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Can You Blame Amos Yee’s Parents for his Online Rant Condemning LKY?

Hello guys, today I have stumbled upon an interview with Gurmit Singh and Quan Yifeng on Asia One today – in this interview, the local actors who both have teenage children said that the responsibility of a child’s behaviour falls squarely on the shoulder of the parents. They shared their thoughts on the Amos Yee incident and how they would have reacted differently. I would like to offer my perspective on the same incident from both sides of the equation.

What are the responsibilities of a parent?

YES his parents are to be blamed.

Parents have certain responsibilities: as an adult,  when you choose to have a child, you have to assume responsibility for the child until that child becomes an adult. That is the deal and that is a somewhat scary aspect of parenthood. Of course most parents try their very best to nurture their children but when you get a child like Amos Yee, what do you do? You really just have to make the best of a very difficult situation and get whatever external help you need to try to cope with the situation. But at the end of the day, until the child becomes an adult, the buck still stops with the parents regardless of how challenging the behaviour of the child may be. That is the inconvenient truth for Mr and Mrs Yee.

Amos Yee didn’t just wake up one morning and decided, “I am going to get myself into big trouble by making the most controversial Youtube video in the history of Singapore”. The Amos Yee that you saw in the video was many years in the making – if his parents had taken any notice of his previous Youtube videos, then they would have seen that coming, especially when he had decided to drop out of school. The fact that his mother went as far as to lodge a police report against her own son shows that she has effectively given up as a mother to try to exert any influence on her son – she declared that her son was “beyond control”. Really, what did Mrs Yee expect the police to do on her behalf?

Mrs Yee had no control over her son.

Many Singaporeans on social media are barking up the wrong tree when they suggest that a bit of hard love would straighten Amos Yee out – their suggestions range from caning Amos to jailing Amos to taking away Amos’ phone and computer. Pardon me for being cynical – it’s not that I am averse to drastic measures (hey, drastic times call for drastic measures), but rather, the issue here is whether or not punishing Amos at this stage would really achieve anything. Rather, any kind of punishment now is simply trying to shut the stable doors long after the horse has bolted – it would only appease the haters who want to see Amos Yee suffer for insulting LKY, but in terms of rehabilitating a troubled teenager, it would achieve little. Amos Yee needs help and we should show compassion.

If his parents were really interested in helping Amos, they could have at least put themselves in a position where they were able to influence his behaviour. No amount of harsh punishments would do any good if your child simply does not respect your opinion – parents have to accept that when their children turn into teenagers, not only are they becoming increasing intelligent, they are also subjected to a range of influences from media and parents are competing very hard with all these different sources to win not just the respect but the attention of their teenagers. This is where Asian parents go horribly wrong – there is this assumption that you simply must respect your parents: no ifs, no buts, no negotiations, no questions. Thus Asian parents just assume that they have the respect of their children and their children will actually listen to them – that is hardly the case in the real world, as demonstrated by Amos Yee.

Do you blame Amos Yee’s parents?

In this case, I sympathize with Amos Yee as I have parents who made zero effort to try to get to know me as a teenager. I had extremely traditional Asian parents who simply assumed that I would do as I was told and offer them unconditional respect. That began to fall apart pretty early in my teenage years actually – the irony of course, is that my Asian parents had placed so much emphasis on me achieving good grades and bludgeoning me through the education system, I soon realized that my mother couldn’t get her head around the secondary one syllabus. If she had been a good parent, she would have taught me never to judge a person why their ability to answer questions in an exam – but she was an Asian parent and she taught me that my self-worth was deemed by my exam results, so what kind of position did she put herself in when she couldn’t even understand my secondary one homework? She had created a framework of judgement which would deem her a stupid and useless person in her world.

When I was in primary school, if I didn’t know the answers to a maths question, she would hit me and call me stupid. So when the tables were turned, when I went to her with a maths question when I was in secondary school and she couldn’t answer, what was I to make of my mother who told me that people who couldn’t do their maths homework were stupid and deserved to be beaten? I don’t even think she realized how she had set herself up to fail but I certainly did. Of course, I didn’t call her stupid – I was more tactful than that. I spared her feelings but I then began to seek advice and inspiration from my role models whom I knew were extremely intelligent people who had achieved great things. My mother had totally failed to establish herself in a position where I could take her seriously and that, dear readers, was entirely her fault and down to her poor parenting skills. I blame her for making very poor choices as a parent the same way I feel that Mr and Mrs Yee had made some very poor choices when it came to parenting.

