Amos Yee in the Lady Chatterley’s Lover Obscenity Trial
The un’bear’able Photoshop
Here is a postcard I picked up at the Centre Pompidou in France. The image is of a sculpture by a Belgian artist named Pascal Bernier. The postcard was freely on display in the gallery bookshop where anyone, including children, could see it and purchase it. Bernier by the way, is inspired to make such sculptures because he feels strongly about the way we treat animals including factory farming methods, fur as fashion and our failure to protect endangered species.
And if you’d like to see more of his work, here are the details on the back of the postcard:
In my last article “The Case of Amos Yee Proves We Have No Rule of Law”, I posted the image above with the faces of LKY and Amos Yee superimposed, in order to make an important point about satire and criticism of politicians. I chose a work of Art because I felt that if Amos was found guilty of obscenity then classic works of Art would also have to be banned.
On Tuesday 16 yr old Amos Yee was in fact convicted on two counts brought by the DPP. He was found guilty under Article 298 of the Penal Code (wounding racial or religious feelings) and also under Article 292 (distribution of an obscene image).
I have already pointed out here that to convict Amos under Article 298 suggests hypocrisy and a demonstration of the lack of Rule of Law in Singapore. (Reader comments and reactions to that post later demonstrated that too many Singaporeans are confusing Rule of Law with law abiding or just having laws so I will explain the term fully in a future post) The issue is one of the perception of consistency. It is not sufficient for The Law to be consistent. It must be seen to be consistent in a way that makes sense to the ordinary citizen and critically that makes sense in the digital age.
However I am more concerned here with Amos’s conviction for distributing an obscene image. I don’t know whether there will be an appeal or even whether the decision can be reversed should there be an appeal. As this moment the judgement stands and as such it has far-reaching ramifications for social, political and cultural life.
The acid test for obscenity is whether publishing the image is likely to deprave and corrupt. I said before the figures were a line drawing and were not meant to be realistic. No genitalia were depicted and there is little chance, given the abundance of pornographic images available to Singaporean teens on the internet after a few seconds Googling, that it could have depraved or corrupted even the most sheltered individual. I would agree that the image might very well corrupt a minor’s political thinking but that is not what Article 292, which is modelled on the UK’s Obscene Publications Act (OPA), is intended for.
Amos Yee’s defence lawyer had of course argued in Court that the image was not obscene and was actually taken from a South African Women’s Health website. The defence lawyer’s argument cut no ice with the trial judge who argued that the cultural standards of other countries were not relevant here. Neither was she moved by the argument that it was an attempt at political satire and not really sexual at all. She argued that the people most likely to view the image were from Amos’s age group and asked the following two questions:
“Would any right-thinking parent approve of their teenage daughters and sons to view such an image?”
“Would any teacher approve of such an image to be viewed by his or her students in the school library?”
What concerns me greatly is that the judge’s questions are strikingly reminiscent of the questions posed by the prosecutor in the famous Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscenity trial in Britain, in 1959. They are so similar that I have to ask myself was she making a deliberate reference to that pivotal case?
Lady Chatterley’s Lover
In 1959 the UK saw an obscenity trial whose verdict heralded the end of an era. This was the trial of Penguin for publishing Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence. Britain in the late 1950s was a country where men went to work in bowler hats and women mostly went to work in aprons. This was the time of my father’s generation when he would have been at UCL studying law and viewing those signs in London windows. ” Rooms to rent: No Irish, Coloureds or dogs.” In 1959 Fitzwilliam where Lee Kuan Yew got his degree was still just a college and it would be a full 7 years before it became accredited to Cambridge University. Abortion didn’t become legal until 1967. To put the Lady Chatterley trial into context it came only a week after the Pope’s decision to remove “The Origin of Species” from the Index of prohibited books thereby opening the flood gates for generations of Creationists to have their feelings wounded.
Most importantly teenagers or what we understand the term to mean these days, were yet to be invented. It is fair to say that Britain at that time was in a moral panic over youth culture, itself the product of a new affluence, juvenile delinquency and the generation gap. Does any of this sound familiar? Is Singapore in the grip of a similar moral panic over Youth and the Internet? Philip Larkin summed up the societal changes that gave us the teenager in his poem Annus Mirabilis:
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.”
In 1959, the UK government passed a new OPA which was updated to provide protection for works of Literature. However this caveat– the question of literary merit, would provide a crucial loophole. Penguin seized on that loophole and announced plans to publish 200,000 paperback copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover at a low price intended to make it affordable to women and the working classes in general.
It was banned. The Prosecutor for the government was Mervyn Griffith-Jones, a war hero who was ill at ease in the world of literary merit and obscenity. His own moral sensibilities were high Victorian and he was already in trouble before the case began, with many influential figures as well as the public complaining that it was a waste of Police time and tax payer money. So he was already rather desperately clutching at straws when he asked the jury:
“Would you approve of your young sons, young daughters – because girls can read as well as boys – reading this book? Is it a book that you would have lying around in your own house? Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?”
You can see the striking similarity to Justice Kaur’s questions. Mervyn Griffith-Jones’ questions showed how out of touch the prosecutor was with the immense social changes that had taken place in Britain since the war and as soon as he uttered them the case was lost. The real issue it seemed was not obscenity but Upper middle class male politicians’ and lawyers’ ideas on how women and the lower classes should behave. In a similar fashion Justice Kaur has demonstrated how out of touch she is with the immense social changes taking place around us, how out of touch she is with teenagers and indeed with the Digital Age itself. Contrary to what Justice Kaur says, her response shows that cultural standards of another country are fully relevant here in Singapore. These are the cultural standards of the UK. The UK of the 1950s.
