Amos Yee and the Freedom to Offend

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Yesterday 18-year-old Singaporean Amos Yee was granted asylum in the United States, throwing a spotlight on freedom of speech in Singapore. Judge Samuel Cole called him a “young political dissident”, and the ruling claimed that Yee has a “suffered past persecution” and has a “well-founded fear of future persecution”. Yee has been jailed twice, once in July 2015 and again in September 2016.

A victory for freedom of speech?

Maybe, but it’s a hollow victory indeed.

Yee has spoken no hard truths, fomented no revolutions and started no grassroots movements. He has created no groundbreaking works of art or philosophy or politics, nor has he revealed any government or corporate malfeasance. He has run for no political party and has contributed not one iota to the development of Singapore’s civil society.

Yee is merely a shock jock.

In 2015, Yee released an expletive-filled video praising the death of Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, calling him a ‘totalitarian’ and comparing him unfavourably to Jesus and Mao Zedong.

The government opened investigations into Yee and detained him for 53 days. A family and youth counsellor, Vincent Law, bailed Yee. On May 13 Yee demonstrated his gratitude by falsely accusing Law of molest on Facebook. Yee then claimed he would be present at Bukit Panjang MRT station to speak to the media. The media swallowed the bait hook, line and sinker, and Yee didn’t show up. The following day, he posted another expletive-laden Facebook post laughing at the media, boasting about how he had trolled them.

In 2016, Yee produced and uploaded a picture and two profanity-filled videos insulting Muslims and Christians. Once again, he was arrested, this time for ‘wounding religious feelings’. He was further fined $2000 for failing to show up at a police station twice to give his statement.

Amos Yee is no hero. He has not furthered the cause of democracy and freedom, nor has he contributed meaningfully to society. He is no free thinker or dissident, only an attention-seeking teenager whose only talent lies in offensive speech.

But freedom of speech means the freedom to offend. Wounding ‘feelings’ is no reason to arrest and jail people; down that path lies ritualised self-criticism, the gulags and the killing fields. People like Yee are canaries in the coal mine: when the government squashes the canary it’s a sign that freedom of speech is under fire. If people approve of shock jocks being arrested for spurious reasons, the government will be encouraged to crack down on people with legitimate arguments and different points of view. Free speech must be for everyone, or it applies to no one.

With that said, I don’t see Yee making the most of his second chance.

Yee claims he is now an ‘anarchist communist’ who believes in feminism. He has a known history of turning on people who want to help him, displaying callous disregard for anyone whom he hurts, employing vulgarities in place of cogent argument, and generating content that rely on offensiveness instead of rational thought. When the going gets tough and he’s in trouble, he has no qualms about compromising his principles to save his skin. Anarchist communism calls for abolition of private property, capitalism and the state; but he relied on a state organ to grant him safety, and when he was held in America, he asked for people to give him money to cover his costs instead of doing stuff for him like a proper anarcho-communist. He also claims that he supports free speech but like all good social justice warriors he has no problem with media platforms taking down ‘anti-feminist’ speech.

Yee is an arch-SJW who has doubled down and continues to double down. If Yee won’t change his ways — and I don’t see that happening anytime soon — he’s not going to amount to much.

What about the impact on Singapore?

Singaporean politician Kenneth Jeyaratnam claims that the ruling “may create waves in Singapore. It may show Singaporeans that there’s nothing to be afraid about. The Singapore government is a paper tiger. We don’t have to swallow the brainwashing that is constantly put out.”

Jeyaratnam sure is optimistic. The government has not softened its stance on Yee or hate speech. The police has not signaled any shift in policy, overtly or otherwise. Opposition politicians have not argued for liberalisation of Singapore’s laws on hate speech nor proposed new free speech laws in Parliament. Political bloggers are still free to say what they want, within the blurry boundaries of the law. Citizens still won’t know what are the limits of the law until someone like Yee tests it and is slapped down. Nothing has changed.

Save for one thing.

Amos Yee is America’s problem now.

Image from Yee’s Facebook page

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