It’s been awhile since Amos was released from remand. I’ve waited before writing this post because I want to know what others think, before chipping in with my own observations. We’ve had some great points raised on how Amos was a victim of a larger, institutionalised system that seeks to prune discourse to suit its own ends. Expectedly, some have trotted out the well-worn appeals to liberty and freedom of speech. And others have countered with the equally tired assertion that being free to speak doesn’t make you free from consequences and responsibilities.
But that’s not something I want to talk about. I think the most important thing about this whole Amos saga is why his video jolted so many Singaporeans out of their everyday placidity and led to so many people baying for his blood. Fact is, our society still embraces a particular brand of conservatism that draws moral direction from religion, pragmatism, and a mythologized pseudo-Confucian set of traditions. And Amos happened to unleash a perfect storm of controversy by attacking all three tenets of Singaporean conservatism.
We are a country where religion is given additional latitude and privilege in the realm of discourse. It seems painfully ironic that a teenage blogger who made a few immature comments about Christ is considered more of a threat to social harmony than the hundreds of Singaporeans who hurl homophobic and misogynistic slurs on Facebook. This isn’t to say that religion exempts you from the law – a pastor at my old church was severely censured for his intolerant views – but rather that it is easier to get in trouble by insulting religion than it is to get in trouble by insulting more liberal beliefs. In other words, it’s okay if you sincerely feel that gay people should not be treated with respect, but it’s wrong if you sincerely feel that religion should not be treated with respect.
Our deference to religious sanctity, however, can’t fully explain this controversy. Lots of people make potentially insensitive remarks about religion all the time, but do not incite the same kind of animosity and anger.
The difference is that Amos had the cheek to disrespect the late Lee Kuan Yew, right after he died. Amos ran afoul of the rigid, traditionalist Confucian sensibilities that a majority of Singaporeans hold. Many Singaporeans believe that people in positions of power who have proved competent and well-meaning should be treated with due deference. This is a fairly hierarchal view of society – everybody has a place on the meritocratic ladder that is Singapore, and those at the bottom have no right to pull down those at the top. Perhaps this is what PM Lee sought to reinforce when he spoke of a “natural aristocracy”, where those who have risen to become leaders and policy-makers should not be ridiculed and defamed by the common man. With all his youthful spitz and indolent rage, Amos made it evident that he did not care about respecting his elders. He failed to demonstrate that he knew his place in society, and had to be taken to task.
In a country as utilitarian and pragmatic as Singapore, Amos stood no chance when he was hauled to court. We seem to believe that the individual is less important than the collective; that personal interest should be subservient to national needs. That’s why, for instance, so many Singaporeans support our draconian laws against drug trafficking, on the assumption that it is better for a naive and desperate drug mule to be executed, than to have twenty Singaporeans fall prey to the scourge of addiction. Amos fell on the wrong side of this mathematical approach to justice. He became an example to everyone else: not to overstep the invisible boundaries that govern discourse in Singapore, lest we descend into anarchy, or worse, end up being ruled by the Workers’ Party.
For someone who is reasonably progressive, I don’t want to live in a country that takes immediate umbrage at the childish rants of a precocious teenager. To us, it might seem that the Hong Kongers who burned effigies of PM Lee and Lee Kuan Yew in protest of Amos’s imprisonment subscribe to an extremist liberal ideology. But it would do us well to remember that to a foreigner, we might well seem like a country that blindly follows the dogma of conservatism. Whether or not our moral intuitions are more valid or logical is entirely up for debate – all too often, I meet people who believe that Singapore has found the only right way to balance individual liberties against the social good.
The upshot of all this is that Singapore probably won’t stay conservative forever. The democratising force of the Internet has broken the monopolistic stranglehold that the government once had on media-driven discourse. Concepts such as free speech and political liberalism have become increasingly popular topics for discussion, even on the back pages of the Straits Times. Eventually we will reach a tipping point, where the government can no longer reach for the hard stick of punishment and lawsuits as a policy of first resort. Because, with each passing generation of Singaporeans, our collective social morality will inch slowly leftward. And there will be a time where the government can only win in the court of law, but not in the court of public opinion.