(in)Famous Amos A stark reminder of the state of Singapore society

I may be a guy, but I do love my chocolates and cookies. The rich smell of Famous Amos cookies at some malls never fails to turn my nose (and head). I find them addictive; just enough to saturate your tastebuds, and leaves you wanting more. It’s so easy to reach into that brown paper bag for just…one…more.

These days, in this era of technology-enabled mass media, it’s also equally easy to take a video of yourself and upload it to Youtube to gain a global audience. What’s become hard is the crafting of written prose and moving pictures that doesn’t polarise or marginalise segments of society. The Internet has succeeded beyond its inventors’ wildest imagination to turn every click, chat message, blog or social network post, photo, video and online group into a distinct opinion amidst a sea of opinions. It’s gotten so easy to create, share and discuss content from our devices today, so much so that everyone’s shouting to be heard; even if not everyone is trying to. The roar can be deafening to some who find the diversity offered by the Internet to be more a curse than blessing, or greatly satisfying, as it is in the curious case of Amos Yee.

It’s easy for most of us to react to Amos’ rhetoric and vitriol. He sensationalises, uses vulgarities and invokes parallels and analogies that cut a wide swath across people, religion and organisations. It’s nasty and dramatic all at once. Unfortunately, the Internet isn’t a sovereign country and Amos, alongside the rest of us, live in a society governed by laws that were set and maintained by men. As literacy and education levels grew, individuals are now finding it easier to form an opinion on what constitutes legal and illegal behaviour, and consider it their civic responsibility to keep miscreants in check. Amos’ damning video – which comes just a day after the first 7 days of remembrance for the passing of Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew – vaulted 20+ denizens of Singapore into (police) action.

I was curious about what drove Amos to ‘cross the line’ and publish that silly video. Do we dismiss his actions as that of an immature teenager? Or are there far deeper forces at play within Amos’ psyche, that is a reflection of the society that he grew up in? I dug around a little, and came across an interesting article he wrote after graduating from Zhonghua Secondary that was reposted in a forum thread on Hardwarezone. He writes well despite his misguided views and is obviously a thinker-in-the-making. His humour, intellectual edge and absence of a stable emotional core has also not helped him to integrate with the rest of his peers. It’s as if he’s got a Ferrari engine under his hood that’s coupled to a Toyota chassis. He wasn’t contented to simply purr on traffic-congested streets he was allowed to roam on, and the faster he tried to go on the Internet highway with no speed limits or warning signs, the quicker he broke apart.

NB: Alfian Sa’at has a nice FB post deconstructing Amos’ diatribe that’s worth a peek at, while we’re on this topic.

The comments that came after the forum OP were equally interesting, and points towards a society with the same fault lines today as when we started, split along race, religion and ideology. It’s always easier for us flawed humans to be negative, and harder to be understanding and kind to people we don’t know. The Attorney-General Department didn’t explain their actions beyond invoking the law, so we don’t know whether they truly wanted to crucify Amos to teach him a lesson – as the Chinese would say, 杀一敬百 – or were forced into taking the only course of action they had after receiving that many public complaints. I’m a little disappointed our society still believes in the need for legal protection from online harassment, but I guess I’m being a bit more idealistic here than pragmatic. After all, we’re only a country that’s 50 years old; as much a juvenile as Amos is in the grander, global scheme of things.

The saddest part of this entire debacle is the negative international press our society’s collective action has garnered, this soon after the slew of positive PR upon LKY’s passing. It’s the sort of firestarter western media has come to expect from the tinder keg that is Singapore, and we played right into it. As much as we desire for a more civic and civil society, both on- and offline, there must surely be equally firm ways to send the same message to Amos Yee and our youths without tainting LKY’s final gift to Singapore, before we walk, hopefully hand in hand, into a less certain future.

I quote a sentence from a related online article elsewhere in the Internet-verse:

A hallmark of a fully mature society is its ability to accept, assimilate, and act upon criticism.

1 step forward, 2 steps back?

Two steps forward, one step back? Or is it really one step forward, two steps back? That depends on which direction you consider to be the right side up. There’s no laws there telling us what to think in this case, so feel free to decide.

But please, keep it classy, and keep it to yourself. Silence can be golden too.

About James Chan

James Chan is an entrepreneur, investor, geek, photographer and husband/father based out of Singapore. Apart from frequent travels to Vietnam, Myanmar and Indonesia for work, James can also be found online via his trusty 15" Retina MacBook Pro or iPhone 6+.