What Amos Yee is going through is far bigger than just one boy

By Kirsten Han | SingaporeScene

Kirsten Han is a Singaporean blogger, journalist and filmmaker. She is also involved in the We Believe in Second Chances campaign for the abolishment of the death penalty. A social media junkie, she tweets at @kixes. The views expressed are her own.

I arrived at the State Courts on Friday just in time to see journalists pouring out of the courtroom, following a Deputy Public Prosecutor into a media huddle. He was going through the conditions of Amos Yee’s bail, now transferred from police to court bail. His parents had not yet decided whether they were going to post bail this time.

Friends who had been in the courtroom told me that Amos had been whisked out of his closed pre-trial conference in handcuffs. The whole thing had been so quick that he hadn’t even had a chance to look up and see that people he knew were there for moral support.
The major events have since been reported in the media. Amos is spending the weekend in remand. No one has yet come forward to bail him out. The bail conditions are difficult for a 16-year-old: reporting to a police station every morning, undertaking not to post or distribute any content online for as long as his case is ongoing (which could be some time). It’s a challenge not just for the child, but also for the bailor.
Everyone has an opinion on this case – everyone has something to say about Amos, his parents, his video and blog posts. There are rumours and speculation everywhere, and the case has become, pretty much inevitably, politicised.

Yet there are many separate issues at play here, and in the drama and emotive reactions to a potty-mouthed 16-year-old’s video, many of these issues have not received the examination they deserve. The implications go way beyond Amos Yee – there are aspects of this case that concern all Singaporeans.

One might find Amos offensive. One might find him annoying, rude, arrogant, vulgar and disrespectful. One might thoroughly dislike him. One might actively choose to avoid him if caught in a social situation together. And that’s perfectly fine. No one is required to like Amos.

But all of that is completely separate from the fact that in Singapore, you can be reported and arrested for being offensive and annoying and rude and vulgar and disrespectful. That you can be charged for harassment despite the fact that no one was forced to watch your YouTube video (everyone who was distressed by the video could have, at any point, closed the browser and gone on with his or her life). That it can be a criminal offence, in Singapore, to say things that people don’t like to hear.

There are implications for freedom of speech here that we as a society have yet to really question and explore.

On top of that, this case has thrown up points of concern related to the way we treat youths. Although the United Nations considers those below 18 to be children, and therefore in need of protection even when they have fallen foul of the law, Singapore sees children as those below 14, and those above 14 and below 16 as young persons. As a 16-year-old, Amos is therefore old enough to be tried as an adult, slapped in handcuffs and hustled away. He is now in remand – probably not in a juvenile section – and might have to sit in there for some time.

Apart from the problems of using handcuffs on minors, is this really a proportional response to a YouTube video? Can we really, hand on heart, look at this treatment of a teenager and say that this is a rational, mature reaction?

And that brings me to yet another issue: how do we, as Singaporeans, react to things that we don’t like? Do we walk away? Do we engage each other to debate our perspectives? Are we willing to admit the existence of views we don’t like – even views we find abhorrent – because we believe in bigger principles of freedom and expression?

Or do we just stamp our feet and appeal to authorities to remove what we don’t like? Do we prioritise our desire to never be challenged or offended above someone else’s right to speak his or her mind?

From Amos’ case – judging by the vindictiveness of some adults in wanting to see a kid go down – it appears that despite 50 years of education, progress and development, we’re still in the latter category. Decades of nation-building have not taught us to engage and to talk, only to appeal to authority to fix things that are hard for us to take. Years of education and exposure to the wider world have not taught us to respond with grace to things that we strongly disagree with; we still insist that everyone conform to a narrow band of opinion and feeling, that there are “right” ways to think, “right” ways to speak, “right” ways to act.
If this is true, then we have far bigger problems than Amos Yee



The Effects of Punishment

STOMP reports, “Two primary school pupils in China were forced by their teacher to slap each other more than 150 times as punishment for being late to board the bus for a school trip while another, frustrated with a group of talkative boys, punished them by making them run around the track with their pants around their ankles”.  It then asks, “What forms of unusual punishment did you experience during your school days?”

