Just Saying

Buzzfeed, here's the deal on speech laws in Singapore

The laws don't care why a punch was thrown; all they care about is it was thrown and someone was hit

Dear Buzzfeed writer, so you wrote about Amos Yee. Thanks. It was enlightening.

I learnt a few things about my country, such as how parents here take children to Haw Par Villa theme park's Hell exhibit to learn about morality.

Me, I would never recommend yanking out a child's tongue as punishment for talking back, but what do I know? I'm not a parent.

I'm used to Western media writing about Singapore, and Asia as a whole, as a bizarre and dangerous place.

When you teach your kids about your glorious national history, you call it "social studies", or simply "history". National pride is great - where you're from, you have flags and fireworks and food. You tell your kids to speak up if they feel wronged; it's called "standing up for yourself" and "growing a pair".

When we do it, journalists overseas say things such as "Beijing is stirring up 'red hot patriotism' among Chinese students on Australian campuses", according to the Financial Review, an Australian paper, a few days ago. The piece was backed up with how Chinese students "mobilised" to "force" an apology from a teacher after he insinuated that Chinese students as a whole plagiarised.

I guess I should be happy that the Review didn't write it up as "Red Guard cadres out for blood force a white teacher to kneel before them" - I've learnt not to expect too much.


Amos Yee at the State Courts in September last year. Buzzfeed wrote an article on how he fled Singapore at the end of last year to the United States to seek asylum and has been stuck in a detention centre since. ST FILE PHOTO

I'm used to foreign correspondents writing about how Singaporeans, Chinese or Japanese "swarm" and "go crazy" and "invade" when something becomes popular, whereas people from more genteel parts of the world, that is, where you come from, "get into" or "enjoy" or "get hip to" something else.

The thing is - I expected more from you, Buzzfeed. You're the alternative media. You are the alternative to the writers who use the same old tired cliches.

Quick update for you: Singapore is not an insect hive, nor gulag, nor a Taoist-Islamic-Christian theocracy. (How could we be that for all three religions? Think about it.)

We have all the contradictions and inconsistencies that you have, only in different amounts. Like jelly in a mould, our democracy has grown to fit the shape of its container. It's a container shaped by a history in which people died because a few spoke carelessly. Our jelly doesn't look like yours. I hope that's okay with you.

That's why we have laws that stop people from using speech to stir the pot, for personal ambition, for a sincere cause, or for kicks, or because whatever.

You tried to figure out which of these angles Amos Yee was coming from. You got confused. See? You're more like us than you think. Moan about the MRT and we wouldn't be able to tell you apart from the average Singaporean.

The thing to remember, Buzzfeed, is that speech laws here cut both ways: The religious conservative right, as well as lefty Internet atheists like Yee, are equally constrained. The law doesn't care why a punch was thrown; all it cares about is that it was thrown, and someone was hit.

Buzzfeed, I get that you are left-leaning, and present a level-headed alternative to right-wing sites, so I guess it's in your DNA that when you think "Singapore", your fingers reflexively spell "draconian", as if the ghost of George Orwell rushed into you and pushed you onto the battlements to defend freedom against the armies of darkness.

That's your programming, and there's nothing wrong with that. We have ours too.

So kudos to you for saying that one of Yee's supporters in the United States, where he is being held in detention, is a Trump fan drawn to Yee's anti-Islam rants.

By the way, I love how you hint that Amos Yee is like a cloud - everyone looks at him and sees something different. Mostly, they see what they want to see.

That's true when you look at his American supporters. A couple of them have something in common: a deep streak of Islamophobia. To them, Yee is a fellow soldier on the front line.

How can I put this to you in terms you might understand? Well, to do as Yee did would be like me standing on a lawn in small-town Texas with a burning American flag declaring that Elvis is terrible and the best cars come from Germany, Japan and South Korea. I suspect I will be treated far less gently than Yee has been so far.

And your final comment, that Yee will be "infamous" should he be forced to come back to Singapore. He would be socially ostracised, you imply, as if Singapore were a Pixar movie and he was that oddball artistic irritating ant and we would all go out of our way to tsk-tsk at him to drop his artsy ways and be a good ant.

But if we are all grey, drab workers living in an authoritarian state, wouldn't that tsk-ing be a free expression of our speech? You shouldn't be denying us that.

You know what's more likely to happen? We'd simply ignore him.

To sum up, and to quote another movie, you could say we have a problem with people who just want to see the world burn - and have the means to fly out when the flames lick at their toes.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 03, 2017, with the headline 'Buzzfeed, here's the deal on speech laws in S'pore'. Print Edition | Subscribe