In 2015, Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew died.
In life, the authoritarian Lee polarised Singaporeans. In death, he united us. Half a million Singaporeans paid their respects as Lee’s body laid in state. They stood in sun and rain, day and night, queueing for days, for one last glimpse of Lee.
As his cortege moved to his final resting place, torrential rain swept the island. Yet, thousands lined the streets to say goodbye.
My friends and I stood along Alexandra Road, utterly drenched. As the vehicle carrying Lee approached, ordinary Singaporeans around us chanted, “Lee Kuan Yew, Lee Kuan Yew”. We made our peace with our founding father.
In the midst of this national outpouring of grief, 17-year old Amos Yee uploaded a video, “Lee Kuan Yew is Finally Dead”, saying that Lee was like Jesus: both were “power hungry and malicious”. It attracted over a million views. He followed up with a cartoon of Lee engaging in intimate activity with former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Yee was arrested for wounding religious feelings and obscenity.
The West took offence at us taking offence.
The Guardian castigated Singapore for “suppression of free speech”. The New Yorker said that Yee’s arrest showed Singapore’s “backwardness” and demonstrated our “dire need for cultural education through intelligent dissent”. The Committee to Protect Journalists called for Yee’s release. The Wall Street Journal said that Yee’s case was proof of Singapore’s struggle to adapt to the realities of the digital era.
Yee was offered probation. He asked to be jailed. The court obliged him. He spent 53 days in prison. Human Rights Watch called the decision “a dangerous affront to freedom of expression” and Yee “a victim”. Amnesty International declared Yee a “prisoner of conscience” and said that Singapore breached the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
After Yee’s release, he gained political asylum in the United States.
Yee broadcasted more free speech (this time about pedophilia). He’s now languishing in jail on child pornography charges.
This time, there is no international outcry. Is this hypocrisy?
Yee’s ridicule of certain religions, and his depiction of Lee engaging in unspeakable acts with Thatcher, offended many. When Singapore took action, the West condemned us. When Yee went to the West, he indulged in free speech and was banned on social media. No human rights groups or mainstream media denounced the ban as “censorship”, even though Yee was doing the same thing that he did in Singapore: using free speech to provoke. When Yee was arrested, few Western newspapers reported it. And no one in the West brought up the fact that they’d championed Yee as a prisoner of conscience.
It’s hard to be Singapore. The West gets to decide on what free speech is acceptable, and what is offensive. If we don’t toe the line, we end up being accused of breaching human rights.
By Adrian Tan
Reproduced with permission. The original post is here.