I remember lots of punishment.  I was not naughty, I think.  I was just “stupid”.  I definitely remember the taping of the mouth.  One of my teachers hit me with a metal ruler, which resulted in a cut that needed medical attention.  I was also hit on my open palm very, very often for every Chinese word or do you call it character, that I could not spell.  So it was 10 whacks (for 10 words) for every week for years!!!  I was also hit for talking too fast (really?!) or running to fast, hit on the head for not knowing math, whack on the behind by my principal for failing again, and again, and again.

I was made to stand in front of the class, at the back of the class, outside the class, on the chair, on the table, in the sun, with a ruler balanced on my head (woe to me if the ruler dropped because I would have to balance it on my head for the length of the given time all over again).  I had to pick weeds.  They probably did not need a full time gardener then because of me.  I was made to run round the field (thank goodness, it was only a hockey field), and clean the principal’s office (they too probably didn’t need a full time cleaner because I was usually there to help out).

These punishments (and I am not including the emotional abuse) that I can recall, and the varied forms, occurred on a daily serving for years till I graduated from my secondary school.  You see, I attended the same school from primary to secondary, so the modus operandi of punishment remained quite consistent.

My punishments were hardly ever as a result of misbehavior, as I mentioned.  It was always a result of my not being able to do something academically.  None of my teachers, except one, in my 10 years of studying in a local school, ever attempted to reach out to me and help me, to give me some form of individualised help.

Did my teachers really think that all those activities of running round the field and picking weeds, standing in the sun, and standing with a ruler on my head was going to increase brain activity?  That somehow by hitting me 10 times for every ten words that I could not spell, the neurons in my head were going to make better connections?  Or did they think that making me stand on the table for a period of time was good because putting me on “higher ground” was helping oxygen flow throw my brain?  Maybe they thought putting me outside the class, in front of the class, at the back of the class, on the chair, on the table was teaching me prepositions.  Could they have thought that they were trying to make me more socially aware?  I got to stand around different groups of peers and also see them from different angles.

The mentality of punishing children as one of the means to “discipline” and educate our children continues even as Singapore moved from third to first world status in just mere 30 years.  One of the dangers and a very serious one, is that, for some adults, the concepts of  punishment and abuse can become nebulous.

Some cases in point.

Recently, a childcare teacher dragged a 3 year-old child across a room before roughly shoving him the floor, causing a hairline fracture.  Her actions were caught on video from one of the cameras installed in the centre that she worked for.

A teacher in a PAP Community Foundation Kindergarten was charged in court for abusing a 5-year old child in 2011.  The charges include making the child stand naked in front of her class and causing physical injuries by pushing her twice and once when she swung the child’s head against a whiteboard. http://news.insing.com/tabloid/kindergarten-teacher-trouble-court-abuse/id-555d3f00

Police and the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) are looking into a case in which, a nanny who also doubled as a tutor, is alleged to have committed “long-term” abuse of two brothers, aged 9 and 10.   The 10 year-old boy is said to now suffer from spinal problems as well as “mental” problems, no doubt as a result of the psychological trauma that he went through.  The boy’s younger brother described the abuse.  “”They’d make us eat chilli. When we eat and spit it out, they’d make us eat it again. They’d rub medicated oil on our face. They’d make us do squats, 1,000 times and walk like a duck. I never said I didn’t want to because I was scared they’d scold me.”

The same news report continued to state that there were investigations into 248 reports of child abuse in 2012.  7 of these turned out to be false and 94 “had evidence of abuse.”  The report did not explain what happened to the other investigations of the other 147 cases of child abuse that were reported. http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/police-msf-probe-alleged/754070.html

Here’s the thing.  Research.  Research, upon research do not support punishments in helping children’s academic ability and do not increase academic success.  Punishments decrease academic ability and success.  Punishments demotivate a child.  A child who is punished and demotivated does not want to learn.  A child humiliated becomes less confident.

Punishments not only diminish a child’s cognitive ability, punishments corrode all the domains of the child’s development; physical, cognitive, social, emotional, psychological).  Punishments make a child defiant especially when the punishment is deemed as unfair and the child perceives the punisher as a bully.

If the punishment is constant enough, the effects of corrosion in the child’s sense of self-concept are devastating.  A positive or negative self-concept plays a pivotal role in a child’s outlook in life.  It sets the course of his or her attitude in life.

