Happy 50th anniversary, Amos Yee

(Long. Best read over 2-3 sittings)

On this eve of Singapore’s much anticipated 50th anniversary, my mind kept going back to that smart alec who spooked the entire island just after Lee Kuan Yew died. Somehow, despite the rude, insolent way in which he spooked us, I thought he, more than anyone else gave give us a lot to think about ourselves, who we are, what we have become and what we need to work at for the next 50 years.

These comments are very difficult write, because the Amos Yee episode clearly demonstrated that a lot of Singaporeans at the very core appear to have such a clear idea of what was right and wrong, without any space to listen to what he was actually telling us. It is this that is worriesome.

There was nothing wrong in him being arrested and legally charged. He gamely stood up to those charges, served imprisonment and did not flee from the country. So, he did his part. Now we have to do our part and ask ourselves why were we so angry in the first place.

On this eve of the country’s very successful 50th year, we are at the cusp of having all these ideas about ourselves torn to shreds by innovations in technology, lifestyle, wealth, travel, education, competitor nations and by our own children, that Amos Yee was doing all of us a big favour by showing us where we stand in our perception of self.

We seem to be very clear where the smartest and brightest in this society will come from, with a preference for those who have been abroad to study in the best universities in the west, or those earmarked as scholars and so on. We have been conditioned to think that only those who spout facts accurately deserved to be heard or are even credible.

The genius of the Amos Yee episode, and I don’t think he realised it himself, was the fact that many of us thought that we were in judgment of him. As it turned out, it was he who was in judgment of us, every step of the way. All of us, including the venerated institutions of public law and order that we thought were inscrutable.

The first judgement he held over all of us, was our own perception of self. We may have been laughing at his claim to be a genius, to be an Einstein and whatever else, because quite clearly he was not. But really? Were we saying that if he was really a genius, we would have recognised him?

Let me put the Singaporean reader to this test – if I were to put a profile of a boy who was thrown out of university after his first year, and did not read very much except comic books, was socially awkward and somewhat of a pervert. If I were to add that in adulthood this boy slept with his live-in girlfriend’s daughter in his own home and was thrown out as a result, what chance would you think he would have in becoming anything in life. Most Singaporeans would have dismissed him, like they dismiss Amos Yee. But we would have dismissed Woody Allen.

In the same way, if I were to enumerate the backgrounds of several Nobel prize winners, the Singaporean will be shocked at the kind of lifestyles and beliefs they harboured. When V S Naipaul, a literary laureate, described how he frequented blonde Swedish prostitutes in Stockholm, a Nobel prize committee member had to step in to explain to the media that winning the award had nothing to do with morality.

We have now come a long way since the days when Lee Kuan Yew and his team had to believe in themselves enough as Asians to stand up against the rubbish ideas of superiority that the colonial Westerners were heaping on them.

Today, very respected Singaporean intellectuals like Kishore Mabubani revel in being able to visit with New York Times writer Thomas Friedman, fly in Charlie Rose and Farid Zakaria to show them what an amazing country Singapore is and to say, “If only America did some of what Singapore does, it can be such a better country,” in a rather presumptuous undertone.

But all of us know that the genius of America is precisely because it is not selective. Out of the cauldron of an amazing mix that a tiny Singapore can only imagine, is borne some of the amazing individuals who define our age and the many thousands who excel at a personal level in a way they can never hope to if they lived anywhere else in the world, even where they originally come from.

America has a white, Anglo Saxon core that most successful immigrant seems to subscribe to. But outside of that core is a long trail of peripheral people – the disgruntled underclass, “substance” users of every kind, dysfunctional families, the under-educated, the under-skilled, the ill-fitting immigrant, the rogues, the gun lobbyists, the profane and the simply absurd. An Amos Yee would easily be lost into any one of these sub-categories and not count as much as he does in Singapore.

In standing up for Amos Yee, the Hong Kongers, Taiwanese, Japanese and yes, American liberal lobbies, were asking us, “why don’t you have a peripheral society, and if you did, why don’t you leave them alone?” They ask us a valid question: “Is your 50 year old society so fragile that a precocious 16 year old can actually destabilise the peace and prosperity of your achievements by being irreverent?” If he can, then it’s not much of an achievement to talk about now, is it?

Singapore imagines that it attracts the best brains in science and technology. We are so proud of our ability to be selective in our quest, to be able to import the “best” and weed out the undesirable, that it’s a wonder that we don’t stop in amazement at our own hyperbole. What we did not realise was that we needed an active and totally irreverent peripheral where the people who do not agree with the core can just be themselves.