My mother placed too much emphasis on academic performance.

I don’t know what happened in the Yee family when Amos was a young child, but the fact that they are not in a position to exert any kind of influence over Amos today meant that the problem started many, many years ago. Perhaps you can call me liberal in my approach, but I do believe that old fashioned methods of Asian parenting simply do not work in this day and age. A much greater effort mus be made by parents to understand the kind of social media that is such a big part of their children’s lives. In my days, it was a lot simpler as we were all passive consumers of media: I watched movies and TV programmes, I read books, magazines and newspaper. But in the age of the internet, hardly anyone is a passive consumer: even if you have something like a Twitter or Facebook account, you are already pumping content onto the internet that could get you into trouble.

Thus in the case of Amos Yee, he had crossed over from being a passive consumer to an active contributor to social media at a much younger age than most Singaporean teenagers. Were his parents keeping a close eye on his activities on social media or were they simply looking the other way, too busy with their own lives to take an interest? Did they realize the challenge that lay before them or were they totally oblivious? I think that they could have made a far greater effort to try to challenge his creative energy in a far more constructive and positive direction but clearly, they had failed to do that. I think I know where the problem lies with his parents. Amos Yee’s mother is a teacher – I don’t know what kind of job his father has, but allow me to speak as someone whose parents were teachers.

Did Amos Yee’s parents monitor his social media activities?

Being teachers meant that my parents spent the majority of their working lives in the safe environment of the school, that left them really quite ignorant of the outside world. Furthermore, they actually believed that education (or more precisely, the actual act of studying) would solve any problems a child was facing. My parents were so obsessed with getting me to study that they forgot the purpose of my education altogether: after all, if I was sitting down in my room, reading a book or doing my homework, then they knew that I was not outside, hanging around with the wrong crowd, taking drugs or getting into trouble. This then develops into rituals where Asian parents convince themselves that the act of studying will actually protect their child from any kind of social ills – that couldn’t be further from the truth. Asian parents are often guilty of making such dumb assumptions.

Many children have the desire to crave approval from their parents and parents have a fine balancing act to use this approval to control their children. I am going to use the example of my own parents to show how clueless Asian parents can fuck this up so badly and get it so wrong when it comes to parenting 101. Now my own parents made it a point never ever to praise me – despite being a triple scholar, national champion gymnast and winning more awards than I can list – they made it a point never to a single kind word to me because they were convinced that any form of praise would poison my mind: it would turn me lazy and complacent, thus they went out of their way to do the complete opposite and kept putting me down, so that I would always feel that I had to work harder to achieve more. Did it work? Of course it didn’t – some point in my teenage years, I just thought, you guys are never going to give me any approval no matter what I do and I no longer give a shit if I get your approval or not. I’m just gonna do what I do and not give a fuck whether you’re happy or not, I’m going to be an adult and I don’t need your approval.  It was just a complete coincidence that I happened to do quite well in life; but that was in spite of (rather than because of) my parents.

Children naturally seek the approval of their parents.

When my parents became grandparents, they went to the complete opposite extreme with my nephew – because he is autistic, my parents go out of their way to praise him for every single little thing that he does. The result is that their praise has no effect whatsoever on my nephew – he is just so used to hearing his grandparents heap praise on him for everything that he does. I just roll my eyes each time I hear my parents heap more praises on my nephew – for example, they would promise to buy him a new toy if he does well for his exams; but we all know that even if my nephew fails those exams, my parents would never say no to their only grandson and still buy him that toy anyway. By that token, their approval is offered unconditionally and thus they have no power to use their approval to control my nephew’s behaviour. In contrast, I knew I was not going to get their approval no matter what I did, so I no longer craved it – thus they also had no power to use their approval to control my behaviour either.

It is a balancing act to offer just the right amount of approval in order for parents to exert maximum control over their children’s behaviour. There is no simple one-size-fits-all approach as each child is unique and different, thus it is up to parents to get to know their children well enough to know when to offer praise and when to withhold approval in order to wield the greatest amount of influence over their children, in order to continue being able to guide them through their difficult teenage years. In Amos Yee’s case, it is clear that Amos was far more interested in getting more hits on Youtube than any kind of approval that he may get from his parents if he obeyed them. What went wrong then? Did they offer too much approval when he was younger as he became a child actor? Or did they offer too little approval when Amos was younger, thus forcing him to seek it online, through Youtube and other social media platforms.

