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Thank You, America, for Roping Singapore into the White Man’s Burden

This commentary is a response to a story written in The New Yorker, which said urged America to pay attention to the arrest of “humanist” Amos Yee.

Yee was arrested and charged, after he made a YouTube video mocking the late Lee Kuan Yew, and Christianity.The New Yorker writer, Nathan Heller, had commented that Yee is “exactly the kind of person you would one day want reviewing your books, making your movies, maybe even running your country.”

Dear Mr Heller:
I am a Singapore citizen writing from a small backwaters town in Singapore. I would like to thank you for your recent piece on the New Yorker, entitled “Amos Yee: YouTube Star, Teen-Ager, Dissident” It was a very enlightening article and caused the scales to fall from my eyes and to view my homeland Singapore in a new light.
First, I would like to express my immense gratitude that the White Man’s Burden, which I thought was gone with the end of colonialism, is still very much alive. As an Asian Chinese brainwashed by Confucianism, I was unable to see the self-evident virtue and superiority of Western ways such as American-style democracy. I now realize that the true yardstick of a country’s maturity is how closely it adheres to American culture. We Singaporeans should emulate your country’s culture of democratic bipartisanship , so as to achieve happiness progress and prosperity in our young nation.

Your words show that you have an intimate understanding of Singapore and care very much for the welfare of Singaporeans. While others might accuse you of “imperialism”, I know that you are only discharging the sacred responsibility of telling us how to govern our country because as an American courageously carrying the White Man’s Burden, you know what is best for us unenlightened Singaporeans.

I would also like to thank you for helping me to see the term “humanist” in reference to the artistic work of Amos Yee:
“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.”
According to my limited Singaporean understanding, humanism is a philosophical position which emphasizes the value of human beings, reason and empirical evidence. I did not know that humanism includes the use of profanity to mock the deceased and to insult people’s religious faith. Saying harsh things about someone’s religion to incite him to anger is a fundamental human right to free speech. What a beautiful idea. As human beings, we have free will which we can use to express ourselves by deliberately offending people. Thank you for helping us Singaporeans see this!
I found myself nodding in agreement as I read your characterization of Amos Yee as having “a sense of higher-order irony—a pearl-like virtue in a society that tends to disdain intellectual risk.” Your words have deeply penetrated my mind and the brainwashing of my Government is now in the process of being undone. I now realize that it is virtuous to release a video filled with profanity and reductionist slogans, to describe the nation’s mourning of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s death as “necrophilia” and fellatio. It doesn’t matter that Lee was not yet properly buried and that he was deeply and universally respected by Singaporeans. The right to inject vulgarity and venom into the public discourse transcends petty cultural standards of decency and respect.It is a noble intellectual risk to publicly challenge a grieving Prime Minister to sue with an eloquent “Come at me, Motherfucker.” And a graphic cartoon which depicts Singapore’s Founding Father and Margaret Thatcher engaged in a sexual act  could very well be the kind of “higher-order irony” which will really benefit Singapore’s intellectual and cultural progress. Some people may say that this type of “Freedom of Speech” is permissible in America but undesirable in Singapore. But I have become a subscriber to American exceptionalism. Anything which comes from America has got to be exceptional and ought to be imported wholesale into our country.