A person with a positive self-concept will have a positive outlook.  He is also more resilient.  This person will view tasks as challenges to be conquered, life as an adventure, and a journey to be enjoyed.  A person with a positive self-concept believes, “I can do it”.  A person with a positive self-concept has a higher degree of “sticktoitiveness”.   He perseveres with a task even when he meets with obstacles and challenges along the way.  He is not afraid to volunteer to perform tasks or activities.  He is not afraid to try.  In fact, he wants and cannot wait to try.

A person with negative self-concept, on the other hand, is daunted by challenges.  He believes he is unable to manage a task even before he commences on attempting it.  He sees himself as a failure, constantly!  This person is not resilient and little things easily discourage, demotivate, stress, and frustrate him.  He is less unlikely to persevere with a task when he meets with an obstacle or a challenge.  He will rarely volunteer himself for anything.  His mind is set to, “I cannot do it”.  He does not believe in himself and he does not believe others believe in him.

Self-concept includes 4 other very important processes.  They include, self-recognition, self-esteem, self-awareness, and self-definition.  These components interact with one another and each affect one another.  Therefore, self-concept can affect

▪                How the child recognizes himself?

▪                How realistic he is of his abilities and inabilities?

▪                How accepting is he of his abilities and abilities?

Children need to be helped to understand that everyone has strength and weaknesses and while we may be better than others at certain skills, there will be others who will be better than us at certain skills and be perfectly fine with that.

▪                How a child defines himself, “Who am I?” in his eyes and the eyes of the people    in his social world, from his perspective?

A child with a poor self-concept usually perceives himself as someone of little value and ability. A person can tell that child, “I can see that you have been practicing very hard.  You are really hitting the targets” and he will find it very hard to believe you.  He will think that you are just saying that because you are his mommy or a significant someone who loves him, or someone who is being kind to him.

These effects will follow a person through to adulthood if there is no intervention.  It is said that by 5 years of age, children’s outlook in life, whether positive or negative would be pretty much determined by about 50%, influenced mainly by their social experiences, especially interactions with significant adults in their world.  The next most influential phase is 6 to 12 years.  The early years are what educators would term as “windows of opportunities”.  During this time, children’s maturation across all developmental domains is most rapid and neurological pathways in the brain are build and strengthen.

Punishment, be it emotional, physical, psychological, etc, must never be supported, must never be given a voice.  Punishment, along with those who use it on those helpless under them must be silenced.  Too often we give chance upon chance to teachers and adults who use punishment on children.  We know how severe the effects of punishment are but we do not stand up against it.  We sometimes even attempt to justify the actions of those who abuse and punish harshly.  If those responsible for children cannot educate, parent, or care for children with love and kindness, if they cannot be around children responsibly, then it is time we make a stand for the children. We must stop with the excuses and justifications.  Adults have the means to learn the best techniques and ways of responding to children.  There are courses that they can pursue or talks that they can attend.  If they do not have the time, then these strategies are just a few appropriate words and a few clicks away, on the internet  The internet is rich with information about the best ways of responding to children, there are support online groups for parents, forums that parents can join to discuss and get ideas from.  Punishing children is bullying and ignorance is not an excuse.  Not in this day and age when information are literally at your fingertips.

We have had generations of children gone by, put through an education system, which subscribed and continues to subscribe to forms of punishment, humiliation, praises, and rewards.  Singapore teachers from preschool level on. praised and rewarded the “smarter ones” while they punished those who were not as academically proficient.  These children were considered “lazy”, “stupid”, “numbskull”, “naughty”, “worthless”, “useless”, and the list of derogatory terms were limited only to the teachers’ or parents’ imagination or vocabulary.  Children who needed helping hands, kinder words, less judgment were instead often ridiculed and punished by their teachers.  Generations of teachers and adults punished children with little understanding of child development and what a system of punishments and humiliation or/and praise and rewards can do to generations of children who go on to be adults.

