I am a Burmese exile taking a near-permanent refuge in New York and Sydney. Here are my essays about Burma and anything else I feel like writing about. And posting the articles I like from selected sites. Bridging Burma to the world this Blog is more of a Politically-Oriented Literary Blog than a Plain News Blog or a Sophisticated Thoughts Blog.
The most winsome political
dissident you’ve never heard of, Amos Yee, is a Singaporean, a YouTube
personality, and an activist who takes his cause more seriously than he takes
He has hair like a haystack in late afternoon and the nervous
timing of a standup nebbish. He curses as imaginatively as a Scotsman in an
Iannucci script, and, despite his perfect vision, he wears glasses on camera,
He’s a humanist—a close student of street idiom and indie film—but
he has a data wonk’s appreciation for comparative statistics and a wariness of
received wisdom. On concerns such as gay rights, income inequality, and free
speech, he’s outspoken on the right side of history. He is seventeen years old.
He is also, in his home of
Singapore, an alleged criminal for what he’s said. On Friday, March 27th, Yee
uploaded a video that criticized Lee Kuan Yew, the recently deceased founding
father of postwar Singapore, and also took a swipe at organized Christianity.
By the following Monday,
after formal complaints from some fellow Singaporeans, Yee had been arrested
under Section 298 of the country’s penal code, which forbids the uttering of
words that might hurt the religious feelings of any person, and the Protection
from Harassment Act, a recent law ostensibly set up to guard against
His blog, where he had
postedan illustration of Lee and
Margaret Thatcher in flagrante, was censored; it earned Yee an obscenity
charge under Penal Code Section 292. He was released on a bail of twenty
thousand Singapore dollars, and is currently awaiting hearings. He has been
ordered not to post anything more online. If he’s found guilty, he could face a
fine of five thousand Singapore dollars and three years in prison.
Previously, Yee’s targets
had been overly pliant citizens, religious hypocrisy, governmental agitprop,
and parents. His smart-alecky YouTube videos, which he began releasing a couple
of years ago, were directed equally toward the Singaporean youth and a more
international, American-style audience.
It is easy to lose a lunch
hour in such homemade productions as hisexposition of Singaporean Englishandhis review of “The Da Vinci Code.”Yee’s style is both manic and
concinnate, confident and strangely self-aware. If most teen-agers deploy
sarcasm and snark, he has a sense of higher-order irony—a pearl-like virtue in
a society that tends to disdain intellectual risk.
Singapore today has a
well-guarded culture of political deference. This year’sWorld
Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders, ranks
Singapore a hundred and fifty-third out of a hundred and eighty countries, just
below Russia. All seven domestic TV channels are under governmental control,
and it is illegal to own a satellite dish. (Radio and print are similarly
As Yee points out, the
country’s rampant inequality—by some measures, the highest in the developed
world—is a red flag given its tax levels and unemployment. Singapore may
sparkle with clean streets and the kind of airport where you hope for a long
layover. On rights, though, it’s stunningly retrograde. Homosexual acts between
men are illegal, and can lead to two years in prison.
The country famously uses
caning to punish various nonviolent infractions, such as overstaying a visa.
Oppositions to these policies are easily suppressed in a small place with
stringent policing and, until the Internet, hardly any outlets where free
thought could spread.
Yee’s arrest doesn’t just
underscore his complaints about Singapore’s backwardness on rights and freedom.
It shows the country’s dire need for cultural education through intelligent
dissent. In the days after Yee’s arrest, a slew oflocal celebrities,
including three Singaporean starlet types, were interviewed about his videoson national TV.
In sequences depressing to
watch, they all sided with the state. “If you say that, ‘Oh, people can say
whatever they want, all the time,’ then what about those people who are
listening?” Joshua Tan, a young actor, said. Well, what about them? The
suggestion that citizens should withhold political criticism for fear of
offense is preposterous—far more embarrassing to Singapore than any videos by
Yee could be.
The citizens of developed
nations in the twenty-first century should not need to be told that free
expression is a basic attribute of political health. It’s part of Yee’s
precocity to realize that a population molded into sheeplike complaisance is
ideologically vulnerable. If his opinions sometimes tend toward the extremes (ina more recent video, he
urges young people to drop out of school, the better not to, you know, go to
learn the words of fools), his goal seems to be to unsettle the existing
Singaporean power structure enough that young people have no choice but to broaden
His flamboyant thought and
language is part of the best tradition of dissension, from Voltaire to the
Velvet Revolution, and it accrues to creative fields beyond politics. Yee is
something of a cinematic prodigy, having snaggedtwo top prizes in a Singaporean
festivalfor a hilarious
short he made at thirteen,in his bedroom. My own favorite of his productions is a
review of “Boyhood,” a movie that—he spares no imagery in telling us—blew him
Certain of the praiseful
sentences that Yee sends toward Linklater’s film are gibberish. But a number of
his basic observations are well-judged, and even the squawks of analytical
nonsense are endearing: most of us in the verbal professions went through
periods of blowing large amounts of wind through the instrument, trying to
understand how the music works. (Some of us, maybe, never really outgrew that
For older people, Yee’s
review offers a welcome reminder of those times at fifteen, sixteen, seventeen,
when the world of mature self-expression was fresh and every art work seemed in
need of overwrought endorsement.
If anything, Yee has all the
hallmarks of a green and thriving mind; he is exactly the kind of person you
would one day want reviewing your books, making your movies, maybe even running
your country. Americans, who enjoy the benefits of free media, have a
responsibility to take him more seriously than they take the government that
has tried to quiet him for thinking freely in the public sphere.
And those of us in the Fourth Estate have a duty to spread
word of his ridiculous charges. If people like Amos Yee end up the custodians
of our profession, the future of countries like Singapore can be brighter than