Asia’s ‘Unruly’ Children

Recent Features

Features | Society | Southeast Asia

Asia’s ‘Unruly’ Children

Understanding cultural hegemony in Asia highlights the difficulties faced by young progressives fighting for change.

Asia’s ‘Unruly’ Children
Credit: REUTERS/Bobby Yip

One of Singapore’s sons was freed earlier this month after spending a total of fifty days in detention for his irreverent comments about the city state’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, who passed away in March at the age of 91.

Ostensibly, 16-year-old Amos Yee was charged with “wounding the religious feelings of Christians” in a YouTube video that lambasted Lee Kuan Yew and compared him to Jesus, whom the young blogger described as ‘power hungry and malicious’. Amos was also found guilty of posting obscene material on the Internet, reference to a crude illustration of Lee and former British premier Margaret Thatcher in an acrobatic sex maneuver.

However, the ferocity with which the Singaporean authorities pursued the boy suggests that religious sensitivity and obscenity were secondary concerns – his real crime was having the impudence to attack the revered elder statesman, particularly at the time of his passing and in such a vulgar way.

Expletives aside, Amos’ video offered a convincing critique of Singapore’s illiberal democracy, in which the People’s Action Party formed by Lee Kuan Yew has completely dominated politics since 1959. He also drew attention to the country’s long working hours, income inequality, high tax rates, and poor social security – issues increasingly vexing to the lower and “squeezed middle” sectors of Singaporean society. Although the PAP won its usual supermajority in 2011 elections, it did so with the lowest ever share of the popular vote. With an election imminent, Amos’ comments would have caused disquiet amongst the ruling elites, who hastened to arrest him on the day of Lee’s funeral.

Elsewhere, the video may have fallen outside the boundaries of good taste but would nonetheless be protected as free speech. Not in Singapore, which the Press Freedom Index ranks a miserable 150th in the world. Public criticism of the government is treacherous terrain to navigate and has often landed people in court, including two infamous defamation suits filed against Far Eastern Economic Review and International Herald Tribune by Lee Kuan Yew himself. His son Lee Hsien Loong, who became prime minister in 2004, has recently won another controversial case which seems set to financially cripple blogger and activist Roy Ngerng.

The treatment of Amos Yee seemed “disproportionate and inappropriate” according to the UN Human Rights Office for South-East Asia. Other group such as Human Rights Watch called for Yee’s release and when the boy was strapped to a bed for a day and a half, his lawyers expressed concern that he was receiving “special treatment.” Much of Yee’s detention focused on psychiatric assessment – an attempt to medical’s as abnormal what was in fact perfectly rational political opinion, delivered with a cocky iconoclasm few in the country seemed able to comprehend.

Amos started proceedings in March with defiance, nonchalantly eating bananas and giving the finger to media on his way to court. Out on bail before his remand period, he wrote in his blog: “I have not ‘learnt my lesson’, nor do I see any ‘lesson’ that needs to be learnt.”

However, the boy who was released this month was not the impish rebel we had grown accustomed to. Head bowed and defensively clutching a tote bag to his stomach as his mother led him through the media scrum, he seemed for once not to relish the attention. Unsteady on his feet, disheveled and thinner than before, he looked sadly defeated. Amos is clearly an independent thinker, able to shrug off social pressure to conform; but when the full power of the state bore heavily down on his narrow shoulders, it proved too much.

Aside from a smattering of civil society activists, Singaporeans seemed largely unsympathetic to Amos’ plight. His video was roundly condemned, often in no uncertain terms. One middle-aged man was so affronted by the disrespect shown to Lee Kuan Yew that he gave the sixteen year old a painful slap on his way to court, which he claimed would “instill fear in the teenager, let him know what the ways of the world are and teach him a lesson.”

‘Asian Values’

Had the assailant taught this “lesson” less violently, he might have chosen the Analects of Confucius as the assigned text, for this is the cultural lens that helps us understand the story more clearly. Deeply conservative, Confucianism emphasizes filial piety, or respect and obedience to parents, elders and ancestors. This is then extended to rulers – with the state representing the family writ large – as a way of maintaining social harmony. It is a model that serves authoritarian regimes well.

The concept was a cornerstone of the “Asian values” extolled by Lee Kwan Yew and other regional patriarchs such as Mahathir Mohamad and Suharto in the nineties. While the idea may have lost some of its swagger in the ruins of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, it was too deeply engrained to disappear completely and may well flourish once more as Asia plays an increasingly important role in world affairs. Understanding this cultural hegemony explains the popular backlash against Amos Yee in Singapore and highlights the difficulties faced by young progressives fighting for change all over the region.

Hong Kong’s chief executive C. Y. Leung is no Lee Kuan Yew – a fact lamented in Beijing, where the Chinese government must feel that a stronger, more capable leader is needed to guide the Special Administrative Region through its current crisis and towards integration with the mainland. Prone to gaffes and deeply unpopular with large sections of society, Leung falls considerably short of the archetypal Asian patriarch. Most troubling perhaps – from the Confusion perspective of seeing the family as the microcosm of the state – is that he seems unable to manage his own wayward daughter, who often makes headlines for all the wrong reasons. Fittingly then, it is with the youth of Hong Kong that he has the biggest discord.

The most public face of Hong Kong’s new generation of activists is a slight, bespectacled boy called Joshua Wong, who became a household name at the age of just 15 when he founded the group Scholarism to protest against the “moral and national” education reforms aimed at primary and secondary schools. The proposed curriculum was criticized as an attempt to brainwash schoolchildren with pro-Beijing propaganda and tens of thousands marched against it in the summer of 2012. The government’s response was sly; by making adoption of the curriculum non-compulsory, the students were handed a face-saving victory, only to find that many schools endorsed the syllabus anyway.

