a thicker hide as a people and not get worked up by the rubbish spouted by others?  Back in 2012, when Shimun Lai made a racist remark about Indians, there was some furore on the net and I blogged about the need for levelheadedness in responding to such comments.

We can’t afford to stress ourselves over the comments that others make.  It is psychologically unhealthy and counterproductive.  We also need to formulate a strategy of response within ourselves in relation to youthful ranting.  Confront stupidity and anger with logic and compassion.  Police reports, handcuffs, shackles and prison time do not make us a better society.  Reason and compassion certainly will.

(I have chosen not enter into a discussion of the merits of the Amos Yee case itself.  He has been charged (i) for distributing obscene content online under s.292(1)(a) of the Penal Code, (ii) for uttering words intended to wound religious feelings of other persons under s.298 of the Penal Code and (iii) making abusive communication that is heard by a person likely to be distressed/alarmed/harassed under s.4(1)(b) of the Protection from Harassment Act.  The last piece of legislation is relatively new and it was passed in November 2014.  If you are keen on reading academic articles on the Protection from Harassment Act and do not have access to academic legal journals, proceed to the Singapore Law Blog at this link.  They have extracted 3 useful articles for the benefit of the public.)

(Note on the photograph:  I have included an image of Kumar, the local comedian/comedienne together with MargaretLeeFlagrante Amos Yee, Edz Ello, Amy Cheong, Jason Neo and Shimun Lai for a reason.  For those of us that have difficultly dealing with racist comments, it would be healthy to go for a few of Kumar’s shows.  Kumar makes some jokes that will normally rile up the online lynch mob and he does it with finesse.  We, as a nation, will benefit from some ‘Kumar therapy’.  :-)

(P.S. Kumar – If you are reading this, you owe me a favour for this free advertisement.  :-p )

*The writer blogs at https://article14blog.wordpress.com/

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