Congratulations on being released from prison. After ten months of detention, you have been granted the status of a political exile in the United States of America. You are a free man.
Although we have never met, I have followed your life closely since your bold public statements after the passing of our Founding Prime Minister in 2015. Initially, I was sympathetic towards you as I do not believe that people, especially young people, should be punished for their opinions. I also see shades of my younger self in your profound dissatisfaction with the status quo.
However, it soon became clear that you were not punished for stating your opinions or for criticizing the Government. You were sanctioned by the state for spreading rhetoric which denigrated the religious beliefs of Christians and Muslims. You have probably heard this a billion times, but allowing hate speech can harm the fragile social fabric of our country.
Like people of faith, you have your own core beliefs. One of these beliefs is that you have the unfettered right to express whatever opinion you have about politics and religion, even if these opinions are expressed in ways contrary to social convention.
This belief did not find a favourable climate in Singapore and perhaps you will be able to express yourselves more freely in the United States. However, you might also find that your “unfettered right to free speech” will be challenged by media biases and insidious censorship from politically-motivated news sources. As you might remember from previous occasions when you received temporary bans, social media giants like Facebook and YouTube dictate the ever-fluid limits of what you can say as long so that you do not threaten their commercial interests.
You might think you are smart enough to resist or even manipulate these forces, but you are one and they are many. You need them more than they need you.
Upon your release, you said that you will continue your “work” of criticizing the Singapore government. You also replied “Hell, no.” when you are asked if you wished to further your studies.
I would like to ask you: “What is the purpose of your criticism? Does it spring from a genuine desire to make Singapore a better place for Singaporeans? Or does it come from hate and contempt for our government and society? If your motives are the former, then I would be very grateful for your efforts. Every society needs critics and dissidents to point out blind-spots that the Government cannot see or to provoke people to challenge Group-think or conventional wisdom. These critics and dissidents should be educated enough to give insights and not insults. A holistic education will give one the ability to point out faults in the house’s architecture instead of calling for its renovation by burning it down.
Confucius once said: 愛之能勿勞乎、忠焉能勿誨乎。” If you love someone would you not labour for him? If you are loyal to someone, would you not give him your honest feedback? (Analects 14:9) When Confucius’s disciple Zilu asked him how to serve a ruler, Confucius’s reply was: 勿欺也、而犯之。 “If you want to oppose him, do not do so by deceit.” (Analects 14:22) In other words, a loyal citizen who loves his country should express critical views openly, in the spirit of constructive service and with the aim of leaving a better society for the next generation.
However, if your purpose is to promote your beliefs and values over those of others by denigrating people of faith and throwing stones from a safe distance in a foreign country, I can only say that an intelligent and articulate young man like yourself will ultimately become irrelevant and your place in history would become a mere footnote. Millions of Singaporeans have lives to lead. They have careers to pursue and families to build. Even if you have ideas that can genuinely benefit them, they will tune you out if they sense arrogance, anger and contempt. And no one can ever win a society over with toxicity.
Despite your new status, you can still come home to serve your country by being a constructive critic. Or you can start a new life in your adopted country. Both choices can have favourable outcomes.
You have the rest of your life ahead of you. I sincerely wish you all the very best.