Limpeh is on Youtube too like so many people.

NO his parents are not to be blamed. 

I struggled quite hard to find ways to defend Amos Yee’s parents and I think I did find one angle. I was quite surprised to learn that Amos was a student at Zhonghua secondary school. What I am about to say is going to be very un-PC and may offend some readers, but so be it. Zhonghua isn’t what you would consider a particularly good secondary school in Singapore, it tends not to attract the smartest students who have good PSLE results. Nonetheless, one can only assume that Amos didn’t do particularly well in his PSLE for some reason and thus Zhonghua was the best school that he could have gotten into with his grades.

The classic Singaporean solution to people who find themselves in this situation is to simply redeem themselves by studying really hard, doing really well at the O level exams and then moving on to a better school to do their A levels. But what about students who are not interested in proving themselves by studying to pass an exam – are there any other ways that Singaporean society can offer these young people to prove their worth? There isn’t – and therein lies a fault with the system: it offers very little alternative for students who do not conform and fit the mould of your typical Singaporean student. Hence Amos became totally disenfranchised with the system because of his very poor experience at school which failed to nurture him intellectually, giving him the guidance that he really needed.

By that token, is it fair to then put the onus on Mr and Mrs Yee to undo the damage that had been inflicted on their son by the Singaporean education system? Is it possible to take a more sympathetic stance with Mr and Mrs Yee? After all, I think it is wholly possible that the four years at Zhonghua secondary school did Amos Yee a lot of harm (as evident from his post which you can read here), it could have been that very negative experience that turned Amos Yee into the person he is today, rather than because of his parents’ poor parenting techniques.After all, what was Mr and Mrs Yee supposed to do when they found out that their bright son was to spend the next four years in a secondary school like Zhonghua? If money wasn’t an issue, they really should have sent Amos to boarding school in the UK so he could have received a better education. That would have been an extremely expensive route to take and perhaps Mr and Mrs Yee simply didn’t have that kind of money.

Such is the unforgiving, harsh nature of the Singaporean education system. If Amos had done well enough in his PSLE to get into one of the top secondary schools in Singapore, then he would have been in an environment where he would be surrounded by equally intelligent students. He would have been challenged and stretched intellectually and who knows – he may have been a humanities scholar today, setting his eyes on Oxford or Cambridge. Such options would certainly have not been offered to the top students at Zhonghua who would have been expected to dedicate their four years at secondary school to redeeming themselves from their below-average or mediocre PSLE results. Thus I wonder what kind of teachers Amos Yee had at Zhonghua and if they had contributed to alienating him further from society, instead of trying to engage his mind. Amos has paid a very high price for performing badly for his PSLE.

Has Amos been failed by the Singaporean education system?

At the end of the day, I tend to agree with Gurmit Singh and Quan Yifeng: unfortunately, the majority of the blame should still be placed on Amos Yee’s parents. I do believe that the education system has also let Amos Yee down and much more could have been done by Amos Yee’s teachers at Zhonghua to try to pull him back from the brink of self destruction. The only part that I disagree with Quan Yifeng was about Amos having an ‘illness’ – I don’t think that’s the right word to describe Amos Yee’s condition. Certainly, he has some mental health issues – he clearly lacks the ability to create a network of friends and he spent his time at Zhonghua very much isolated and without friends. He displays signs of autism and probably has Asperger syndrome. It surprises me that it has gone undetected thus far, did it not occur to his parents that their son might be autistic? Ms Quan means well – but even if you put Amos in touch with the best specialists in Singapore today, any kind of treatment for autism and Asperger syndrome is a process that takes many years – there is not simple cure, only therapies and treatments that take several years.

So that’s it from me on this issue. Please feel free to use the comments section below to let me know your thoughts on the issue. Do you blame Mr and Mrs Yee for the mistakes that Amos Yee has made? Or do you think there were other factors such as the education system that contributed to Amos Yee’s downfall? Or do you think it can be fair to blame Amos himself for his mistakes, even if he is still a teenager who has yet to even turn 17? Many thanks for reading.

This commentary was written by Limpeh Foreign Talent and first published on LIFT.
1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. R Ho

    April 7, 2015 at 8:58 pm

    You have written an article with profound understanding of what gave rise to Amos Yee’s phenomenal video clip.

    I googled “prodigy” and read an article there” “How to raise a Prodigy”

    I hope Amos’ parents will read this article too.

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