In Wired Magazine’s 4th issue ever, back in 1993, it sent famed author William Gibson to Singapore, leading him to write an amazing article entitled “Disneyland with the Death Penalty,” talking about the strange contradictions of the city state. It starts out with this sentence:
“It’s like an entire country run by Jeffrey Katzenberg,” the producer had said, “under the motto ‘Be happy or I’ll kill you.'”
Singapore is famous for both its clean, modern and high tech city… and the fact that it is more or less a dictatorship in which no criticism of the government is allowed. Talk to Singaporeans who have made it to the US for more than a little bit and you’ll discover somewhat horrific stories about living in that country — the kind of stuff that almost no one wants to talk about publicly. And in the last few weeks, the actions of the Singaporean government have highlighted just why so many Singaporeans are fearful of speaking out about what the place is really like.
A 16-year-old precocious YouTuber named Amos Yee was arrested last month, basically for saying mean things about Lee Kwan Yew, the country’s founder and long-time Prime Minister — though many say that he was actually the country’s dictator — who died just a few weeks ago.
Amos Yee’s “controversial” video is still up as I write this. You can view it here, though I imagine someone may eventually try to take it down.
Watching the video, though, you see a typical teenager mouthing off to authority. That’s what teenagers are supposed to be doing — and Yee has quite a following as a precocious teenaged commenter on culture, both Singaporean and around the globe. The New Yorker has a profile of Amos, detailing some of his other videos that show him as a pretty typical teenager with opinions — and the ability to create some fairly entertaining videos, like How to Speak Singlish (the modified English that some Singaporeans use) or his somewhat overwrought review of the movie Boyhood.
As the New Yorker’s Nathan Heller writes about Yee:
Yee has all the hallmarks of a green and thriving mind; he is exactly the kind of person you would one day want reviewing your books, making your movies, maybe even running your country. Americans, who enjoy the benefits of free media, have a responsibility to take him more seriously than they take the government that has tried to quiet him for thinking freely in the public sphere. And those of us in the Fourth Estate have a duty to spread word of his ridiculous charges. If people like Amos Yee end up the custodians of our profession, the future of countries like Singapore can be brighter than their past.
And yet, he’s facing the potential of three years in prison and many thousands of dollars in fines, based on “Penal Code Section 298” which forbids “the uttering of words that might hurt the religious feelings of any person,” as well as a recent anti-cyberbullying law that the country passed.
We talk a lot on Techdirt about the importance of freedom of expression, and have called out other examples where people are pushing for laws against cyberbullying, with an expressed interest in stopping people from “hurting feelings” by unkind speech online. But when you have laws that make people criminals for merely expressing their opinions, you are shutting down the very way in which people learn and grow. Expressing opinions, having debates about them is a key part of growth, intelligence and innovation. Singapore wants to be seen as a modern and innovative country — and yet at the same time it allows no dissent and no freedom of expression. It is a travesty.
Even some in Singapore have been willing to point out that this is ridiculous, and only serves to show the world that Singapore’s ego is fragile that it cannot stand up to a bit of criticism:
What Amos Yee did was crude, rude and insensitive. But he is, at the end of the day, a provocative child playing at being hardcore. He’s certainly not the first – it was only the lack of access to YouTube that saved many of us from eternal embarrassment in our teenage years – and he won’t be the last by any stretch of the imagination. Is Singapore really so fragile, so easily threatened by offensive comment, that there was a need to charge a kid in court?
What Amos and the two protesters did were against the law – but it’s also high time that we think about the laws we have, and whether the trade-offs made make sense in today’s context. Is the Singaporean situation really so precarious that freedom of speech and assembly needs to be curtailed to such an extent?
Of course, given the way in which general deference to authority is demanded in Singapore, plenty of others have come out in favor of throwing Yee in jail. The New Yorker piece describes how ridiculous some of this has become:
In the days after Yee’s arrest, a slew of local celebrities, including three Singaporean starlet types, were interviewed about his videos on national TV. In sequences depressing to watch, they all sided with the state. “If you say that, ‘Oh, people can say whatever they want, all the time,’ then what about those people who are listening?” Joshua Tan, a young actor, said. Well, what about them? The suggestion that citizens should withhold political criticism for fear of offense is preposterous—far more embarrassing to Singapore than any videos by Yee could be.
We see this same attack on free speech in other places (often college campuses) today, as well as in certain areas of social media, in which people immediately leap to the idea that we need “new laws” to punish those who say things that people don’t like, because “what about those people who are listening.” Those people can be offended. And they can have their feelings hurt. Because that’s how a free society is supposed to be — where not everyone agrees with one another, and sometimes people say things you don’t like. And that’s good for the community. It’s good for ideas and intelligence in that it allows for people to be challenged and to improve their arguments.
Singapore, apparently, wants to put teenagers in jail for acting like teenagers. And thus, it appears that little has changed since that William Gibson article more than two decades ago — and that’s a real shame. In the age of the internet, Singapore has continued to try to position itself as a high tech mecca. But if it can’t handle free expression, it’s going to find that a difficult image to maintain.