The Amos Yee saga has got me thinking about how we as a society deal with "non-mainstream individuals". While I do not profess to agree with Yee's erstwhile sentiments, I do wonder if we have overreacted to what is essentially an angry teenager's rant about society.
Sure, Yee's statements are annoying but when does annoying behaviour become a crime? Does that justify handcuffs and the weight of our court system on the paltry shoulders of a teen?
The charges against Yee are that he has contravened the Penal Code and the Protection from Harassment Act by insulting Christians in a video he uploaded shortly after the death of Mr Lee Kaun Yew. Based on what I have read about Yee’s video and conservations with people who have viewed the contents, I understand that it was perhaps more insulting to Mr Lee than to Christians per se. The comments about Christianity do not appear to be any more radical than old and often repeated criticisms against the church from international comedians and renowned writers. The late Sir Terry Pratchett has certainly said much worse without coming off badly.
I am of course not putting Yee in the same category as Pratchett. One has had a long and esteemed career as a writer with a rigorous intellect while the other is a rebellious teen. But do Yee's alleged insults against Christians really merit such a punishment? Are his anti-Christian remarks even that controversial? Many Christians have in fact come out to say that they forgive Yee and that no offense was taken. On the face of it, it would therefore seem that his video, while insensitive, has no lasting damage apart from showcasing a teenager's puerile view.
This begs the larger question of what exactly Yee is guilty of. The public outcry that resulted in the authorities' swift clampdown seem more like revenge on a teen for daring to criticise Mr Lee when others are glorifying his legacy. Is it really about safeguarding multi-racialism in Singapore as claimed?
I do not condone Yee's video. However, it seems more like a silly childish prank than a dangerous threat. Sure, it was very insensitive to criticise Mr Lee without also acknowledging Mr Lee's contributions to Singapore. But when has anyone, no matter how well regarded, been above criticism?
Besides, Mr Lee was a renowned statesman and a public figure. Don’t all public figures have to endure praise and criticism alike? That is the nature of being a public figure. Have we sacrificed straight logical thinking – something Mr Lee himself would have championed – for political correctness?
Yee does not come across as the most likeable. He seems totally oblivious to his current circumstances and appears not to realise the gravity of the situation. Or perhaps, it is the arrogance of youth or the enjoyment of the attention his notoriety has brought. But when has unpopularity become a crime?
People are entitled to have their views and with the proliferation of the Internet, it will be common to come across opinions that we may not agree with or like. It may even be offensive but when does offensiveness cross the line to become a crime?
I don't profess to have the answers but perhaps it would be more "criminal" if there was actually harm caused to society. Yee's video was hardly a call for arms against Christians and I think it is fair to say that no Christians feel physically endangered by Yee's histrionics. Yet, some have felt the need to make police reports and have even expressed their desire to see violence done to him. Are we a mature society or even a humane one if we are after the blood of a maladjusted teenager whose only crime seems to be the innate ability to cause offence?
Many have criticised Singapore for being a society that does not condone difference. By pouncing on Yee, we are unfortunately living up to that criticism. Do those who are baying for blood not have a sense of irony?
Society is made up of diverse people and diversity means that there will be some views at odds with ours. Just because someone expresses a different sentiment does not make it criminal. Yes, Yee lacks the social niceties but again, that is not a crime. Let's differentiate rising emotions from criminal behaviour.
Is Yee troubled or is Yee a criminal? If anything, Yee sounds like a troubled teenager who needs help, in which case we are better off offering assistance, as what family counsellor Vincent Law and three lawyers have done, rather than punish a child like an adult. What he and his family do not need is more media scrutiny, death threats, law suits and handcuffs. Easing off the publicity might actually deprive Yee of the attention he seeks, which might actually be good for him now.
For the authorities and political leadership, now might be a good time take a step back, consider their choice of actions, and demonstrate some sensible leadership rather than push through with punishing Yee at the beck and call of an agitated lynch mob, even if they are legally bound to do so. As GE 2015 looms, does the ruling party wants to be seen as inclusive and compassionate, or do they want to be seen as the party who turned the full weight of the law on a precocious and troubled child who is struggling to fit in?