Amos Yee: Challenge Accepted

practicing punchability

Now, perhaps my old-man memory is failing me, but I cannot remember the last time someone attracted as much gleeful hatred as Amos Yee has, let alone seemed to enjoy it quite as much.

I’m not going to address any of his complaints directly, because I don’t think that any of his valid points are particularly unique, insightful, or well-crafted, and his invalid points are pathetically-transparent attempts at attention-grabbing. Rather, I’d like to dwell a little on what I see are the challenges his behaviour and the subsequent public reaction place before us as citizens and critics.

Yee’s behaviour and the subsequent backlash against it challenge our commitment to open-mindedness, liberal discourse, and the public expression of dissent. By choosing to represent his discontent in a vulgar and disrespectful manner, he’s attracted widespread condemnation, and because of his anti-establishmentarianism, legitimate and better-articulated expressions of dissent are at risk of being discredited by association.

I work with young people, and it’s hard enough to get them to be active and aware, let alone vocal and critical. While the ones I’ve spoken to are overwhelmingly against Yee, I’m pretty sure that’s just because he’s obnoxious and unlikable, and not because of any particular principle; I’m also worried that some of them are just going to see a young person being tarred and feathered for speaking out, which might lead to them getting the wrong message. I’m worried that if responses to  Yee aren’t pointed enough, if they default to in-principle defences of free speech or in-principle condemnation of dissidents, they ignore the particular ways in which Yee has attracted such intense condemnation as the result, not of his act of speaking out, but the way in which he has chosen to do it. I’m worried that young people will, instead of learning to craft criticism carefully, instead just give up, and that’s a pretty dismal thought.

Personally, I find myself very much challenged. While my heart predisposes me to hate the arrogant little snot, my head tells me that he’s being treated in a manner that, if understandable, is still unfair. I find that I’m being challenged to place my principles before my preferences: after all, I’ve always been an advocate of speaking openly, and I’m sure friends and colleagues will remember me brushing off complaints with the saw that people should get thicker skins if they don’t want to be offended. If I side with Yee’s detractors (and abusers, and assailants), surely I will be making myself a hypocrite for taking the side of the thin-skinned, and so I must champion, at least in principle, the right to publicly dissent.

On the other hand, I am very much offended by those who have framed Yee’s predicament as the result of Singapore’s draconian laws, small-minded population, and how difficult it is to express unpopular opinions here. He’s been lauded as a satire in the mould of Voltaire by the foreign press, and that I cannot abide. A satirist is an artist who champions controversy by crafting for it a fitting vehicle by which it can more effectively infiltrate the sensibilities of society. Satirists like Swift and Voltaire attribute their success to a talent for making the establishment look ridiculous, identifying follies and foibles and then attacking them with wit, panache, and style. A satirist makes expressing dissent easier by giving people something to resonate with.

Instead, what Yee has done is made expressing dissent harder by damning all dissenters by association, and trivialising the care with which some people advance unpopular causes in a manner that seduces rather than sensationalises. I mean, the people behind Pink Dot and other such movements also promote causes which aren’t popular by any stretch of the imagination, but they’re not being jerks about it. Yee, instead of ridiculing the establishment, has made of himself an object of ridicule through his poorly thought-out and obnoxious public disregard for civil society, for the institutions of law, and even for the kindness of others including his would-be benefactor and bail-poster.

Yee is not neck-deep in shit because he’s an artist or a critic, but because he is a shit. His opinions are reviled not because he had the temerity to express himself but because he’s committed the artistic sin of doing so badly. By repeatedly demonstrating utter disregard for the rule of law, Yee has made himself the centre of a media circus that has not succeeded in promoting thought so much as it has provoked outrage, and has, after strutting like a bantam on camera inviting PM Lee to “bring it on”, declaring his readiness to “dance”, tried to frame himself as a victim. Accusing your dad of abusing you doesn’t excuse you for flouting the terms of your bail, kid, and isn’t likely to get you much sympathy.

I think the only way of making my way through the gauntlet of having to support principles of free speech while at the same time being critical of this particular exercise of free speech is to consider Yee’s behaviour and his manner separately from his message. Whenever I read anything of his, I’m being challenged to separate whatever vitriol and vulgarity and venal desire for attention from actual criticism of local attitudes and stuff like the education system. I have to acknowledge that endorsing greater liberty includes giving people the freedom to be awful people.

Yee’s entire public image, in its flip-flopping between fearless champion and abused victim, is an insult to everyone’s intelligence. At the same time, smacking him in the face only further diminishes the dignity of the proceedings, and, while vindictively satisfying, only allows society to one-up Yee in the race to the bottom.