We started in the 1970s by saying that we cannot invest in the pure sciences because we “are a small country.” So, we were never interested to attract the pure scientists who spend entire lifetimes trying to do something as abstract as being able to harness the colour yellow on a diode over a lifetime. Never mind whether there will actually be a breakthrough or not. We were actually smug enough to suggest that we could buy these original minds after they make their discoveries in a more expansive country like America or Japan, and then still have the cheeks to lecture them after that.

We are proud that we have the highest math score for school going children in the world. We do well in raising the average quality of our school going kids, without necessarily creating geniuses nor laggards, and it is an achievement not to be scoffed at. We have become very good at building shared values of a hardworking and well educated population at the core.

We brandish our own Anthony Chens and Ilo Ilos to suggest to the world that there are Woody Allens out there who could be Woody Allens in Singapore without needing to have Woody Allen’s biography. Commendable but non-intrusive.

Now in saying all these things, there are some important things that I am not saying and it is important to take note of them.

Firstly, I am not at all suggesting from this that a liberal society is a precondition to hot-bedding geniuses. In fact, a society can be as conservative as Japan is today, and still have a wide variety of peripheral people. More than 80 percent of Japanese share the same values of hard work, family values and strict conformity to Japanese culture. It is actually very difficult for 80 percent of the population to stand outside the core. In all likelihood, more than 80 percent of Singaporeans are conservative and found Amos Yee revolting.

But Japan also has a very real, vibrant and a wide ranging periphery – from the whimsical soushoku danshi (grass-eating men), to the angora (underground), and even the very radical Heisei movement, much more dangerous than Amos Yee will ever be. And what does the Japanese mainstream do in reaction to them? They simply ignore them. It’s something that Singaporeans did not know how to do – to ignore Amos Yee. An Amos Yee would have had to try harder in Japan or in America to get attention, also because well, there are too many of him in these countries.

He could so easily shock the national psychic because at the core, most Singaporeans live predictable lives. Nothing really to believe in. Nothing really to own. Persuaded by the ultimately pragmatic state that there is nothing out there worth believing in.

But still, the number of Amos Yees in Singapore are increasing. By not learning to ignore them, even the prime minister lends his own self esteem to ridicule by running after several of these completely illogical, disrespectful young people all at once, to whom it costs nothing to test the core.

The reason that tolerating a real and vibrant periphery has become important to Singapore is not because we want to hothouse geniuses as yet another national agenda. It’s because the unstoppable trend in the next 50 years is the rise of individuality – every Singaporean, even those who vehemently disliked Amos Yee harbours the right to be himself. Multimedia enables all of us to express ourselves. Relative wealth and leisure makes it economically viable to pursue our own idiosyncrasies, organising activities around ourselves.

In several democratic countries, two-party systems are giving way to increasingly fragmented minority governments precisely because alternative interest groups are growing. It is inconceivable that a Singapore whose population has grown from 3m to 5.5m people in the past 25 years could have continued to be treated as a monolith. There is an increasing number of subgroups, people who want to be different from the whole.

In the past, we were able to control them, but with multimedia technology and wealth, each sub-group is more assertive, expressive and individualistic. Even immigrants need this self-assertion. We forget that 40 percent of our society is made up transient workers whom we do not see nor hear in normal life. With a strong and vibrant periphery, our kids who are not average – both the laggards and the geniuses – will be able to function in our own society without being told that they are not normal.

The other thing that I am NOT suggesting is that it is wrong for the government to arrest Amos Yee or take others like him through the legal process. Governments do what governments do. The fact there should be subcultures and dissenting individuals does not in any way mean that the state does not protect public law and order.

There are certain conduct in every country that are dangerous and should be considered illegal for common good. If Amos Wee had insulted Islam rather than Christianity, he would have caused real danger to Singaporeans travelling abroad.

Even when, in the words of the late historian Barbara Tuchman, a government acts against its own interests, and marches on its own predicable folly in the face of an obvious trend, it still has to act its role until forced by the people it rules. Why do we think that the government should be any more lenient on an Amos Yee than a Filipino who spouts seditious sentiments against Singaporeans?

