SG50

Sunday marked the 50th birthday for an independent Singapore, a significant milestone for a young nation that has accelerated into the 21st century. As a Singaporean, this was a proud moment for me, and I am sad that I wasn't able to make it back there for the celebrations. 

But this particular birthday has been bittersweet, and is marred by certain events, most notably by the government's treatment and jailing of a Singaporean teenager who dared to give his honest, unfiltered opinions of its recently deceased founding father and of the government.

Lee Kuan Yew paraphernalia sold near City Hall during the mourning of the former prime minister. (Credit: Dene-Hern Chen)

Lee Kuan Yew paraphernalia sold near City Hall during the mourning of the former prime minister. (Credit: Dene-Hern Chen)

If you haven't been following this, here's the cliff notes version: The week of PM Lee Kuan Yew's death, when Singaporeans were still mourning (some, in a very public and ostentatious manner), 16-year-old Amos Yee posted a Youtube video celebrating LKY's passing, because of certain policies that the former PM had instated and encouraged, such as the censorship of the press and the stamping down of dissent to the government. He insulted LKY's "followers," saying that they lacked "sound logic" to see that his policies were detrimental to a true democracy, and has actually widened the inequality gap. Not long after the video was posted, numerous complaints were lodged against him, and he was promptly arrested. He was later sentenced to four weeks in prison, though this sentence was remanded for the time already spent in jail. This, of course, drew international attention, and brought criticism down upon the Singaporean government. 

Perhaps Yee's downfall was that he talked about these issues the way a teenager would: 1) in an arrogant way, with questionable comparisons peppered with profanity, and 2) in the immediate wake of LKY's death when the masses were still prostrating themselves to his memory. Either way, for a country that made leaps and bounds in just 50 years, it was certainly deflating to see it revert to prosecuting a surly teenager for simply being a surly teenager. Critics of the Singaporean government are unsurprised by this, as it has always been self-described as a democracy with limits, an epithet worn proudly and unironically by the government and its defenders – and sometimes even by citizens themselves. 

Hundreds of thousands of Singaporeans turned up to mourn Lee Kuan Yew, as his body was moved from the Parliament House to the funeral ceremony. (Credit: Dene-Hern Chen)

Hundreds of thousands of Singaporeans turned up to mourn Lee Kuan Yew, as his body was moved from the Parliament House to the funeral ceremony. (Credit: Dene-Hern Chen)

Yee's critics would think themselves justified. Well, three days before National Day, Yee has released another video responding to the numerous reasons for his persecution and imprisonment. Most importantly, he points out what any thinking Singaporean should have realized: "The main things people were pissed off about was that I insulted Lee Kuan Yew. But I wasn't punished for that. Instead I got the highest punishment for the few seconds I insulted Jesus," which means that criticizing the government is "still technically legal."

I don't know if Yee is brave or stupid. But as we move towards the next half of a century as an independent nation, my only wish is for my fellow Singaporeans to be able to speak openly and intelligently about its society's problems without having others, embalmed by a mob mentality, clamor for their arrests. Having a different opinion from the masses – or, most crucially, the government – does not equate to being a dissident. After all, the government cannot half-ass its transformation into a first-world nation, emphasizing only on material wealth and prosperity while ignoring inherent human rights. As Yee said in his latest video in reference to freedom of speech, "you either have it or you don't." 

Lee Hsien Loong, current Singapore prime minister and Lee Kuan Yew's son, greet mourners waiting outside the Parliament House to pay their respects to the former PM. (Credit: Dene-Hern Chen) 

Lee Hsien Loong, current Singapore prime minister and Lee Kuan Yew's son, greet mourners waiting outside the Parliament House to pay their respects to the former PM. (Credit: Dene-Hern Chen) 

An addendum to my interview with Rob Carmichael in Fah Thai...

My Q&A with journalist and author Rob Carmichael was published in the July/August issue of Fah Thai. We spoke about the book he just published, When Clouds Fell From The Sky, and I also managed to interview Neary Ouk, the woman whose family is at the center of the book.

Unfortunately, Fah Thai wasn't able to publish the my interview with Neary, an experience I found to be incredibly affecting. Mostly, we talked about what it was like for her to read the book and what her relationship with Rob was like given that he was delving into a very personal and painful part of her family history. 

So I've decided to leave Neary's words here; think of it as an important addition to my conversation with Rob. I had envisioned the Fah Thai piece to feature her thoughts right next to Rob's Q&A, which is why this is just a recount of what she said. 

“There are a lot of things [my mother and I are] discovering while reading it, like how my family members have disappeared, because it’s not only my dad, actually. We are learning the fate of everyone, like my grandfather.”
“Rob’s been interviewing people – something I can’t do from where I am, and I wish I could have. Or some things I wouldn’t have found the strength to do, like interviewing Prak Khan. But I wish I could have done that myself. And Rob has been watching the world a lot, with some sense of psychology to the people involved in general.”
“Rob went back to S-21 with me, and he never imposed anything on me. I decided to introduce him to the carving I made to my dad, and we managed to speak at a time when I wasn’t so talkative; I guess that must have been a challenge for him. But we probably learned things from one another. He taught me how to probably let go and be less focused on one thing and see things more globally.”
“I wish my dad could have been there physically but that’s not the case. It’s certainly painful. But the trial is much more than that; it’s showing to the rest of the world that one has to be patient and it’s a matter of time that when people do harm, it always comes back to them.”

You can get Carmichael's book in Monument bookstores in Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar; and in AsiaBooks in Thailand. It's also sold in Kindle form on Amazon

My first professional site!

It's been more than a year since I started freelancing full-time, so I figured it was about time I put together a space to display some of my articles. I'm only going to be posting a fraction of it here though. 

Blogging is not going to come easy for me, especially if it concerns work, but I'll try to update this space as much as possible. And I promise, I'll try to make sure it's interesting.

For now, I'm really excited to be finally doing this. Better late than never, I suppose. Next thing on the list: Get some name cards! (This will most probably take another three months.)