Maybe it’s my Catholicism acting up. We’re taught to hate the sin, love the sinner; I suppose that also means it’s not entirely inconsistent to defend a principle of promoting speech and discourse while also feeling a kind of gleeful schadenfreude when someone gets hit in their stupid mouth. Human frailty, as a friend of mine mentioned.

I suppose I’m being personally challenged to rise above the vindictive satisfaction of watching someone get hit in the face, to look at the bigger picture and the principle of the matter. Challenge accepted, I said; it’s proving harder than I thought.

“But You’re Catholic!”

I’ve heard this so many times that it’s come to mean quite the opposite: “I’m pretty sure you’re not actually Catholic.”

Granted, when I was younger, it was for more benign infractions. “You’re so rude. But you’re Catholic!” and “You drink so much. But you’re Catholic!”

These days, I hear it in connection with more contentious beliefs. “You support gay rights? But you’re Catholic!” So as much to clear my own head as anything else, I thought I’d set my thoughts in order in the most public and inadvisable way possible: on the Internet.

My poor decision-making skills have nothing to do with my religion.

What It Means
“Gay” is a weird adjective to use, really, and not just because of the “gay old time” ambiguity. It’s been used to describe such a wide spectrum of things (“gay rights”, “gay lifestyle”), even in the specific context of homosexuality, that it can come to mean just about anything, with the effect that two people who appear to be debating may actually be talking about completely different things. So I find it helpful at the outset to lay out what I really mean.

I support the right of people to receive equal treatment under the law. There. That’s all. That’s it.

What It Doesn’t Mean
No, I’m not in support of paedophilia, incest, bestiality, necrophilia, or the usual host of false equivalencies homosexual behaviour is usually lumped-in with. I’m not in support of anything involving minors, nor the absence of informed consent.

Can I just say: 377A is not only discriminatory, but it’s also stupid. It’s poorly-written! It’s not even specifically against anal or something. I can’t buttfuck a dude but I can buttfuck a chick? Hell, I can even get buttfucked by a chick and the law would be OK with it.

What does “gross indecency” mean, anyway? Does it mean that dudes just can’t do sex things with or around each other? What if two dudes sit in a room and jerk off to porn together? Straight porn, even? Does it matter if their balls touch? What about if they do the Dutch rudder? What if a bunch of dudes run a train on a chick, or spit roast her, or do some DP? Is that an act of gross indecency with another male person?

Hell, does that mean that gross indecency is OK if I’m with a chick? If it is, then what’s so gross or indecent about it, anyway?

In fact, all of the traditional sex taboo laws are weird and poorly-written. It’s wrong to penetrate a corpse with your penis! If you’re a guy! But it’s not illegal to penetrate a corpse with your finger, your arm up to the elbow, with a dildo, with a strap-on, with your tongue; it’s not illegal to sit on a corpse’s face and grind your muff into its face. 377, which addresses necrophilia, prohibits the penetration of a human corpse; 377B, which addresses bestiality, prohibits the penetration of a living animal. So I can fuck an animal if it’s dead? What the fuck?

Hey, let’s not just remove 377A. Let’s properly re-write all the weird sex parts of the penal code. Having these things on the books is embarrassing, man. It’s like having laws against witchcraft or something.

By the way, the Canadian law makes it illegal to pretend to use witchcraft. Apparently doing witchcraft for real is OK. Funnily enough, this might make Lawrence Khong a sort of double offender in Canada: if he thinks he’s doing real magic, he’s breaking a Leviticus taboo; if he knows he’s only pretending to do magic, he’s breaking that law.


“But You’re Catholic!”
The Church is on my side on this one, in fact.

2358 The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.”

And no, don’t bother telling me that just discrimination is OK, because are you freaking kidding me.

So What Does That Mean?
The way I read it, it means that no Catholic of good conscience can abide discriminatory legislation. Legalising discrimination in no way makes it just. If a straight person enjoys a certain right or benefit under law, so should a gay person. If straight people can enjoy civil marriages, so should gay people; if straight parents get baby bonuses, so should gay ones; if straight couples with kids get preference when purchasing property, so should gay ones.

What It Doesn’t Mean
I think certain elements of various disenfranchised communities can go overboard when fighting for their rights. I think gay people suing churches to force them to conduct marriage services for them and similar infringements of the religious rights of others are unjust, and I don’t support them. The Church can and does withhold the sacraments for a multitude of reasons: not being in a state of grace, having unconfessed mortal sins on your conscience, being an unbeliever, being under some sort of ecclesiastical ban, and whatnot. If the Church can refuse communion to an unconfessed adulterer, it can definitely refuse a religious wedding service to gays.