We can see the consequences of punishment by looking at our society today.  Forgive me but for the longest time I have said that we have become “emotionally and socially retarded”.  Our society is too inward looking to care much for looking out to see who among our society is unhappy, is depressed, and needs a listening ear.  We care little for those beyond our immediate family.  We care little for the marginalized, the poor, the challenged, the elderly, the homeless, or the disadvantaged.  We allow the abuse of other people in our society to exist as long as we think we are safe, we have food on the table, our lives are comfortable, as long as we are not affected.  We care only about bread and butter issues.  Human rights issues have been more often than not, deemed as lofty ideas or western concepts.  The act of speaking out against the system for those more disadvantaged than us was perceived as lunacy or social depravation and those who did the speaking out were casted as lunatics and even psychopaths. We became an apathetic society, until some of the burdens of the abused became our burdens and we too became part of the disadvantaged.

As the population increased and continues to increase through our government’s open foreign policies, on our little island, our world has become more complex, more competitive, and our living conditions, more stressful.  Singaporeans now have to struggle more to get a job and to retain that job.  Inflation as a result of the increasing population has made it very much harder for those who provide for the family.  Breadwinners now have to work harder or even work at more than one job to put food on the table, to put their children through school, to have enough to see to medical needs, and so on.  The dramatic growth in our population has also caused prices of property to surge.  Even prices for public housing intended for the middle to lower income groups have escalate to preposterous levels.  This in turn made it increasingly difficult for more Singaporeans to continue financing the mortgage payments and causing some to lose their homes because of an inability to continue financing the mortgage of their homes.

Then, look at our suicide rates. Singapore has reportedly at least one suicide a day (http://www.littlespeck.com/content/people/CTrendsPeople-070818.htm).

According to World Health Organisation (WHO), suicide was Singapore’s top 12 causes of death with 472 people committing suicide in 2011 (http://www.worldlifeexpectancy.com/singapore-suicide).

That number has since increased to 487 in 2012, “The highest rate of suicide in 20 years.” (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-07-12/singapore-suicide-rate-all-time-high/4817984).

What do these statistics indicate?

Many of our people who were educated, raised, and now governed by a system of punishment and rewards, are not resilient, not capable of persevering, unable to figure out alternatives, and who see death as the only ultimatum, the only way out.

If we want a generation of truly happy people, people who are not just cognitively capable but also socially aware, emotionally intelligent, psychological sound, and even people who are physically healthy, we must take a very firm stand against punishment.  Punishment is like cancer against society.  It wrecks a child.  It wrecks a society.

Punishing a child is honestly a lazy way of “teaching” your child.  There are now a multitude of techniques and positive discipline strategies that you can find available here on “I Am A Human Being Too” online, and on so many blogs!  You will find a happier person in your child and a happier you.  And do not ever allow your child’s teachers to touch your child or to shame him or her.  Your child does not deserve that kind of treatment. Your child does not deserve to be bullied, in school or anywhere else!

Be a Voice for our children.  Be the Agents of Change. Stop Child Abuse.  Advocate against Punishment.  Advocate against Child Abuse.

Rebuttal to “Knee-jerk Government Reactions”


Mr. Lee, I would like to address two points, which you discussed in your article that I found very disturbing.

The first point:

In reference to the centre receiving a 6-month licence tenure rather than the usual 24 months, as a result of investigations by the ministry of Social and Family Development and the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA), you asked, “Would this be fair to MFS and other operators? Would this cause a teaching equivalent of “self censorship”? That they would let the little tikes get what they want? To sacrifice discipline rather than their jobs?”

Bearing in mind that the investigations by the said ministry and agency into the centre commenced because an abuse by a teacher occurred within the centre, I would like to ask first of all, are you an educator and secondly, are you an early childhood educator?  The reason I am asking this is that, I wonder where your premise is coming from.

Discipline is an essential part of life and all educators, early childhood or otherwise, is in the business of discipline.  However, discipline is to teach, to help a child learn to regulate behaviours and actions, which will stand him in good stead towards his life.

However, in order for teachers to teach and to teach effectively, children must feel safe in their environment. There has to be a trusting relationship between child and teacher.  A teacher, who desires to impart any knowledge or values to a child, must also first build and then maintain a connection with that child.  A teacher, who in any way traumatizes a child, disconnects from that child.  The trust is broken and a barrier results out of distrust and fear.  That barrier between child and teacher would hinder the process of learning for that child.