Having said that, the periphery exist despite government, not because of it. It is for the periphery to define itself, to demand its own place in the world. In this respect, Amos Yee taught us a lesson that probably missed a lot of Singaporeans. Despite what your belief is, be prepared to stand up for it. It is to his credit that he stood his ground. He may have been so very wrong, but nobody taught him that having made his stand, that he should stand for what he believed in, and he did. This instinct he had demonstrated character.

If Singapore had more people of the character that Amos Yee had, good or bad, we would be such a difficult to manage country, but a great one where hundreds of driven individuals shape this society.

On this point, I would say, keep going Amos Wee, don’t stop, be yourself, let nobody write the script for you, not the judge, not the politicians, not your own lawyer. You are on to something really important for all of us, as long as you don’t destroy us.

Singapore is indeed fortuitous to have someone of the calibre of a very talented Amos Yee to come on the scene at the right point in its history, to demand that the concept of self be taken to the next level, in the way that he did. He is taking us way beyond the ridiculous “outbound markers” that we have very politely been accommodating. The rest of us have become so content with the boundaries that have been given to us that we can’t even imagine what he is all about. No, he does not need to be defined by our ideas of norm. He just needs to be himself and take it all the way to his own logical extreme, even if it destroys him. He is not one of the 80 percent of us. Only then will he have set the stage for the genius that is in the rest of us to be able to blossom.

All around us in Singapore today, we see a corporate and government infrastructure where people in positions of responsibility refuse to take ownership for what they have been tasked to do. We did not realise this in the past, because we were a smaller country, and we were ruled by an elite who made all the decisions from how many houses to build, to public transportation and every aspect of our lives.

But as the “moving parts” increased, the need to devolve a sense of “ownership” down the chain of command and “democratize” the process has increased. Every point we have had a breakdown of the processes that makes us question the efficient and well government country in recent year can be traced to the fact that we are not making this transition smoothly. The dog-ears are beginning to show.

Go to Changi airport today and observe just how dysfunctional the check-in process has become, relative to all the other countries that have been able to embrace and make the most of modern lifestyle and technology today. In many airports around the world today, including in so-called third world countries like China, it is possible to go through the entire process completely electronically. You get your boarding pass on your mobile phone and use that to navigate through immigration, security and boarding. Then observe how many manual paper interventions there are at Singapore’s Changi airport.

In fact, it is useless to check-in by mobile phone in Singapore, because you will be given a physical paper anyway and you will be sent back to the check-in counter to get a silly little stamp on it, and have that paper and your passport checked manually by a series of security and airport employees at least four times before boarding. You would imagine that a more electronic system with security features programmed into the application would have far less errors than a retired school teacher who is playing uncle security guard as a past time.

Why? Because, given recent infractions, nobody at airport security wants to take the ownership of introducing a wholly electronic system and stand by the idea that machines make less mistakes than humans. They are afraid of losing their jobs, not by making mistakes, but by taking ownership for them.

We need to be told that today, we have one of the worst public transportation systems in the developed world. We need to be told that the bank financial payments infrastructure is one of the most backwards. At 50 years old, in certain ways we do things, we do look like yesterday’s country. Here and there, we do see the unmistakeable trend of Singapore becoming shoddier and less driven by change and modernisation than even underdeveloped countries.

The minister of finance, who tears his hair out and tries to throw any amount of subsidies to solve this problem – to make the population more inspired to become more productive – does not understand that when whether rightly or wrongly, when we are seen as “punishing” an Amos Yee, we are actually demoralizing a whole domino of self-starters. It is not possible for the minister to say “hey, Amos Yee is a different case,” or “but most Singaporeans don’t like him,” because everyone who sees himself as a self-starter, has a bit of an Amos Yee in him. Singapore is so far away from that sense of ownership that the ordinary Japanese worker has in his culture to contribute to incremental improvement, and we keep beating that sense every time we see it.

Previously backward countries like China process millions more processes far more efficiently daily and with less fuss than Singapore. Countries like Sri Lanka have caught up. In the Middle East, countries like the UAE and Qatar process hundreds of thousands of completely illiterate immigrants faster and simpler than Singapore. We are no longer the standard bearers for efficiency and productivity. In some of these countries, it is the elite civil servant who is driving the change, just like Singapore was in the old days. But I have noticed how in large countries like China, very ordinary mid-level officials take ownership of introducing innovations that makes a huge difference to the country.

We are losing our standing because we are not making the transition from an elite defined economy to one where the people down the line feel like they matter, that they can be trusted. That it is worth taking a stand on what they believe to be true, because you are trusted.