Being recognised in a civil partnership, and receiving the various benefits that accrue thereto, is not the same thing as forcing a priest to perform an act he is obliged to consider inherently sinful, such as sanctifying a union his religion considers impossible. You should no more oblige a priest to perform a gay marriage than you should oblige a Catholic doctor to perform an abortion.

This is by no means to be extended to places of general business, or public services. The Bible says homosexuality is a sin; it doesn’t say that sinners can’t eat in restaurants or buy clothes or whatever.

But You’re Catholic!
Yes, yes, the Catechism of the Catholic Church condemns homosexuality as “disordered”. The Bible makes it very clear that homosexuality is a sin.

However, at some point or the other, the Catholic Church and/or the Bible has/have also condemned a whole bunch of other things that are still legal. The Book of Leviticus in one chapter alone (19:28) condemns all of these legal things:

  • lying
  • taking the Lord’s name in vain
  • showing partiality to the poor or the wealthy
  • holding grudges
  • wear clothing woven of two different materials (my jeans are 50% cotton. Uh oh)
  • getting tattoos
  • cutting one’s beard
Uh ohhhhh. I think we can all agree that, with that getup, Mr Khong really needs a beard.

Shut up. My point is that sin and crime must be considered separate in order for the separation of powers to work. The Church and State must remain separate. Our postcolonial burden is that many of our state apparati were designed along religiously-oriented lines. In instances where this clearly harms nobody, perhaps we can adopt a more philosophical and sedentary position, but in instances which clearly promote discrimination, I don’t think we can afford phlegmatism. Some things can be both sinful and criminal (like murder, duh), but not everything has to be, and some things can’t be criminalised no matter how sinful they are (like premarital sex, for example. Or wearing clothing woven of two different materials or whatever) because of how needlessly punitive that would be to society.

The Catholic Church condemns divorce and abortion, but yet these are not only legal in so-called conservative Singapore but actually more accessible than in many so-called liberal countries. Why shouldn’t we adopt the same attitude towards homosexuality? Is anything gained by criminalising huge swathes of the population for victimless acts?

If Christians can enforce their prejudices against homosexuality on non-Christians, what’s to stop Muslims enforcing haram on non-Muslims? Or any religion oppressing atheists? The separation of Church — all churches — from State is a necessity. If you’re a dude and you think homosexuality is a sin, stop banging other dudes.

Pet peeve
The rhetoric and the euphemisms. “Pro-family”. Good God, y’all. What does “the family” mean anyway? People espouse some ideal of a nuclear family that, to the best of my knowledge, has never been anywhere or at anytime some kind of ubiquitous thing.

I roll my eyes at arguments in favour of ‘tradition’ because ‘traditionalists’ tend to be ignoramuses. ‘Tradition’ is uninstructive and imprecise. I greatly prefer history, and some modicum of historical knowledge tends to poke huge holes in any kind of traditionalist argument. What do ‘traditional’ ideas of family and sexuality look like in Asia anyway?

Societies that were never Christianised, such as Thailand and Japan, tend to have longer and more open histories of homosexual activity and acceptance of various gendered states and sexual preferences. India has long recognised the existence of an intersex or third-gender community.


Polygamy was widely-practiced in Chinese communities, up till relatively recently. Even family bonds meant more than just blood-relationship: my father’s sister was given away to an Indian family to raise. The cookie-cutter ideal has never been at any time or any place universally prevalent, nor does it deserve to be sanctified as if it had been, or should be.

Arguments for the preservation of the status quo, for no reason other than inertia and the maintenance of that status quo, are examples of the sunk-cost fallacy written large, and have little to recommend them.

It’s odd that we’ve tried to resurrect ‘kampung spirit’ or gotong royong, but at the same time cleave to Puritan standards and definitions of the family unit. Singapore’s success was built on people making the best of a bad situation and finding common ground in adversity, instead of thin-slicing their communities even further over constructed and artificial ideas of family. What is gained by drawing lines in the sand?

Singapore, if you want stronger families, stronger community ties, and more kiddies running around, maybe you’d be better off trying to fight divorce and abortion, huh? Or cutting work hours and raising wages and social safety-nets so parents can spend more time with their kids instead of outsourcing parenting to domestic workers and schools? Or helping parents with kids, regardless of their sexual preference, give their children the support and education they need to grow up healthy, smart, and happy?

Hell, I think I’ve learned more about family from Disney than I have from any number of self-ordained pastors.

It means nobody gets left behind.