Amos Yee: Spawn of Lee Kuan Yew’s grand experiment

Patricio N. Abinales
Singapore authorities arrested Amos Yee, the 17-year-old who posted the Youtube video 'Lee Kuan Yew is Finally Dead!' But he is the spawn of Lee's grand social and political experiment in Singapore.

The other week, all eyes were on the funeral of the founder of Singapore Lee Kwan Yew, with the country’s media network practically running a 24-hour program since the start of the public viewing of his body. YouTube was full of these skits as well as postings of old videos showing Lee in action – defending his policies, deflecting criticisms, and proud about what he and his country achieved.

One example of such confident riposte was Lee’s September 2008 interview with CNN anchor Fareed Zakaria, where Lee outlined his views on his critics, the United States elections (John McCain’s odd choice of the empty-headed Sarah Palin amused the old man), and his favorite argument that Western-style (American?) democracy would not work in a place like Singapore. Zakaria was practically drooling in his mouth as he listened to Lee.

But shortly after the news of Lee’s death was announced to the world, in came another Singaporean, Amos Yee, who posted a video on YouTube titled “Lee Kuan Yew is Finally Dead!” In that March 29 video, the 17-year-old Yee gave the opposite description of Lee and Singapore: a narcissistic despot destroying any opposition to his autocratic rule, the country having one of the highest inequality rates in terms of incomes, and the gross discrepancy between the salaries of high officials vis-à-vis the ordinary grunt, and the creation of a society that is not only apolitical but also lacking in imagination.

Visibly shocked by this lucid takedown of the Founder by a 17-year-old, the Singaporean state reacted by arresting Yee. This was the only response it is used to: all dissenters, critics have to go to jail. And, in this case, age does not matter. However, the social media backlash – especially from the outside – compelled authorities to, oddly, be sticklers of the law. The kid was charged with insulting religious beliefs and granted bail.

The state really had no choice. It could not just allow Yee to act the killjoy of a period of extreme love-fests. But it found a way to try to bring him down: allowing “experts” to do the tarring, calling Yee mentally deficient, a rabble rouser, and even injecting prison humor that he be ready to be gang-raped inside. Yee admirably has shown that he is no potroon, smiling as he went to jail and got out again, and seemingly saying to his detractors to “bring it on.”

But if you read through the exchanges, return to those two YouTube videos, you will notice two notable things. First, these attacks on media and the Internet remind me of the kind of “mob rule” associated with Nazis and Stalinists. The sallies are personalized, and Yee is demonized. There is very little of substance here, and, of course, Yee’s YouTube video is not shown. There is no sense of balance here, no fairness – just all-out attack on the person.

But as this hypocrisy continued, the second thing came to mind, and that is the irony of it all. Amos Yee really is the natural product of Lee Kwan Yew’s autocratic social engineering of Singaporean society. Lee, Harry Lee, wanted his country to reach developed status, capable of competing with Europe and the United States. And at the time of his death, that stage was reached.

With Singaporean well fed, adequately paid, and decently housed, the next logical step would be enriching their minds. Lee’s idea, however, of an educated people is that of a community possessed with skills in the sciences, articulate in English and Mandarin, and adept in management. But devoid of critical thought; a 21st century version of Data, that android in Star Trek Enterprise.

Alas, a physically hale and materially full population will ask for more than just scientific and technocratic knowledge. It will ask for a full play of its curiosities and even its cynicism. This is what the so-called modernization theorists say. A society that grows as a result of its close integration to the world capitalist system will, once it grows and “modernizes,” cannot be selective in their selection of mores and norms.

The first generation to benefit from modernization may agree with the autocrat’s injunction that their unique disposition cannot allow them to adopt Western political and social values. In fact, it would be the first to defend this model.

The second generation, however, will think differently. They are already enjoying the benefits of growth (good schools, functioning health systems, etc), now they want to move further forward, to carve a life different and more exciting than their elders.

This younger generation’s extreme symbol is Amos Yee. Or, to put in another way, Amos Yee was the spawn of Harry Lee’s grand social and political experiment in Singapore. – 

Patricio N. Abinales is professor of Asian Studies at the University of Hawaii-Manoa. 



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