Date: 5th July 2015
Thank you for coming to this event. Thank you to Community Action Network (CAN) for organising this event.
My discussion will be in four parts: – I will share a story; I will then share views on us, as a society; then it will be on Amos Yee; before ending off on what the government may do. This is not an easy piece to speak on and there is an ongoing trial. I will try my best.
I would like to begin by first telling a story. It is a story of Mr Alan Turing. A very bright Londoner who spent most of his time at University of Manchester. He was a pioneering computer scientist, mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, philosopher, mathematical biologist, and marathon and ultra distance runner. I, shamefully, never heard of Turing till last year when I was on a Commonwealth Leader’s Programme and we visited the University. Turing was a genius. During World War II he decoded Nazi messages, helping the British to be one-step ahead in the War against the Nazis. His genius inspired many at the University. But he had one ‘flaw’ (as it was seen then) – he was a homosexual. When he was found out in 1952 the government ordered that he be injected with female estrogen, a move towards chemical castration. He turned into a bloated man, lost his athletic frame, and also descended into “grief and madness”. Before his 42nd birthday he killed himself by eating an apple he had dipped in cyanide.
Today the University has a sculpture in his honour and former Prime Minister Gordon Brown has apologised for the trauma and the torture that the government had inflicted on Mr Turing. I was very impressed that the government had realised the errors of its ways and apologised. A rare occurrence here, you might say. But I was also struck deeply by how this Mr Turing, a genius, a contributor to society, had to suffer, much, just because he was a homosexual; just because society saw homosexuality as demonic and made it, non-normal. I was struck by the story, the sculpture and the regret. Turing is not the only one society did not accept. Other characters include, for example, James Boswell who as a young teenager of 13 and 14 years had written essays, gotten into trouble, besides being pale and poor of health. Yet he wrote one the best biographies as many have claimed – Life of Samuel Johnson. Other youthful provocateurs include spiritual figures, artists who have shared their wisdoms, sometimes insightfully painful, and at other times, plain silly comments. Those who were enslaved always struck out with words, songs, poems to feel free. Society has let these incidents pass, accepted them or become so incensed that they have sought punishment for these thinkers, writers. Our histories are littered with such stories of protection of the status quo and imprisoning folks who assert on their freedom of speech.
Is Amos Yee in this category? None of us know. Will we know – Maybe? He is a good writer. A provocateur. He is mischievous. He thinks well. He can be offensive and he does not care. He does not care -as he has been rude to Mr Vincent Law who put up bail money. He just does not care in his pursuit for space to express himself.
He may be some genius. Or just one silly boy.
Only time and history can tell.
But he is one chap who is looking for space and trying to carve his space to write freely. He is fighting for that space, courageously or stupidly. He wants to own his own space where he can be free.
So where does that put all of us? What is the challenge that we face?
Today is an instant world with more ideas, more statements, more annoyance, more silliness, more smartness and views upon views that are expressed through the social media and in many different forms. Are we going to be so affected that we are going to complain on most things and seek justice at every turn. What is the norm in a diverse society? What is the norm in a secular society? What is the norm when norms are also evolving and changing? What is our own development? Are we like Turing’s persecutors? Do we want to laugh at Boswell for he wrote silly and sharp stuff when he was younger? Do we wish to ferret out those who write quietly but clearly on their thoughts which can also offend us?
This is an important question. It asks for a reflection that we need to explore on how we are developing as a people, as a nation. Is our value system getting more intolerant like how the British were in the 1950s and that we too are asking for a ‘castration’ of a spirit when words tease us, poke at our individual belief system or when our humour is so dead that we cannot laugh off satire, parody which can be offensive. Are we more keen to ‘kill’ off people who are annoying us as we feel our sensibilities are being affected; and we cannot cope? SERIOUS questions for a society that has very often let the government tell us how/what to think and for a society that is evolving but still looks to the government to play custodian with the Laws.
Because of the complaints Amos has been charged and found guilty of the charge of obscenity of uploading a picture of the late former Singapore Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew in a sexual position with the former British Prime Minister, the late Margaret Thatcher. He was also accused of having wounded the feelings of Christians. An earlier charge under Section 4 of the Harassment Act, has been dropped by AGC and it is not clear for which of the complaints.
Those complaints have led to Amos Yee being held, under remand, for 55 days. It is now to be assessed if Amos suffers from any disorder such as autism spectrum disorder. Amos Yee is 16 years of age when charged. Amos Yee has been slapped while walking to court, and has been shackled while being brought into court. These are actions that are cruel, degrading treatment or punishment, especially not for someone who is still a child and there is no criminality.
Singapore is a signatory to the United Nations Convention to the Rights of the Child, which has just turned 20 this year. In its Article 40(1) states, “Parties recognize the right of every child alleged as, accused of, or recognized as having infringed the penal law to be treated in a manner consistent with the promotion of the child’s sense of dignity and worth, which reinforces the child’s respect for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of others and which takes into account the child’s age and the desirability of promoting the child’s reintegration and the child’s assuming a constructive role in society”.
But Singapore may have violated its State Obligations to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on this very Article and needs to justify its actions to have these charges and actions against Amos Yee.
Many international bodies, including the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has written, on 22 June 2015, requesting the State “to consider the best interests of Amos Yee as a child”.
Yes, Amos Yee is a naughty child. He can hurt people who even try to help him. But are our laws adequate to deal with behaviour that is about freedom of expression and the individual is 16 years of age, and is willing, naively or with full sense of the actions, to face trial and be prosecuted. When the person is 16 or 17 years old, how are we going to deal with him/her when it is Freedom of Expression issues? Can we hang on to the present set of laws and use them to charge and punish? Should we then activate the Defamation Law too on this 16-year-old? Where will it begin and end?
MARUAH is of the view that persons like Amos will need a different approach as they are not keen to compromise when it comes to their expression of speech. We know that the government is caught in its own bind on this case. Perhaps we need to devise ways with the family to ensure that the young know the laws around Freedom of Expression in Singapore. However it may be too late for Amos Yee and that is the big question.
Amos Yee will be like others we discover in history – the provocateurs who will suffer for what they see as their craft. But have we started off too early, this harshly, with this boy. He is 16.