Teachers also teach through modelling appropriate behaviours.  We do not teach through harsh and abusive ways.  If teachers are not able to regulate their behaviours, how do we expect children, who are still learning social rules, desired and undesired behaviours, and whose brains are almost 2 decades away from fully maturing, to regulate their behaviours?

I also wonder how you equate putting in measures to prevent the possibility of another teacher from dragging a child across the room and shoving him on the floor, resulting in a hairline fracture as “sacrificing discipline” or letting “little tikes get what they want”?

Who are we protecting here?  The adults who have the physical strength, the ability to regulate their own behaviours, and the means and opportunities to traumatize children or children who are our most vulnerable, physically smaller, and less regulated and competent because of their still developing brains and substantially less life experiences?

With all due respect, Mr. Lee, it appears from the way you have written your article, you apparently think that we should protect teachers and their methods of teaching before we protect our children.

With regard to your question on self-censorship of teachers, the teaching profession is one of constant reflection and review as teachers have tremendous influence, for better or worse, over their charges.  And as such, self-censorship should and must be second nature to all teachers.

The second point and I quote you: “My First Skool has had no problems and was functioning safely for since time memorial. So why now? Is this another one of those Government knee-jerk reactions?”

I would like to point out that just because there was no major complaint or negative focus on the centre until the abuse came to light, it does not mean that there have not been any problems or that it was functioning safely.

Remember, that this abuse would have gone undetected if the parents of the abused child had not demanded to see the video from the CCTV, when informed that their child had suffered a fall while at the centre.

In fact, this abuse revealed just how much problems there were with the school and that some serious questions need to be asked and issues considered.


A teacher abused a boy and almost got away with it.


Has this teacher abused this child or any other child before and her actions gone undetected?

Have other teachers abused other children and were successful in keeping these cases undetected?

The teacher may have just been unlucky this time that the abuse ended with the boy becoming physically injured.   However, this abuse was almost swept under the carpet and the injury attributed to a fall.  If the teacher was almost successful this time in hiding the abuse, could there have been other incidents of abuse that occurred which went undetected?

In addition, do bear in mind that not all child abuse ends with evidence of physical injury and that abuse comes in many forms, i.e. physical, emotional, psychological, etc.  Therefore, no physical injury does not necessary equate no abuse.


Two other teachers were in the class but neither acted to cease the abuse or report the abuse. Apparently, professionalism and the need to protect all children are values that not all teachers in that centre observed.


Have teachers in the past looked away or not acted to stop an abuse?

Have teachers in the past not reported after an abuse of a child?


The parents were told that their son had fallen and as a result, suffered a hairline fracture which, we now know is not the truth.


Have other parents been lied to with regard to past injuries of their children?

Have parents been lied to with anything pertaining to their children?


It was only the next day, when the parents demanded to see the video that the truth surfaced.


How is it that when a child is reported to have allegedly fallen and to have suffered a hairline fracture as a result of that fall within their premises and under their watch, no one within the management level thought to look at the video from the CCTV to ascertain how the accident occurred or to verify that the child did indeed sustain a hairline fracture as a result of a fall?

Are there any protocols that the school follow when an injury of a child is reported?  For example, interviewing other teachers who may have witnessed the fall?

Are these interviews documented in an “Incident Report” as is the practice of most responsible centres?

Are internal investigations conducted before the management speak to parents?  I mean, I am sure that any responsible organisation or operator of a preschool would like to know that it has all the facts before speaking to parents about anything regarding their child but especially when it concerns something of this magnitude.

I also find it quite strange that you are aware that the Social and Family Development Ministry and the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) conducted investigations and concluded that, “some areas were inadequate.”  Yet, you question the rationale of a 6-month licence tenure given to the centre.

In light of all the above, it is my opinion that granting a 6 month licence tenure is merely a slap on the wrist and hardly a knee-jerk reaction.

What is important for us to remember is that childcare centres exist precisely to allow parents to entrust their precious and beloved children to a place worthy of their trust.  Each day parents send their children to such centres with the knowledge that professionalism is the order of the day and that abuse of any kind is not the norm and will not be tolerated.