Having said all this, I would still go on to say that the Singapore government exercised great restraint in trying to define Amos Yee’s offence as narrowly as it possibly could so that they could come across as not over-reacting to his overall demeanour. I found it curious that some liberal intellectuals erred on the side of suggesting that it was the government’s job to validate Amos Yee. It is not.

So, where did the government lose the plot, if it was doing what it was supposed to do? It appears that where it went wrong was when it saw itself as the protector of public morality. So, because the public prosecutors fell over themselves trying to prevent Amos Yee from actually accessing the internet, they ended up incarcerating him for 55 days. They could not limit themselves to punishing him with a specific offence each time he did publish something because it was too inconvenient. The days of the nanny state should be well and properly over.

This role of deciding what people read or view or do in their personal lives does not exist anymore. All they really needed to do was to charge him in court when he first broke a law, and then charge him again when he broke another law or was in contempt of court for not adhering to previous court orders. It is a mistaken idea of morality in the internet age. No government in the world can run after an idea that is already out there. They would have done well if only they defined their remit even more narrowly and live and let live. This is where, true to the Barbara Tuchman rule, ignoring Amos Yee was the hardest thing to do.

On one of many occasions when the local British resident arrested Jawaharlal Nehru for instigating public unrest in his fight for independence for India, he threw Nehru into jail in the morning, and returned later in the afternoon to the cell to play cards with him. His message was clearly, “I do what I have to do because that is the law of the day, but you know, I won’t judge you and I won’t take this personally, because all of this might change some day, so let’s just play a game of poker.” There was no reason to lecture young Amos Yee about his upbringing and his parents and dysfunctional family and what his future would look like if he continued in his errand ways and did not complete school. It was none of anybody’s business. It was not even the matter at hand.

In the same way, Amos Yee and anyone who thinks that they are fighting a cause have to take their actions in the same light, that there is a price to pay. If there was no price to pay, then it would not qualify as a cause, and the people in the middle will not know what the boundaries of society are at that moment in time.

In future, we do not know how far an Amos Yee can go to try and be destructive. But claiming that our 50 year old society is both a first world nation and still a weak and sensitive one to the taunts of a 16 year old is just rubbish. We are either a first world nation or a weak collection of highly sensitive races and religions. We should not afford ourselves the luxury of claiming to be both, like a little old lady appearing weak but wily at the same time.

This whole episode did throw up the one thing that we can and must work on, which is much more important for the next 50 years of Singapore than chasing after juveniles like Amos Yee. This society needs to transition into the world of collective individualism if it is to survive and continue to be vibrant in the next 50 years.

If the 1700s astronomer, Nicolus Copernicus, lived in Singapore, and published his postulation that it was the earth that went around the sun and not the other way around, we would have had to put him in jail for arousing religious sentiments because our laws talk about “racial and religious harmony” without giving ourselves any avenue to accommodate radical ideas. This is an absurd situation, especially when the same government is actively paying the best Copernicuses of the world today millions of dollars to set up their research shops in Singapore.

If Charles Darwin finally published his thesis that man is the result of evolution, we simply would not have had the platform for his idea to be floated and debated in a passionate but peaceful manner. We would have thrown Darwin and Copernicus into jail, like we did Amos Yee, because we did not have the mechanism in our society to accommodate those who thought and behaved differently from what we say we should protect.

The possibilities of a 21st century Copernicus or Darwin in Singapore are real indeed. Advances in technology, the sciences and medicine that Singapore is consciously investing in today has brought these scenarios right into our doorsteps, and we continue to kid ourselves by insisting that our 1960s ideas of diversity do not need a major overhaul.

We draw the attention of anyone who defies us on this point to our carefully coiffured tourist brochures that shows that we are made of three (sometimes four, but never more) major races. We are not willing to extend that self-perception today to more of the newer communities that make up Singapore because our diversity is not a living, breathing, growing definition. We can’t extend it because our definition of core is frozen, drilled into us by a generation of leaders who have now left us.

What we do not recognise as diversity we call extremities. Making too much noise during thaipusam festivals, or starting a bohemian artist colony, or screaming profanities on the internet are extremities. We believe that by freezing these, we protect our core, but what exactly are we protecting?