I would also like to express my profound gratitude for highlighting the true colours of my country’s “rampant inequality” to the world. Our prisons are flooded with gays serving two year sentences for homosexuality. Caning people to prevent them from overstaying a visa is a barbaric practice. I should write to the Immigrant and Checkpoint Authority to suggest that they emulate how the USA deals with illegal immigrants. Who cares if our limited infrastructure is overwhelmed and if our taxpayers are taken to the cleaners? Human rights are more important! We can learn from the United States and build camps to detain the women and children of illegal immigrants so as to shower them with an abundance of human rights.
You are correct to note that prior to the Internet, there were “hardly any outlets where free thought could spread”. From 1965 to the internet era in the late 1990s, Singapore was a nation of silent, mindless drones and nobody was able to express critical opinions against the Government till they got access to the web. But some historically-inclined people may ask: what about the numerous Opposition parties – the Barisan Sosialis, the Workers Party, the Singapore Democratic Party, etc. who were able to organize themselves to campaign against Government policies? What about Chiam See Tong, Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, Chee Soon Juan and company before there was any internet? What about the strong public backlash in 1983 which caused the Government to rethink its controversial Graduate Mothers Scheme? What about Catherine Lim, whose critical essay was published in the supposedly “Government controlled” Straits Times in 1994, which thoroughly provoked a robust reply from the then-Prime Minister Mr. Goh Chok Tong? Mr Heller, I am sure you know who all these people are. But perhaps from the viewpoint of American exceptionalism, all these examples do not measure up to American standards of “free thought”. We Singaporeans must strive to measure up to these standards.
In your article, you wrote:“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.”Thank you for reminding us how backward we are. Unlike your country, Singapore does not profess the right to spy on our neighbours by eavesdropping on their leaders’ phones. Our President Tony Tan does not have the right to use unmanned drones to kill suspected terrorists. Our cops do not have the freedom to shoot and choke people or shoot them in the back as they try to flee. We do not have the right to detain people in concentration camps outside our country’s territorial boundaries. Our Singapore Armed Forces do not have the freedom to conduct unilateral invasions or military operations. These are the rights and freedom that a small nation like Singapore would probably never attain. But still we must still look to the US as a shining beacon whose light we should follow.
Thank you for pointing out that we Singaporeans are “a population molded into sheeplike complaisance”. I guess that even though 40% of our nation’s electorate did not vote for the Government in the last election and that Singaporeans can – and very often do – express critical opinions of the Government on social media, there is still a long way for us to go before we become a nation of true freedom like the United States, where the blind can buy guns and people are free to express their opinions by burning the nation’s flag, picketing the funerals of dead soldiers (with signs that read “God Hates You” and “Thank God For Dead Soldiers”) and joining a party espousing Nazi ideas.
Most importantly, I am very appreciative of your endorsement of Amos Yee as a future leader of Singapore:
“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 their past.”
Mr. Heller, even though your suggestion that Amos Yee should lead Singapore would certainly be met with derisive laughter from Singaporeans from all walks of life, it is because most Singaporeans are deluded. I now understand that True Democracy is not measured by what the people of Singapore want. It is about how what Americans think Singaporeans should want. There must be some kind of mistake that the great dictator Lee Kuan Yew’s political party has been voted into power in every General Election since 1959. The only plausible explanation is that we Singaporeans are unable to think for ourselves and need American newspapers which are non-ideological, objective and owned by wealthy men who are passionately concerned about truth to help us to think how we can make our country brighter.Mr. Heller, on behalf of my fellow Singaporeans: Thank You. Where would we be without you?
This commentary was written by Lim Yue Heng and first published on Letters from Bukit Batok.
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  1. Itsmelah

    April 21, 2015 at 7:30 pm

    Loved this article, Heller needs to see this, could somebody tweet this to him please?

  2. guest

    April 22, 2015 at 6:38 pm

    There are valid points made, but they are mostly lost amidst name calling (White Man’s Burden really?) and tiring sarcasm. When does pointing out the flaws of the US equate to a counterargument?

    • Keegan

      April 25, 2015 at 8:34 am

      I do not think that this was meant to be a counter argument, as its pretty obvious to anyone with half a brain that the flaws clearly show the dyfunctionality of the American style of democracy and repeated sarcasm was necessary to hammer into the thick skull of the author that American style of democracy, freedom of speech, human rights blah blah blah will work in any country unless it wishes to see itself go down some slippery roads.

  3. Matthew Yong

    April 23, 2015 at 7:09 am

    You can have him and groom him to be your future president with all our blessings.

  4. Matthew Yong

    April 23, 2015 at 7:13 am

    Mr Heller,
    You can have him and groom him to be your future president, with all our blessings.

  5. guest

    April 23, 2015 at 11:16 am

    I’m trying to remember a quote that might be apposite. Something about glass houses and stones, but for the life of me I can’t recall what it is.

    Maybe America’ll remember it.

  6. sean

    April 24, 2015 at 5:32 am

    To the writer, I fully understand where u coming from, but from a different standpoint, if one day singapore is not successful anymore and we are unable to publicly voice our opinion on the government due to our support for this draconian law, I think you will have to eat your words. Georgia, Ukraine and many ex soviet states try to emulate us and failed terribly due to incompetence. Their citizens end up violently uprooted their governments for the draconian laws imposed.

  7. S.Mohan

    May 8, 2015 at 3:29 pm

    I trust the person rebutting is a PAP guy. While i share some off his views , he admitted one thing , that many Singaporeans are brain washed confucians.

    The issue now is how the government handle a delinquent who is wrong no doubt but under age and probably dont really understand what he is getting into. To me , Amos is not the issue, how the government handle that counts. So far their response in my book is just like Amos behaviour , vulgar abuse of power.

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