A Legacy of Hyperlegalism?

Amos Yee was arrested. Amos Yee will be charged. Amos Yee may be convicted.

The police were doing their job in arresting Amos Yee. The police will not be wrong to charge him. The courts will not be wrong in their judgment, and must never be said to be wrong.

From the arrest to the charges to any eventual conviction, there will be no wrongdoing you can accuse anyone of. There is no sarcasm here thus far for the police and the judges administer justice as they ought to — there will no room for personal biases even if they might personally, for some reason, empathize with Yee. This is the Lee Kuan Yew legacy that many are proud of.

Those who made the police report had the right to do so too. They were reporting behaviors that can be prosecuted. Yet I can’t help but wonder how Lee Kuan Yew, if he now exists in some sentient afterlife form, would react to those who made the police report against the sixteen-year-old boy. There is no need to emphasize how young Yee is for many before me have already pointed it out to the extent of making it meaningless. If I were honest with myself, his age does not matter much to me. He is old enough to think and exercise discretion. But even if Yee were twice or thrice his age, should it make a difference? Regardless of his youth, he is someone expressing his disdain for a politician the Singapore society the latter played a big part in shaping. One might say that he is irreverent, disrespectful, vulgar. One might even gasp and say that he is offensive. (But may I just mildly and politely ask, with no intention to offend or aggravate any fragile Singaporean soul — look how cautious I am trying to be! — if no one is allowed to offend anyone in Singapore?) Ironically, the trouble Yee is now in might in the eyes of some onlookers justify his unhappiness of Singapore. The Lee Kuan Yew of my imagination will not even condescend to deal with an insignificant small fry. Unfortunately, perhaps Amos Yee did not upset Goliazilla himself but had incurred the wrath of his overly concerned henchmen?

Did those responsible for the police report against Yee feel offended or genuinely worried that his brief allusions to Jesus (which, from what I understand, were made as rhetoric to bolster his messages about Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore society) would really hit sensitive religious nerves badly enough to damage social cohesion in Singapore or threaten national security? Did they see his behaviour as being comparable to those who call for the persecution of people belonging to a particular race or religion? Did they think that the video might incite people into turning violent on Lee Kuan Yew supporters or Christians? Would those who made the report against the boy, who is now going to be charged with circulating obscene material too, routinely report every single blog they come across that features content definable as obscene and that is maintained by someone in Singapore? I can only ask. Or perhaps I dare only ask. I must only ask for I cannot presume to read minds or hearts. (Or perhaps I are only ask because I have seen the darkness of hearts before.)

I can only ask if it is at all possible that there might be one, maybe just one, amongst those who reported Yee to the police that might actually be motivated by his anger with scornful criticism of Lee Kuan Yew that is within the limits of free speech even by local standards, but sees the chance to get even with Yee in the more legally questionable parts of the speech.

It is reported that the boy will also be charged with “making threatening, abusive or insulting communication that is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress.” I do believe some people will claim to be distressed by whatever he said, and I have no doubt that people may really be offended. And it would be really, really funny, wouldn’t it, if a person making an anti-LKY tirade were only charged with offending religious sensitivities and circulating obscene content? This is the charge I would personally least question though it also involves the law I find most disturbing. Insulting communication that will likely cause distress?

(Would any lawyer reading this like to advise me whether to make a police report about that bugger on Facebook who definitely distressed me by calling me “Auntie,” a term which I find very alarming and insulting? Thanks, especially if you can file a police report on my behalf.)

Again, my untamed mind cannot help but ask questions (not again?) despite faith in the competence of the police and the judiciary. Are there flaws in our laws and is there a problem with Singapore society?

I wonder if we have become a society of too many laws that cast their nets too widely. More despondently, I wonder if we have become a society that has no qualms about invoking controversial laws and, in so doing, perpetuate them and justify them in the collective consciousness.

I am not even thinking about those who reported Yee to the police. I could be talking about you, you and you too — you, who might have nodded as you read whatever I have written above, but who also might have called for people like Edz Ello to be arrested by the ISD or to be charged with sedition even though you could have signed petitions to abolish the ISA or to get rid of the law on sedition altogether. (Oh dear! Did I offend you?) Even if there is not one person amongst those who reported Yee to the police out of vindictiveness (the existence of which no one can conclusively prove or disprove), I am afraid I have heard all too many calls for the use of the law against individuals they happen to loathe or disagree vehemently with. Perhaps it is a mentality trickled down from the top and distributed very evenly (unlike some other things that are supposed to trickle down). Many Singaporeans, for instance, are familiar with cases of defamation suits in which opposition politicians were sued to bankruptcy, but the plaintiffs were exercising their legal rights, and the opposition politicians were technically being defamatory, and the judges were not at all being biased. It is also common for people to perceive these lawsuits as effective ways of curbing oppositional voices rather than necessary for the protection of politicians’ reputations. (Of course, can I really blame the masses if the very people who might have called for a more gracious society set an example by crushing their opponents with the law?)

