Anyone one who says that the public outcry over Amos Yee had anything to do with religious insensitivity has clearly not been listening in on the news the past week.
The 17 year-old who posted “an insulting video clip online containing remarks about Mr Lee (Kuan Yew) which was intended to be heard and seen by persons likely to be distressed by the same", was slapped with no less than 20 police reports from presumably these same “distressed” fellow citizens.
Undeniably, Yee touched on Christianity – in ways that are stunningly and obviously inaccurate, I might add. Yet as a Catholic, I was hardly offended, and I am definitely not the only one. A petition has been started calling on people to "release Amos Yee from your anger", with the writer indicating that “his opinions about our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ neither threaten our faith nor diminish our love for Him”. At time of writing, the petition has more than 2,000 signatories.
The main jibe of the public anger against him is evidently the disparaging remarks about the recently deceased former PM Lee, and in this aspect, Yee has evidently ventured into territory that even he might not have been prepared for.
For the past week, we have seen the development of an online mob with a single dedicated purpose: Defending the good name of Mr Lee Kuan Yew.
Before we go further, let me clarify that I do not believe that this mob is party-political in nature, nor is it directed by one group or organization. There is good reason to believe that Lee has a strong group of supporters who would have defended him to the death, and even in his death. They include the average guy on the street, and also well-heeled individuals who openly called for the authorities to persecute all dissenting voices, and writers to international media who attempted to counter falsehoods perpetuated about Lee’s Singapore.
For them, the endless bombardment of the history of Lee and Singapore, droning on ad infinitum for seven whole days, was the gospel truth and nothing else. For them, Lee the “father of Singapore” whom they love, as one newspaper boldly splashed on its front page, can do no wrong. For them, any other description of Lee, apart from that which describes unyielding love and sacrifice for Singapore, is sacrilegious and must be eradicated immediately.
Into this mob jumps Yee, who also tried to equate Lee with God, but probably not in the most popular way.
But let us not now lie to ourselves – Lee Kuan Yew was not well-loved by the whole nation. I have heard radio reports that tried to identify Lee’s funeral with Princess Diana. Lee was not a princess. He had more in common with Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of the UK. Thatcher was called the “Iron Lady”, and for good reason – she is known for her uncompromising politics, and she made many tough choices in office during a recession and the Falkland War. She was equally adored and hated, and when she died in 2013 and was accorded a state funeral, there were as many people lamenting her loss as there were those singing “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead”, as many lining the streets to pay their last respects as there were turning their backs at the procession in protest.
Lee, of course, did not have that colourful a funeral, and what we had here was remarkably mild by comparison. But just as surely as Lee and Thatcher were good friends, the sentiment of respect and remorse for Lee was not uniform across the nation. Singaporeans adored, trusted, supported, had misgivings about and hated him, depending on who you asked. There is no single story that can tell all about Lee. As Low Thia Khiang said, Lee was a controversial man. We might not doubt his dedication to Singapore, but many of his methods in fulfilling his dedication are highly questionable.
His attempts to subdue those he deemed as his political adversaries is one. The argument that Lee having to “sacrificed a few” for the good of Singapore actually holds no water here. All it did was give Lee political expediency to do as he wish as quickly as possible. It eradicated the need for him to answer for his actions, and it is only today that we realise the importance of holding our government answerable for their every action, no matter how good their intentions.
His desire to quell freedom of information and limit free speech is another. Again, we see in this a desire for political expediency. How could the inability to speak freely about policies that concern our daily lives be a good “trade-off” for progress? Silencing contrarian voices meant that Lee’s policy making was smoother, not necessarily better. And again, time has shown us that a broader debate on issues like population management, housing, transport, healthcare and retirement planning would have served us a lot better today.
And that lack of free speech is precisely the issue that we see today with the online mob, as much as it is one of the most painful of Lee’s legacy. The problem with this online mob is not their beliefs and views per se. Everyone is entitled to their right to speak and to hold differing opinions. But if our desire to defend our opinion leads us to silence opposing voices, by force (laws and regulations included) or by sheer bullying, we are effectively denying the existence or need for these other voices. We lose our ability to discuss and find solutions. There is only this one Lee-way, or no way at all.
We can understand the frame of mind of the individuals who have participated in such activities over the past week. In particular, the one week of mourning was a particularly trying period, and for the ardent fans of Lee, what Yee did was probably unforgivable. But we need to mindful that the 20-odd police reports made against Yee does nothing more than perpetuate the mindset that it is perfectly okay to destroy the lives and views of others so that the whole nation, which has never agreed to everything to begin with, can hear only the good stuff.
Ask yourself: Do you want that to be remembered as Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy, that we live in a fantasy world of perpetual bliss and ignorance?
We have come too far to take that route again. Just as Lee had purportedly allowed himself to be challenged by those who disagreed with him, we should accord ourselves the same right.