Wong then played a role in the unprecedented mass civil disobedience of 2014 which came to be known as the Umbrella Movement. Objecting to regressive reforms to Hong Kong’s electoral system, the predominantly student-led movement demanded full universal suffrage and occupied key areas in Hong Kong for several months. At times the police responded heavily with pepper spray and tear gas. As in Singapore, Wong and the other students faced considerable pushback, not just from the state but from society at large. A Chinese University of Hong Kong poll showed considerably less support for the protests amongst older people than those aged under twenty-four. Many of the students went home from the barricades at night only to face antagonism from their disapproving parents. At times, the generational friction turned violent, with countless attacks on the protesting students, usually by middle-aged “uncles” irritated by all the upheaval. Just last month, Wong and his girlfriend were left with injuries after being attacked by a member of the public as they returned home from the cinema.

However, it is in Thailand where young activists face the gravest danger. There, Confucian values such as respect for authority and filial piety have merged with something close to a devaraja cult, in which the country’s 87 year old monarch, King Bhumipol, is considered by some to be God-like. Known colloquially as “father,” he is central to the orthodoxy of “nation, religion and king.” According to this brand of royal-nationalism, all Thais love the king – anyone perceived not to is dismissed as “unthai” and will face severe social sanctioning, if not the harsh lèsemajesté law. During the Red Shirt protests of 2010, a well-known actor gave an emotional speech at an awards show in which he likened Thailand to a household with the king as the father. He admonished anyone who “didn’t love father” and advised them to “leave the house immediately.” His speech brought the star-studded, blue-blooded audience to their feet, wiping tears as they applauded loudly. This highly emotional ultra-royalism can be dangerous. In 1976, when a spirited student movement was wrongly accused of anti-monarchy activities, police and right-wing vigilante mobs descended on Thammasat University campus, killing more than one hundred students and mutilating their corpses.

The origins of this virulent form of royalism can be traced back to the late 50s-early 60s dictatorship of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, a staunch royalist who gave the then beleaguered monarchy the political space to re-assert itself in Thai life. Sarit’s traditionalist and highly authoritarian style of rule has been dubbed “despotic paternalism” by Thai scholar Thak Chaloemtiarana. It is a style of governance that has now sadly returned to the kingdom. Thailand’s new dictator Prayut Chan-o-cha, who seized power in a 2014 coup, is cut from the same khaki-cloth as Sarit. As a general, he was known as a royalist hardliner who led military operations against Red Shirt protestors in 2010, which saw 96 killed. Since he traded his green uniform for a grey suit, he has maintained a firm grip on power.

With his 50s hairstyle and mentality to match, Prayut is an anachronism. There is a sense that falling back on such an old-style strongman was an embarrassing last resort for the Thai elites. However, it was deemed necessary to ensure victory in their decade-long battle to suppress the electoral appeal of politicians associated with the former Prime Minster Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in a prior coup in 2006. The general’s mandate is to oversee a “freeze” on democracy, during which time the Thaksin political machine can be dismantled and the constitution rejigged to weaken the role of elected politicians. Prayuth will likely hold on to power until the sensitive royal succession is completed, with the aim of preserving the predominance of the monarchy into the next reign. It is in this difficult cultural and political context that young Thai activists must operate.

Schoolboy Netiwit Junrasal has much in common with Joshua Wong. Bespectacled and unassuming, yet earnest beyond his years, he began his activism by protesting issues directly affecting his life at school, such as the imposition of military-style haircuts on students and the tradition of prostrating to teachers on Teacher’s Day. Around the same time, trans-female university student Aum Neko caused a stir with her raunchy poster campaign denouncing university uniforms as a form of thought control. Both students raised important points about an education system that often seems more intent on controlling and conditioning than educating. However, they faced an aggressive backlash from conservative sections of society. Aum was later charged with lèsemajesté for statements she made on a talk show and fled to France, where she was granted political asylum.

The Red Shirt movement, most of whom supported the ousted regime, have been silent since the coup – the current climate is just too risky for them. However small groups of students have come bravely forward to fill the void. One Bangkok-based group known as the Thai Student Center for Democracy have been holding sporadic protests for the past year. Meanwhile, in the northeastern city of Khon Kaen, a group called Dao Din have emerged to call for a return to democracy. The two came together in Bangkok this May to stage a heated protest on the first anniversary of the coup. Fourteen were arrested and held by the junta. They have since been released but still face charges.

The young activists mentioned here have all shown bravery in speaking out when the dominant ideologies of their culture dictate that they be seen and not heard. When world leaders rushed to join Singaporeans in canonizing Lee Kuan Yew as the man who single-handedly built modern Singapore, Amos Yee, in all his youthful tenacity, threw himself on the wheel of history as a reminder of the founding father’s other, less laudable legacies. With the specter of Tiananmen looming in background, the youth of Hong Kong fought a grueling four month battle against their government and its backers in Beijing. They did so with an impressive discipline and maturity. And whilst other opposition groups in Thailand are cowed by the most repressive regime the kingdom has seen in decades, a small handful of students have stood up as a lone voice for democracy.

Despite cultural constraints, young people will always try to right the societal wrongs of their elders. It seems almost a natural cycle of life – an evolutionary process perhaps – which ultimately no construct or regime can suppress.

James Buchanan is a lecturer and PhD candidate at the Department of Asian and International Studies, City University of Hong Kong.