The Singaporean core used to be the proud south Chinese work, family and wealth creating ethics, just as the American core revolves around white Anglo Saxon values. In its original form in south China, it was far more inclusive of peripherals than it is today in 2-child, 4 bedroom Singaporean household. The original south Chinese network of families and clans helped make the community the bedrock of the economic infrastructure of almost all of Southeast Asia, not just Singapore. But instead of continuing to form the bedrock culture that every new immigrant aspires to, the Singaporean core has been finding it difficult keeping up with the times.

The Singaporean Chinese complains about too many foreigners in their midst. What exactly are they complaining about? Even in a Middle Eastern country like the UAE and Qatar today, where an overwhelming number of foreigners can go through entire months without coming into contact with a single locally born Emirati or Qatari Arab, the prevailing Arab culture and mores hangs over everybody as the unwritten rule and the unseen hand. Even if entire economies like that of the UAE are built by foreign hands, the Arab is confident in his own surroundings. That’s as core as the white middle class value that permeates American society. But the Singaporean Chinese does not have that confidence in his own country. He feels sidelined to the supporting jobs, despite the obvious qualifications.

Almost every single day, I hear Singaporean Chinese complain about the number of highly qualified Indian nationals taking over the best jobs in banking and technology. But they did not steal these jobs. They came applying for them along with everybody else and got them on merit, even if they did get carried away and brought in their mates in later. The same grouchy Singaporean Chinese is not able to connect the dots and realise that what goes round comes round.

It does not occur to them to ask why then are there are not enough Singaporean Malays represented in the corporate world? The answer appears obviously that “they are not good enough,” even if a quick look across the border into Malaysia reveals outstanding ethnic Malay corporate leaders to pick from. So, why does the same “not good enough” rule apply to everyone in a meritocratic country?

We forget that until very recently, a non-Chinese Singaporean stood a zero chance to get a job in the local banks run by the Chinese families. So, now it is Indians and Australians who are having their day in the international banks in Singapore. Soon it will be Filipinos and later, as its education system improves, we will see more Vietnamese finding their way to Singapore. Just like the Poles, Italians and Jews defined corporate America through its recent history.

Instead of whinging, the real question that the Singaporean Chinese should be asking themselves then is a confidence centric one: “what is it about us that makes others want to be like us”? Where is the confidence of the south Chinese value system, mixed as it is with a western education and an international outlook that could possibly make an Indian or a Filipino or a migrant Western professional want to be part of the Singapore story?

So why this sense of inferiority in Singapore? Because all along, the Singaporean was not sufficiently a part of his own country’s story. So it is that few even believe in themselves, reduced to a nation of grumblers, despite wealth and education, feeling a little lost, not being able to make sense of his place in the world if it was not defined for him by government.

There are two ways to answer this question. One is to continue to throw subsidies and preferences that are turning the Singaporean Chinese into the “new bumiputra”, dependent on the state to define their place in the world – and even more unable to answer this question confidently.

The other is to rebuild the Singaporean Chinese sense of ownership of their own destiny, and it starts by allowing them to express themselves the way Amos Yee does. Yes, they will be inarticulate, factually wrong, rude, insolent and mistaken in many of the points they learn to raise, But to punish them is to stall the process. Slowly, out of this cauldron will emerge several ideas of self that can then be turned into confidence and action. There is a lot that can be said on this second approach that can take an entire book and more to write, but it does not start by slapping the Amos Yees of the world in their face.

In a sense, the average Singaporean is a victim of his own nation’s success. Singapore has become too comfortable a nation and we are determined not to change things for ourselves. So, although we know the same things that a China national or an Indian or a Filipino, go to the same best universities in the world, somehow the Singaporean scholar comes across as intellectual lightweight and an corporate underperformer.

Our individuals don’t develop the sophistication of mind because we do not have populations to fend off, the massive difficulties to navigate or the people to manage. We will never have a population of 100 million, but just as the per capita GDP of a single Singaporean can be 22 times that of a single Filipino, the time has come to figure out a way where the mental capacity of the average Singaporean can be in the same magnitude larger than people who come from these much larger countries.

I genuinely believe that if Lee Kuan Yew were alive today and had another 50 years, this is the task he would have set himself to accomplish. In the 1990s, he got so excited from the things he learnt from sitting in the JPMorgan Board of Advisors, that he came home determined that the financial services industry needed to be totally revamped. No Singaporean was good enough for the job. But a retired white man who had never run a commercial bank was, and he was made chief executive of DBS, to disastrous effect.