She also is inconsistently applying the law in Singapore. The Children and Young Persons Act only provides for special protections for children up to the age of 16. After that they are effectively treated as adults though denied the right to vote until they reach 21. I wrote about this previously because I was horrified at a 16 yr old boy appearing in Court for a non-violent crime, wearing leg shackles. However this is the Law we have . Those over the age of 16 are classed as adults. Justice Kaur needs to be consistent in applying the Law. She can’t have Amos brought to her court in shackles and thrown into jail with adults and at the same time claim that teenagers are vulnerable sensitive creatures who need special protections form the modern world. At the very least Justice Kaur has no business addressing herself to the viewing habits of teenagers, at least teenagers 16 years old and upwards. After all at 18 our male teens are serving NS even though the PAP Government denies them the right to vote till 21.
Justice Kaur placed much emphasis in the ruling on the phrase Bu**F***d used by Amos as evidence of “deprave and corrupt”. Once again showing she is out of touch with the potty mouth of teens for whom BF is just another step up from WTF? Of course we hope that our teens will say Fudge and What the Heck in real life but we must not stick our heads in the sand over the realities of the internet vernacular. Just as a person might refer to getting a bad deal as “being screwed” doesn’t mean sexual intercourse, BF’d is also usually taken with a grain of salt. If her ruling stands it means that the news sites publishing comment wishing that Amos get BF’ed will also have to be charged.
“We train young men to drop fire on people. But their commanders won’t allow them to write “F***K” on their airplanes because – it’s obscene!”
Justice Kaur is trying to have her cake and eat it. As for school libraries they should have firewalls and rules and so forth. The justice is deliberately conflating public State activity ( school) with private behaviour at home. ( browsing the internet). I would rather our justices paid more attention to the failure of our society to protect children in not setting up a Sex Offenders Register and similar measures.
To be fully consistent this ruling means that the Government are duty bound to protect Singapore’s youth from being depraved and corrupted. The bar has been set so low that practically any image of a sexual or prurient nature could be classified as obscene and the police would be obliged to take action. Not an easy task, as the frescoes at Pompeii show, erotica and pornography have been with us since the dawn of civilisation. They will have to ban sexual education in schools, ban abortion in case it encourages depraved behaviour, and ban the sale of contraceptives for the same reason, ban works of Art, ban Stomp, ban Lady Gaga, and by the same logic, ban the internet.
I wonder too if Pink Dot will have to be banned? Indeed the judge’s argument that the cultural standards of other countries were not relevant here flies in the face of the existence of Pink Dot and its Western financial sponsors. I believe that Barclays sponsored the event last year. The cultural standards of other countries particularly Western financial institutions are very relevant in Singapore and sooner or later there must be a major clash between the Western norms of these institutions internally and the reality of the harsh externalities of society in Singapore. We saw the horror and hilarity that ensued when a Hollywood star Sir Ian McKellen and Stonewall patron told our State media interviewers that it was Friday night and he was going Cruising! For him that was a regular activity but sadly in Singapore Gandalf will have to be banned,
The end of the Chatterley ban was a pivotal point in the history of Britain not only symbolically and not only for servants and women folk but also because for the UK it saw the end of the State interfering in private morality as well as public behaviour. There have been many literary obscenity trials since which have been won by works of no literary merit as by works simply of no merit. Two more recent cases stand out: The Spanner Case and The ‘Sleazy Michael’, Michael Peacock prosecution. Both featured extreme acts and publications so don’t trouble yourself to Google them unless you have nerves of steel. The Spanner Case was won by the State though later the UK Government decriminalised the acts covered provided there was evidence of consent. In the Michael Peacok case in 2009 the State lost, prompting many in the UK legal profession to call the OPA an anachronism and the deprave and corrupt test contentious and ambiguous, The non guilty verdict reached by the jury surely means that ordinary members of the British public spot the anachronism and now view consensual adult pornography as something so ordinary as to not be worthy of prosecution.
There is no doubt that modern day Britain is a much more open society than Singapore. Is that necessarily a good thing? Do we not pride ourselves on being an educated population at the forefront of technology? How then can we continue to tolerate a State that regulates what we can and cannot read, write and view on the internet in the privacy of our own homes? 1960 is ancient history for Britain but If this obscenity ruling stands unchallenged that ancient history will become a modern day reality for us Singaporeans. This cannot but have an adverse impact on the perception of Singapore as a global city and a center for culture, scientific and technological excellence.
Perhaps the PAP Government is looking for an excuse to implement a version of China’s Great Firewall ostensibly to shut out searches for pornographic images but actually to try and prevent the spread of democratic ideas, transparency and accountability. This ruling certainly gives it to them. (Well now I’m sounding like a conspiracy theorist.) Those most keenly watching the decision and the fate of Amos will be our teenagers, the generation that will truly shape our new society in a digital, post Lee family Singapore. I suggest we do something really radical which is to listen to them rather than dictate to them and trust them to make, for the most part, sensible decisions for their and our futures.
Finally, in the manner of Philp Larkin here is a bit of wishful thinking, a poem I would write should Amos Yee’s conviction get overturned.
Free Speech began
In year twenty fifteen
(which was far too late for me)
Between the banning of TRS
And the freeing of Amos Yee.