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.
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.
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."