There was nothing wrong in the mistake in itself. Every single entrepreneur (and successful nation builder) I know goes through the stage thinking that the people who helped him build his business are not good enough to help him take it to the next level. He then hires outsiders who cause such an upheaval, before coming to realise that he is only as good as his own people. Every entrepreneur then goes on to realise that the best people who are going to take him to the next level were always there, right in front of him. Lee Kuan Yew came to such a moment, when one evening sitting in a boat looking at the Singapore skyline, he told Vivian Balakrishnan, “a hardworking people built this.”

It is such a sad thing that being the proud and aloof man that he was, in his old age he did not tell us how proud he was of us. It would have made a huge difference to the psychic of this country if we heard him say it. But we know he was. The rest of the world might call Lee Kuan Yew a “dictator,” a “bully,” and a whole range of names. We don’t need to be defensive about them. He was all these and more. But to us he was our “father”. As long as a little about him lives in all of us, we will have it inside ourselves to take this country to the next level.

The work to make this a more inclusive society is already underway. In the 1980s and 1990s, we were such an arrogant people. I recall as late as the early 2000s, the chief executive of the national public bus company was quoted in the local newspapers saying that there was no provision for “handicap access” on our public buses. He went on to cite statistics why having to clear so many buses and passengers within this amount of time during peak periods made it impossible to make the national public bus system handicap friendly. No bus company CEO will ever be able get away with it saying that today. We will wait for the slower amongst us, even if it means getting to work late.

We are making this a more inclusive society not because the government did it. It is because ordinary people have been building their own self confidence and asserting their right to shape society. We see a bit of this in the form of our gay friends vocally demanding to be treated as normal. We also see this in the form of annoying middle aged white men overdressed in sport gear riding bicycles in the middle of busy highways with a death wish asking to be treated like any car. Over time, church going parents and defeated motorists cave in, accepting that gays and stupid white cyclists have their place in society that they just didn’t 10 years previously.

Now can we accept that Amos Yee is actually as Singaporean as the rest of us, even if he exist in the periphery of society? Well, we wanted our young people to be articulate, international, talented, confident, self-assertive, and with a strong sense of ownership of their own ideas. Well, Amos Yee is that young man we asked for. He is our creation. He is one of us.

When an Amos Yee cries out all those crude remarks about Lee Kuan Yew, he does reflect the authentic cry of others in our midst. The taxi driver whose wife had to have an abortion and then sterilised in the 1970s because of the stop-at-two policy, only to hear “three or more if you can afford it” just twenty years later. The father whose daughter was not allowed to do medicine in a local university because of the bias against female medical students. So many little policies that affected very ordinary people in profound ways. So many of them are silent and forever disenfranchised, because they have chosen to forever hold their peace. Is this the peace we want in our society?

At least, when we hear them cuss in this way, we are able to reach out to them and start the process of healing by incorporating their experiences into the country we want to become. The peripheral in our society – the drug addict, the itinerant artist, the dysfunctional child – will always have a role, as important as those of us in the mainstream, no matter how much we despise them.

We waste our time believing what we want to believe. We brandish photographs of Lee Kuan Yew’s Oxley Road house, with furniture unchanged for well over 50 years. Of what consequence are the austere furniture in a man’s house or the cheap watch he wears, if he was officially paid $5m a year, and had the power that nobody else had. Also, it did not strike the publicists that all the photos of Mr Lee taking his daily swim or playing with his grandchildren in the glossy magazines were taken at the Istana Annex. So, this is clearly not where the essence of this man was demonstrated.

For me, the more compelling story is in retracing the story of his relationship with his estranged peers. The story of Devan Nair, one of his most trusted lieutenants, whom he made president and then demolished publicly in 1985 would be a very difficult and heart rending one to tell. This inability to be themselves was not limited to ordinary Singaporeans. Even presidents like Devan Nair and Wee Kim Wee were proscribed in their activities resulting in very awkward situations.

But the long journey after that, in understanding where everything actually went wrong, and the gradual acceptance of his own mistakes, and the atoning for them, is where the timeless essence of Lee Kuan Yew’s own lonely journey was. Something that the ordinary man will never know unless told. Every time I drive past the “CV Devan Nair Institute for Employment and Employability” in Jurong, I reflect on Lee Kuan Yew’s own battles within himself and coming out victorious by doing the right thing, no matter what it cost him personally. It is in instances like these that he showed us the giant that he was.

