Nobody should ever be put behind bars for their expression of conscience
Regardless of the target, content or intentions, nobody should be jailed for speaking their mind. Luckily, most civilised nations tend not to do so, and governments that do jail people for speaking are rightly labelled as ‘dictatorial’, ‘brutal’, ‘uncivilised’, ‘oppressive’, or ‘against modernity’. These are labels most commonly associated with ‘failed’ states or ‘rogue’ nations like Egypt and North Korea.
One key recent example is the long court battle in Egypt to incarcerate Al-Jazeera journalist Peter Greste, simply for reporting the ongoings of the Muslim Brotherhood.
But there’s another country much closer to home that does exactly what Egypt and North Korea do. In fact, there’s one such city-state in South East Asia pursuing similar ideas.
Recently, a 16-year old blogger was found guilty for posting a video on Youtube that directly criticised this city-state’s government, its former leader and religious institutes. If you haven’t been paying attention to the news (and in a very specific direction, given how quietly this conviction was covered, or better yet, wasn’t covered), this might sound like a story that would have happened again in Egypt.
The hard truth is, however, that this time the country involved is called Singapore and the child’s name is Amos Yee
It’s the place you might have travelled through, spent a day or a week in for a holiday, or mostly remember the airport for. The country which prides itself for being a successful, prosperous international city situated in the heart of Asia. The city with some of the best skylines and one of the highest GDP per capita in the region. This is also a city which is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which as part of its purpose of course aims to protect children from incarceration.
Even the United Nations Human Rights Office for South East Asia has urged the government of Singapore to release Amos, not only because he all he did was posting a youtube video, but the simple fact that he is still 16. The Office noted in its official statement:
“The Office is concerned that the criminal sanctions considered in this case seem disproportionate and inappropriate in terms of the international protections for freedom of expression and opinion.”
When appearing in court, Amos (who was bound in chains and shackles during the proceedings) claimed he did nothing wrong, but the State was more than eager to find him guilty of uploading an ‘obscene image’ and of making remarks ‘insulting to religion’. Amos has described city’s obscenity laws as “unnecessary” and its laws (generally) and police as “dumb”. He derided the Christian God as “fictitious, mass-murdering, sexist, racist [and] sadomasochistic” as a backhanded side comment whilst ranting about the Singaporean government.
Does any child deserve such cruel treatment?
Yee’s mother wrote an open letter describing her pains when visiting her son in detention:
“Amos made a video and ended up in a mental institute.
I wish he could be home with me so I can care for him.
He has been remanded in prison for so long (40 days now) – even before he is sentenced – that he probably feels things no longer make sense.
He has been so tired in Changi Prison where he is kept in a cell for 23 hours everyday, with the bright lights kept switched on most of the time, for the past three weeks.
It was impossible for him to sleep.”
What makes matters worse is the sheer lack of public sympathy for the teenager. When Amos appeared before the court, he was physically assaulted in public outside the court building by a middle aged Singaporean citizen. When reports of this assault was posted on social media, comments supporting the physical assault overwhelmed those who condemned it. The assailant was only sentenced to three weeks in prison.
Amos, on the other hand, may find himself incarcerated in a mental facility for up to 30 months. In an even more disturbing show of cruelty, quite a number of Singaporeans took to social media to launch death threats against the child and one even claimed that he will pay good money to have him raped in prison
Singaporeans’ hardwired sense of patriotism is part of the problem
Any comments made by anyone regarding this situation which are long the lines of “Yes this is unfortunate, but …” displays a shocking lack of understanding of the gravity of the situation Yee now finds himself in.
That being said, it remains an arguable point that the Singaporean mindset is very much stuck under a powerful ‘one nation’ banner and lashing out at the government is essentially seen as lashing out at Singaporean society as a collective.
Yes, the country has always shown a strong sense of unity behind former leader Lee Kuan Yew and many, if not the vast majority, treat him as the founding father of modern Singapore. Amos’ timing in criticising Lee Kuan Yew, after his death, was arguably disrespectful and inappropriate.
As he is but a young, brash and foolish teenager speaking out against a God-like figure such as Lee Kuan Yew, many Singaporeans may feel very comfortable with the idea locking such a 16 year old in chains during court proceedings as if he committed some far more serious crime, keep him remanded in prison for 40 days without sentencing and with the potential threat of a 30 month sentence; in which unlike other Juvenile offenders, Amos will leave jail with a criminal record.
All of that for just speaking out. All of that just for being ‘disrespectful’.
I asked many of my friends in Singapore how can this be the norm? Many simply replied with the same old rhetoric – sometimes for a city to be prosperous, we need to give up some freedoms, we need to be tough and make hard choices.
Personally, I have become increasingly skeptical of any change in the hardwired Singaporean mindset. For decades, the public seems to be fine when the government or the Prime Minister himself take political opposition and critics to court. The defamation laws in the country seem to be effectively assisting the government’s effort in silencing dissent.
“Using defamation laws to silence peaceful political speech makes a mockery of Singapore’s claim to be a model democracy. Opposition criticism of the government is an essential ingredient of a democratic political system.”
– Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
Here are a few more examples of the government using the legal system to have their way whenever criticisms arise:
- In 2002, Bloomberg News had to settle a defamation suit brought by the Prime Minister. They paid SD$595,000 ($US338,000) over suspicion of “nepotism” in their reports.
- In 1995, Lee Kuan Yew collected US$675,000 in damages from the International Herald Tribune over the same nepotism story.
- Lee Kuan Yew also collected US$210,000 from the International Herald Tribune for an October 1994 article stating that “some East Asia governments relied on a ‘compliant’ judiciary to bankrupt opposition politicians.”
- By the way, this might just be ironically coincidental: Singapore shut down a contentious but popular website called The Real Singapore on 3rd May, the International Word Press Freedom Day
Dictatorship and cruelty against the powerless will always take place when the masses become apathetic and essentially compliant. And now, this hardwired mentality of ‘don’t you dare speak ill of my country’s hero’ has allowed the so-called diamond of the orient in the heart of Asia to continue to lie to itself that the country is doing alright.
As an end note, earlier this year, French satirist publication Charlie Hebdo was terrorised by lunatics who attacked the publication for printing a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed. Shortly after the attack, they reprinted it again and the global media followed their lead and plastered the same cartoon everywhere on the streets.
As an online publication which aims to empower individuals from all corners and of all backgrounds to voice their concerns and never give up writing, The Typewriter strongly urges the Singapore government to stop this nonsense and let Amos, a 16 year old, to return to his family.
To that end, we are going to repost the infamous video that got him incarcerated:
If people find this cartoon disrespectful, ‘out of order’ and you think it should be removed and the creator punished, while, just a few months ago, blasting the Mohammed cartoon everywhere after the Charlie Hebdo incident or putting on the “Je Suis Charlie” banners on social media, then you need to have a good, long, hard look at yourself and your rank hypocrisy.
People, groups or even governments who ‘demonstrate strength’ against satirists, comics and critics over words and images used against them are not strong. They are in truth weak, lacking in maturity, suffer from insecurity and are unable to cope with dissent. That’s why they act so aggressively against those who speak against them. So, no matter how strong Singapore boasts itself to be; no matter how many economic success stories Singaporeans manage to write in the history books, they have been, they are and they will still be seen as insecure.
“Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.” – Harry S. Truman.
Amos has declared: “I have not ‘learnt my lesson’, nor do I see any ‘lesson’ that needs to be learnt.” Good on him.