People do learn fast and learn well. People have learned that racial and religious issues are defined in the dominant discourse as sensitive issues, and they have learned that it is possible to get others into trouble for being insensitive when it comes to “sensitive” issues. People have learned that certain behaviors that would easily be dismissed as banality in many other countries could be spun into something as apparently serious as sedition.

Why try to persuade and negotiate when one could pressure or even coerce and yield better results?

(But when people cannot persuade or negotiate, their immaturity will always be the perfect excuse for the lack of progressiveness.)

When the citizens and the state invoke the same bogeyman, it becomes exceedingly difficult to reject its existence because it has been collectively imagined into being. One can do little but lament the stench of vindictive opportunism when a legalistic society increasingly embraces the wanton jettisoning of ethical principles. This is perhaps the legacy of Lee Kuan Yew when it is left to develop into a monstrosity he himself might not have intended or foreseen.

Will those who reported Yee to the police be appeased or ashamed if they are told that they have managed to scar a person’s life, potentially destroying his future prospects? Will they feel a sense of achievement if they see their fellow Singaporeans, upon witnessing Yee’s predicament, become too intimidated to speak up when their views are not pro-establishment? Again, I can only ask — until asking becomes distressing and alarming too.

Amos Yee is not the first casualty, and he will not … Complete the sentence yourself if you have read till this point. It is too predictable and painful to finish it myself.

Mortal, Myth, Monolith

On the Mortal: A Conversation with Too Many Asides

Why do you still hate him?

I would have loved to say that the unthinking asking of the accusatory question was its own answer, but it would both be offensive and incomprehensible. (Though one might suppose that the uncomprehended cannot possibly offend, it pays to remember that this is Singapore.)

My most patient answer to the understated accusation of callousness: It’s an ethical imperative.

Why not? Shrink yourself, come in under the shadow where I am, and let me show you.

He’s dead. Live and let live.

One more clichéd accusation and I will –

Dead? Well, I have never hated the mortal, greying flesh presumably capable of feeling pain and even affection, though I have never liked him either. Who is the mortal? You may think that his love for his wife amongst other well-publicized biographical nuggets, was admirable, but neither of us knew the mortal. But I know too well I did not know.

The Lee Kuan Yew I hate is the one I have been living and continue to live – he is scattered, invisible, overpowering.

The God of Crazy Things

Almost immediately after the death of the mortal, the corpse started to be milked for its use in the inscription of Singapore’s own creation myth into malleable collective memory, grotesque hands tugging at eroded strings of gratitude, regenerating them through the overdrive of the state machinery. The media, flooding with content about Lee the Great, galvanized everyone to renew their vows of awe and indebtedness. Schools teachers, unsurpassed if sometimes helpless agents of state-endorsed morality and conduct, were mobilized to be priests of praise rituals for kids, barely cognizant of death, to express their grief.

The mass bewailing is celebratory – the celebration of one man’s supposed achievement could hardly be distinguished from a celebration of his death. Explosion after explosion of exaltation clothed with standardized signs of grief haunted the city. It was almost as if years of preparation and anticipation had finally found an outlet for expression with the mortal’s mortality now evident. Even schoolchildren, not looking at all saddened, would call him a “hero” when interviewed by a TV station, as though Marvel had recently bought the rights to this fascinating character. Who would have the heart to hate the mortal with its corpse now perversely pilloried from the hospital to the Istana to the Parliament House by unreserved, undeserved praise distorting the freshly lost life ?

No indication of reservations in praising Lee the Great was taken kindly. Opposition politician Low Thia Khiang’s tribute to the mortal was attacked immediately, in uncanny resemblance to the reactions following the death of Lee, was akin to a delayed reflex action finally allowed to take place after prolonged suppression and eager anticipation. None of the devotees would accept that his willingness to pay tribute to a person despite his basic beliefs is a higher show of respect that their worship rituals. As those politicizing Low’s tribute began to accuse him of politicizing his tribute, a bemused observer could have concluded that, deployed properly, death is both a potent pre-election-campaign booster and a childishly brutal pre-emptive strike against political opponents.