In his time, Lee Kuan Yew may have never understood why a country or a society needs a vibrant, noisy and irreverent periphery. Global trade, that drove so much of Singapore’s growth in the first fifty years is not going to define us in the next fifty years. Countries are becoming more capable of producing their own manufactured goods. The neighbouring countries are becoming capable of doing everything that Singapore was able to do in its early years, and then more.

New economic models are making a mockery about the way Singapore manages its assets. If Uber makes every car a taxi, the entire psychology of how we manage our transportation policy has to change. A HDB that tells people what they can or cannot do with their apartments completely does not make sense if an AirB&B can help people realise the value of their assets and generate more wealth for all. We are being lured to becoming an increasingly asset light and even asset efficient country that risks everything that has been built in the first fifty year. But first we need to devolve the sense of ownership of the country down the hierarchy, freeing people to focus more on living their lives more freely without fear of being told that they are stupid unless otherwise stated.

They are an unlikely pair to put into one article. Lee Kuan Yew and Amos Yee. The idea is immediately vulgar. But most important ideas that are changing our world are. It is this combination that makes us not take for granted the past 50 years, but be freed up to soar into the next 50 years. Lee Kuan Yew always said that Singapore’s only asset are its people. So, we don’t have the luxury of excluding anyone.

The next time I want to stand up and go all the way to be true to something I believe in myself, I will remember Lee Kuan Yew. I will also remember Amos Yee. I will not say sorry. One of the great pleasure of writing these thoughts is that it is not about petty politics or the uncertainties that plague other countries. This is already a country where people can pretty much be themselves. That is probably why an Amos Yee even exists in this country. The best is yet to be.


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  2. Greetings.

    I live and work in San Francisco, not 2 blocks away from where Uber is headquartered.  I love this city and have lived here for 20+ years, away from my birthplace in Singapore, but I have to disagree with your characterization of Singapore's educational, transport, and economic infrastructure an policites.  I would invite you to come out to San Francisco where the public transport is far worse that Singapore's , the income gap is so strikingly brutal that poverty and drug addition are rife and it's normal to step over the sleeping bodies of homeless folks on the way to the financial district in the mornings on Market Street.

    The primary and seconday education systems here are — measurably — far worse than Singapore's.  While it's always easy to complain about asset managers, Singapore's net assets have grown steadily and formidably over decades whereas the US during the last decade has seen its debt ballon to over $14 trillion dollars.  San Francisco has no subway system at all, and both the city and the state of California are in very and well documented difficult fiscal crises thanks to poor management and partisan politics that has riven the fiscal process for decades.  This despite the enormous increases in tax (btw I pay over 45% income tax here) revenues from individuals and corporations driving a booming tech sector.

    We have no HDB here, so home ownership has dropped steadily over the last decade, despite the fact that the global financial crisis ostensibly made homes cheaper nationwide.  When one compares Singapore's response to the global crisis to the response of Western countries, it's demonstrable that the Singapore approach was more effective.  The country had far more to lose than any western country, because our trade exposure is larger than our entire GDP….but we were able to make use of redistributions and smart subsidies quickly and effectively to become one of the roaring economies coming out of the crisis.  Compare that Ministry of Finance performance with the enormous challenges US and European governments had trying to achieve reflation via the paralyzed banking systems here: the Singapore model is in fact being used as a model example of how to "do it right".

    Here, Singapore is admired, not reviled for its transportation, financial, and educational infrastructure.  California has strong ties to Singapore so the dialogue is vibrant and active, and also carried by the large community (myself included) of people who spend a lot of time in both places.

    I agree with you that iconoclasts have a role in progressing society, and challenging norms and conventions can be constructive. But iconoclasts need to be respected based on the quality of their thought process, not their ability to shock.  Shocking people is easy and nothing special.  The US has plenty of shock jocks, pornographers, and yes even terrorists who can do this.  That is not something to be admired.  The greatness of the Ubers and the Teslas of the world is their ability to shock with substance: to challenge convention with truly great ideas and cause people to lurch forward, rather than lurch away.  To equate iconoclasticism with progress is to conflate two orthogonal ideas.  Anyone can create shock by breaking the law or by being a jerk….just like anyone can be a critic.

    The challenge is not to create shock for its own sake, as Amos and many other teenagers do for entertainment, but rather to create shock through substance. And in that case, it is the substance, not the shock, that is the right subject of admiration and respect.




  3. Pingback: Daily SG: 11 Aug 2015 | The Singapore Daily

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