SINGAPORE – A government crackdown on a teen video blogger and independent news and opinion website has focused attention on free speech limits, and perhaps the next election, in this cosmopolitan but famously strict city-state.
Five days after the death in March of Singapore’s founding father, 16-year-old Amos Yee posted his latest American-accented blog to YouTube, titled “Lee Kuan Yew Is Finally Dead!” He shared it with the popular and provocative site The Real Singapore, one of several online alternatives to government-controlled TV broadcasts and newspapers.
After it went viral locally, with over a million views so far, Yee was arrested and charged with transmitting an obscene image and deliberately “wounding the religious or racial feelings of any person.” He refused bail conditions that amounted to a gag order and has been jailed for over two weeks, awaiting a court’s judgment on Tuesday. He has pleaded not guilty and faces up to three years in prison. The government’s Media Development Authority shut down TRS, as it is known, earlier this month – though officials say it was for unrelated reasons.
“These are the things that will split the whole society,” said Alvin Tan, who as artistic director of the respected theatre company The Necessary Stage has tangled with censors for over three decades. “I think we’re waiting for a tipping point.” He has refused to self-censor but negotiates with government representatives, who have had a lighter touch recently with his plays.
Singapore’s government has long aggressively protected its image and authority with legal action both against domestic and international critics, but Yee’s case stands out: A floppy-haired, wryly humorous teenager targeted by prosecutors for a strongly-worded video, sent to prison and shackled in court.
Last fall the MDA banned film director Tan Pin Pin’s documentary about political exiles “To Singapore, With Love.” Lawrence Wong, Singapore’s minister for culture, community and youth, said the film “was deemed to be a real distortion of what happened in Singapore’s history, but disguised as a documentary.”
“Freedom is not unfettered freedom. There are some limits. And the limits are put out there quite clearly,” he said Wong said the government intervenes only when concerned that speech will upset “social stability.”
Standing next to his underground black box theatre, Tan said the strong reaction to TRS and “famous Amos” could be due to the political landscape. “I find things tightening up because it’s just before elections,” he said.
In the eulogies that followed Lee’s death the public was repeatedly reminded of his – and the ruling party’s – achievements, which will remain fresh in most people’s minds if the next general elections are called later this year, as is expected.
But at the same time, with the passing of a stalwart who was the ruling party’s binding force, a political shift feels more possible. As Singaporeans celebrate 50 years of independence in August, they are also finding their own voices in social media, often the site for public debate on politics and social issues.
Meanwhile, the opposition has been on the rise, and could do relatively well in the next elections. It won 10 seats in the 99-seat Parliament in the 2011 elections, up from two previously. Losing even more seats to the opposition would be a huge blow for the People’s Action Party, which has ruled the country since 1959, and is now led by Lee’s oldest son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
“The question of who is to lead the next Singapore is going to be one of the scariest questions to answer,” said Shiao-Yin Kuik, a nominated member of parliament who runs a consultancy and small chain of restaurants aimed at encouraging public dialogue about social issues. Though she dismisses Yee’s blog comments as uninformed, she’s been working to encourage political engagement among young people.
“A kid does not have it in his head that ‘I’m going to be president one day, or prime minister.’ It’s not in the narrative. And it’s not in the narrative of their parents,” she said.
The hard part for young people in modern Singapore is determining how much they can say, whether in politics or art, without repercussions, said 26-year-old visual artist Wong Kel Win. He wrote his university thesis on self-censorship, which is widespread in the arts community and beyond.
“The problem is that we don’t know where to draw the line. Where is the line that we get into trouble?” he asked. That leads to a culture of avoiding big issues. Wong assisted a government-sponsored community centre project in which participants – young and old – were asked to create art that represented their hopes for the future of Singapore.
“They draw more trees, they draw WiFi in the MRT (subway) stations. It’s painful. It’s really painful,” he said. “The country will not grow if we continue to be like that.”
Between sips of a Hoegaarden beer in a modern hotel bar, Wong was grappling with his “love-hate relationship” with Singapore. He loves the clean streets, modern conveniences and lack of corruption that have made it a world business hub.
He respects and admires Lee’s accomplishments and considers himself politically neutral. But as for the next election: “I would love to see things get chaotic a bit.”
There’s already been a bit more chaos than usual for tamped-down Singapore in the court proceedings for Yee. A man ran up and slapped him outside court in front of the media. One of Yee’s attorneys, Alfred Dodwell, said he fears for his client’s safety if he is released.
“We’re a mature society now, a very educated society, but at the same time a very sensitive society,” he said.
Dodwell is on the board of directors for The Independent, another online news site launched two years ago. He doubts the government has lost much support from the general public over free speech issues, but also predicts change on the horizon.
“The real test is the ballot box,” he said. “It’s a very important election coming up. Fifty years have come and gone, so we’re looking at the next leg.”