If the devotees were a cult, the remains of its designated supreme deity, or perhaps its one and only god, might well be cringing in its grave altar. One could almost picture the corpse getting up one last time just to scoff at the ludicrous actions of the devotees he never asked for. But the corpse, once a man who made no apologies about crushing the opposition, can now only content itself with resting beneath the mass of prickly polyester laurels heaped upon his inert body. Perhaps he did die peacefully, but it would be a miracle if he could be dead peacefully as well.

If the corpse were allowed to remain a few more days, I would not be surprised if selfies with the corpse would be allowed due to popular demand (perhaps for an affordable fee, complete with subsidies for people now known as the pioneer generation), together with celebrity endorsements of Lee Kuan Yew as if it were the latest product of the designer label, PAP, and perhaps a pyramid would even be erected in the Padang for the purpose of housing the Lee mummy for posterity to enjoy. This is, after all, the sort of respect that some were unknowingly demanding – desecration via consecration, violation amidst the insistence on inviolability.

Certainly, high praise for the slippery signifier, Lee Kuan Yew, does not come as a surprise. Everyone know the massive affair the mortal’s death would be. What few would have expected was praise that would morph into a culture of manic mourning that defined non-participants as disrespectful ingrates. It was no praise, no remembrance. On March 23 2015, a deity called Lee Kuan Yew was born and the mortal Lee was soon obliterated by the memory of a manmade deity. A casualty of the very system he had played such a big part in shaping. There was barely any space for the genuinely saddened to mourn when the face of the mortal is turned into a ribboned head to be tattooed and replicated in various forms, a map imprint, a fantasy currency design, a stout logo, totally collapsing the distinction between ostensible tribute and parody. Once iconic, Lee is now a mess of icons in a new temple of rubble.

The mourning, frenzied but ultimately hollow, left me incredulous. But this, too, is not the Lee Kuan Yew I hate. Why hate a fictional character?

Kuan Yew

The Kuan Yew I hate is perhaps more successful than the mortal himself realized and the devotees would ever understand.

This Kuan Yew is too massive to describe, but one could start with the creators of the aforementioned deity — not everyone who appeared saddened by the mortal’s death, but those who appeared saddened as they created a totem for their own pleasure and tried shoving it down every Singaporean throat. (Perhaps this is the pleasure afforded to some by exceedingly successful authoritarianism.)

This Kuan Yew is the unquestioning attitude so many Singaporeans have towards the grand narrative of how the PAP brought about Singapore’s progress (progress has only one definition, apparently), the mass of unthinking people who indulge in their own failure to think as a predisposition to being balanced and moderate, the gratitude imperative that plagues the country and defines dissatisfaction as a failure to appreciate how oppression has benefited Singaporeans (but of course it’s never known as oppression!), the city of sedition-defamation-contempt-sensitivity-allergy-atrophy, the ridiculous degree of state influence that people generally accept as normal even when it involves the most banal activities ranging from top-down orders for SG50 “celebrations” everywhere and anywhere to mandatory mass mourning, the failure to understand that Singapore is perfect for those able to thrive in such a culture and a hell for those who are simply born without the constitution to survive painlessly in Singapore.

How do I hate thee? I can’t even count the ways.

Am I not guilty of deifying Kuan Yew too, in attributing him so much influence? I certainly hope not. The Kuan Yew I hate is neither mortal nor deity. The Kuan Yew I hate was a human leader who had too much power; he is also the lasting effects of this power that can be felt as I write this, as you read this. The Kuan Yew I hate is a mix of the mortal depersonified and the country personified. The Kuan Yew I hate, I wish I could not hate.

Enough of this verbose sacrilege! Enough of this waste of words to justify your loathing! Oppies are always so ungrateful. Haters will always hate! Let’s agree to disagree. Without Lee Kuan Yew, we won’t be here today! (I don’t want to be here.) He’s already dead! (NO!) If you hate it, just leave. You don’t know how lucky you are … I understand your position, but … Given Singapore’s situation, it is necessary … This is not the right time to criticize him. I don’t know why I’m wasting my time commenting … No place is perfect,

See, that is the Kuan Yew I hate. But, perhaps, if you would just be literate –

Forgive me for I’m not blessed to love or fortunate enough to be indifferent.

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