(Image - adapted from original by Roy Ngerng)

What is the red line?

(Image - adapted from original by Roy Ngerng)
(Image - adapted from original by Roy Ngerng)

By Ghui

So, the verdict is out on Singapore's now infamous enfant terrible. He has been found guilty on two counts: On charges of obscenity in uploading a doctored image of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew and the late Mrs Margaret Thatcher engaged in sexually explicit activity, and wounding the feelings of Christians when he compared Mr Lee to Jesus in a video soon after Mr Lee’s death.

What sentence will be meted out onto the paltry shoulders of the unruly 16 year old remains to be seen.

Amos Yee's daring (to his fans) or sheer disrespect (to his critics) has led to much drama that has mesmerised a nation. Alfian Sa’at had written in his defence and Neo Gim Huah has publicly assaulted him. Numerous Singaporean blogs have criticised the handling of this debacle as an attack on freedom of speech and Amos Yee's antics have now crossed into the international arena as the BBC and Huffington Post have all covered his story.

If it was the government's intention to silence him, they could not have fallen further from their goals. Amos Yee is probably now the most famous teenager in Singapore.

The rightness or wrongness of Amos Yee's actions is not really the point I would like to tackle here. What I find more than a little alarming is how the authorities seem not to have learnt anything about our new social and political landscape. Remember how To Singapore with Love became the hottest movie in Singapore despite being banned? Recall how Alan Shadrake's book Once a Jolly Hangman sold more copies after he was found guilty of contempt of court and jailed?

The days where you can silence a critic and report only one version of the story are over. Nowadays, the more you try to cover something up, the more social media will pick it up. The world of the Internet moves so fast that it cannot be policed at a pace to make these kinds of policing meaningful. Yet, the powers be persist in using old methods to solve new issues. Do they no longer understand the people in which they rule?

gracefuThe serious disconnect is painfully more apparent when we see government representatives giving their two cents worth. The latest participant to this fiasco is the Second Minister for the Environment and Water Resources and Second Minister for Foreign Affairs, Grace Fu who has now been dragged into a media controversy.

She has been quoted as saying: “How do you deal with a 16-year-old that is not able to comply with rules of society? It’s kind of a parent’s nightmare.” This had garnered criticism for being judgmental. She has in turn countered that she had been quoted out of context and posted her own version of what she has said in full on her Facebook page.

What however is not in dispute is that she said, "It’s not just any YouTube video. It crosses the red line on religion." Which then begs the question: What is the red line and who draws it?

The newspapers, courts and Grace Fu have all declared that Amos Yee has crossed the line but yet no one has adequately defined where this line begins or ends. If something is offensive, then surely there has to be proven damage. Where is such damage? The last I checked, hurt feelings is not damage punishable by criminal law.

Is it that it would upset the religious balance in Singapore? But then again, how? The Christians are the only group that could be hurt by this, but logically speaking, is anyone going to go on a hate spree against Christians because of a video made by a teenager? Besides, haven’t the Christians come out to say that no offense has been taken?

Two camps were insulted in the video – fans of Mr Lee and Christians. If there is no definable damage to the Christians who have already claimed no offence, then it looks like the real offence in the crime is being insulting to Mr Lee, but dressed up as something else.

If you are going to punish someone for crossing the red line, you need to draw that line firmly and not rely on an open-ended stroke in the sand that is subjective and vague.

Margaret Thatcher and Lee Kuan Yew (image - AP)
NOT this image of Margaret Thatcher and Lee Kuan Yew (image - AP)

With regards to the charge of obscenity, the judge reasoned that such an image would “not only tend to excite teenagers to try out different sexual positions but also deviant sexual activity, i.e., anal intercourse.” She then concludes that “such sexual desires and lascivious thoughts would have a corrupting effect on young minds.”

This reasoning is mind boggling if the judge actually considers this as titillating material that will arouse teenagers. I find this conclusion far more disturbing than the said image. At best, this line of reasoning is ridiculously out of touch and at worst, comes across as an excuse to convict. Neither scenario is reassuring.

Ultimately, this hullabaloo underscores an unsettling thought – that the authorities may not fully understand how the Internet generation operates. While they comprehend its perks and utilise it to propagate their own messages, they do not seem to grasp that the Internet functions on a quid-pro-quo basis. Just look at how the bloggers interact with each other (cue: Xia Xue and foes) and you get an idea.

By clamping down on it, you are only providing further fodder to demonstrate your insecurities and inadequacies, as this saga aptly demonstrates.