I have been thinking lately about the freedom of speech, the cost of leadership, and Amos Yee.
I recorded a Filipino Freethinkers (FF) podcast last Monday hosted by FF Founder and President, Red Tani, along with fellow FF member, Jon-jon Rufino. We started by talking about Amos Yee, a 16-year old Singaporean who posted a video entitled “Lee Kuan Yew is Finally Dead.” The video was an 8-minute rant against Singapore’s late founding father and his leadership style which contained multiple expletives as well as an unflattering comparison with Jesus Christ (which some Christians found offensive). Yee was arrested and charged with “deliberate intention of wounding the religious or racial feelings of any person”, distributing obscene material and harassment.
I had two initial reactions when I first watched the video. The first was, this kid certainly has some guts and the second was that he did have some valid points, though I felt a lot of what he said was exaggerated and blown out of proportion. The profanity didn’t help as well as it only served to distract from what could have been valid points. Since then, I have had a little more time to review the video (which you should watch to fully appreciate this article) and read more about the incident.
Yee began by calling Lee a “horrible person” and an “awful leader.” While he may have his reasons for thinking so, I find these claims wildly exaggerated. I mean, if this is a portrait of a horrible person and an awful leader, what adjective is left that we can use to describe the leaders we have, and the ones we’ve had for the past several years? You may call him a dictator, which he rightly is to some degree, but an awful leader could not have transformed Singapore into a first-world country in less than 50 years, and made as much of an impact on the world as he has done.
Yee then called Lee a totalitarian, and then flashed images of Mao, Stalin and Hitler, inviting comparison between them. Again, I find this hyperbolic. Hitler’s body count alone numbers in the millions. I think even Ferdinand Marcos would have a higher body count than Lee. I don’t find the comparison fair or valid at all, except in a very remote sense.
The parts of his rant that I agree with is when he talks about Lee curtailing civil liberties and suing those who question the government. The fact that he was indeed arrested and charged proves his point better than if the government had just left him alone. Freedom of speech includes the freedom to offend, to be disrespectful, and to be vulgar. Used intelligently and sparingly, these can be quite effective in delivering a message. But those who use them often and indiscriminately only come across as crass, juvenile and immature — which he probably is, being an angsty, disgruntled teenager and all — and that is punishment enough. I think the Singaporean government missed out on a rare opportunity to prove Yee wrong on this point. Instead of jailing him, they could have invited him to an open dialogue to settle the matter.
Yee then made an interesting point about how Lee focused on materialistic prosperity and in chasing that ideal, sacrificed happiness. He said “He honestly thought money and status equated to happiness, and his failure to understand how false that was really showed – leading us to be one of the richest countries in the world, and one of the most depressed. Ultimately, how do you quantify a great leader? It is by how he creates a place where people are able to live happily and prosper, based on their own unique attributes, and he hasn’t. So no matter how rich the country he made is…it doesn’t mean a thing.”
Again, it is a brilliant point with a faulty conclusion. It is true that money is not everything, but it is something. If you are sick or hungry, it is better to have money than to be without it. If you have loved ones going through financial difficulties or emergencies, isn’t it more fulfilling to be able to extend some assistance rather than helplessly watch them struggle because you yourself are neck-deep in debt? It is certainly not true that what Lee did “doesn’t mean a thing.” Had Lee not brought Singapore out of poverty, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to think of Amos Yee begging out on the streets or living in a cramped shanty, instead of being able to record his rant from the comfort and privacy of his own room.
Ultimately, it is unrealistic to expect a leader to provide happiness and satisfaction for all, as different people will have different levels and expectations of happiness. However, Lee’s leadership style was probably the most appropriate for his time in order to propel Singapore from being a backwater town into a world class destination. It may not be the right brand of leadership for the current issues of the country (as I’m sure there are many other Amos Yees hiding in the wings), but that is a problem for the current government to consider. Leadership styles should not be static, after all, but must also adapt to the situation at hand.
However, results do not lie, and based on results, Lee Kuan Yew, despite all his faults and despite the rants of a disgruntled teenager, still has my admiration and respect for what he has done for Singapore.
Originally published in Sunstar Davao.