Amos Yee and the hypocrisy of some responsible speech advocates

Amos Yee [Photo: ST]
Amos Yee [Photo: ST]
By Carlton Tan

Within 2 days of posting his anti-LKY video, Amos Yee became the subject of 20 police reports lodged against him. In the week that followed, he became the subject of ever more insults and spurious speculation.

In response to this, Cherian George, the Director of Asia Journalism Fellowship, cautioned people against treating Amos as an adult in a widely shared Facebook post. He pointed out that under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Amos is still a child, and regardless of how much he seeks publicity, he is at a stage of life where he needs to be protected—even from himself. Quoting Article 40 of the Convention, Cherian explains:

“”every child alleged as, accused of, or recognized as having infringed the penal law” must be “treated in a manner consistent with the promotion of the child’s sense of dignity and worth” – which means, among other things, that states must guarantee that the child has “his or her privacy fully respected at all stages of the proceedings”.”

Celebrities jostle for a piece of the action

Despite this, two local celebrities have raised questions about his upbringing and suggested that he may be suffering from a mental illness. During an interview with SPH razor on Friday, 3 April, Gurmit Singh and Quan Yifeng shared their thoughts on the Amos Yee incident, perhaps to generate publicity for their latest film Young & Fabulous.

In the interview, Quan engaged in unnecessary speculation about his mental state. She said:

“He should really see a doctor. It’s not that his parents did not care. He could be a really problematic child, and his parents should have brought him to see a doctor.

“If they did and he had treatment, he might not have committed such a grave mistake.

“So yes, if it is a teenager or younger, the parents have to assume the bulk of the responsibility. But for Amos, I think he has a illness. He should see a doctor. His parents should have brought him to see a doctor a long time ago.”

This attempt to pry into the mind of a 16-year-old and the insinuation that he is mentally ill is not only ill-conceived, it is also injurious to Yee’s reputation and should be condemned. This is not the kind of example Quan should set for her own children.

Moreover, Quan perpetuates the myth that all bad behaviour is somehow attributable to mental illness. This is both misleading and unfair to those who truly suffer from mental illness but who are neither rude nor insensitive.

Cherian’s timely reminder is worth repeating here:

“[T]here are still ethical decisions to be made about how much to pry into the boy’s life. I hope we make them responsibly – not just for his sake and his family’s, but really for our own, so we don’t end up losing our moral compass to a kid’s provocation.”

Responsible speech goes both ways

In condemning Yee’s hate speech, some have done the opposite of what they claim to believe in. Instead of exercising responsible speech, a number of people and one radio station have irresponsibly made callous comments about Yee.

One FM913 Amos Yee FB postOn Saturday, 4 April, ONE FM 91.3 posted an image on its Facebook page, taunting Yee with the prospect of a rough life in jail. The picture was captioned: “Hi Amos!! Call Us when U arrive… Love, Your Boys…XOXO”. It was posted with the message: “Amos is gonna have some new friends soon.”

Needless to say, the post was not well received and it was quickly taken down. But it gives us an insight into how the radio station is willing to treat Yee callously —further damaging his reputation — just to capitalise on the public attention that has been showered on this case.

Lawyer Chia Boon Teck’s comment on this case is another example of this kind of irresponsible speech. He said:

“This is not a mindless rant. It is a well-considered campaign backed by graphics and statistics to defame Mr Lee [Kuan Yew] and our government. It cannot go unchallenged. He has to take responsibility for his social media posting that was calculated to provoke the public’s response.”

Calling one video a campaign is an exaggeration; and so is the notion that an 8-minute video by a 16-year-old boy poses a threat to Mr Lee’s well-established reputation and his hegemonic Government. The video may have been made in bad taste, and it certainly fell short of standards of responsible speech, but so does Chia’s exaggeration. We need not go to one extreme to condemn another.

Digging deep

Despite calls to respect the boy’s privacy, the tabloid newspaper STOMP—in keeping with its long and rich tradition of potty journalism—published a piece calling Yee a rude person. In the article, STOMP wrote:

“But in recent years, Amos started putting everyone down.

“Amos became so negative. He used to be opinionated but now he’s rude to everyone around him,” Mr Yap said.”

Mr Yap is not the real name of STOMP’s anonymous source, and it is not even clear whether Mr Yap is who he claims he is — a member of the writing club who knew the boy personally. In making such a scurrilous attack on Yee’s reputation, the least STOMP could do was give readers a reliable source. Alas, the ethics of responsible speech seem not to apply to the Straits Times online portal.

Taking the disrespectful to task

In a letter to the Straits Times on 27 March, Lawyer Chia Boon Teck called for Singaporeans to “stop tolerating such disrespectful comments made against Mr Lee,” and to “take the individuals who made them to task, by raising the issue with the relevant authorities or the individuals’ respective professional or governing bodies.”

Chia Boon Teck Amos Yee authoritiesChia is profoundly mistaken. He conflates tolerance with support and seems to suggest that Singaporeans who do not take action against those who do not exercise responsible speech are supporting them. That is not true. We can tolerate the actions of people like Yee and disagree with them without lending our support. Choosing not to make a police report, make violent threats or level virulent criticism does not mean we condone Yee’s actions.

In fact, many of us are capable of making our objections heard through sound arguments and by engaging in a rational discourse. We need not resort to speculation, like Quan Yifeng, or the legalistic behaviour of Chia to show that we disagree.

Moreover, Chia’s solution—to run to the authorities whenever we disagree—is an ineffective and short-sighted one. Given that people disagree with one another frequently, it’s simply not feasible for the state to intervene in every instance. It is also a heavy-handed way to deal with an issue that can be resolved through rigorous debate. It is only by developing a culture of responsible speech, through open discussion not legalistic behaviour, that we can find a long-term solution to the problem of hate speech.

In some ways, the examples of irresponsible speech cited above can be traced to an attitude that is fundamentally similar to Chia’s. They evince a double standard—one for those you disagree with, and one for yourself. The fact that a celebrity, a radio station and a lawyer were involved demonstrates just how much further we need to go before we have a strong culture of contesting ideas responsibly in an open arena. The solution though, is not more laws and stiffer regulation as the lawyer in Chia would like; the solution lies with us—an educated populace that is fully capable of developing its own social norms given the time and the space.