When Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew died in March 2015, many paid tribute to the man who led the city-state’s transformation from a poor island in the 1960s into a prosperous society. But others took the opportunity to cast a critical eye on Lee Kuan Yew for curtailing civil liberties, placing tight controls media and public discourse.
A 16-year-old Singaporean video blogger named Amos Yee became an unlikely icon among Lee Kuan Yew's critics this spring when he was arrested for creating a controversial video criticizing Lee's reign.
The eight-minute video entitled “Lee Kuan Yew Is Finally Dead!” features Yee using inflammatory language, factual evidence, and his sardonic, irreverent wit to tell viewers his thoughts on the now-deceased leader. He also compares Lee Kuan Yew to Jesus, placing the religious icon in a decidedly negative light. Police claimed to have received over 30 complaints related to the video.
Yee was arrested on March 29 and soon after was charged with offending the religious sentiments of Christians and circulating obscene material, both violations of Singapore's penal code. The second charge targeted a photoshopped image from Yee's blog depicting Lee Kuan Yew and Margaret Thatcher having sexual intercourse. He was also charged with causing distress to his viewers, a violation of the 2014 Protection from Harassment Act, but the judiciary has since elected to handle this charge in a separate proceeding.
On April 21, Yee was released from prison on bail and on the condition that he “not post, upload, or otherwise distribute any comment or content, whether directly or indirectly, to any social media or online service or website” until his case had been closed. He deliberately violated the terms of his bail with new posts on his blog and social media accounts. On May 12, a local court convicted Yee of both charges and released him on bail once again, but the blogger once again violated the terms of his bail. The judiciary then recommended that he be transferred to Singapore's Reformative Training Center, a sentence typically applied to juvenile offenders involved with the drug trade or gang violence.
Yee's lawyer publicly stated that prison officials ascertained that Yee had been subject to degrading psychological treatment while in remand, and was experiencing depression and suicidal thoughts. While waiting to be transferred to the reformative training center, Yee was taken to a prison mental ward with one of his hands and legs strapped to a bed.
Kenneth Jeyaretnam, the Secretary-General of the Reform Party in Singapore who attended the court's hearing, found the sentence extreme. Commenting on the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP)'s remark on Yee's sentence on his blog, Jeyaretnam wrote:
The DPP argued that as Amos had not “learnt his lesson” and refused to agree to probation that a reformative training sentence was necessary.[…] The DPP said a jail term or a fine would have no rehabilitative effect on Yee and would therefore not be “tenable, because we cannot be popping back into court every other day.”
Jeyaretnam went on and explained why sending Yee to the Reformative Training Centre is inappropriate:
There can be no doubt that in this case “rehabilitation” is just a euphemism. The PAP [People's Action Party] Government mean to break Amos’s spirit through a harsh regime that is worse than prison. They would like to show Singaporeans that anyone here who dares to challenge the official narrative will be harshly dealt with.
Roy Ngerng, another young Singaporean who was found guilty in 2014 of defaming the current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a blog post, started a campaign to free Amos Yee. In a blog post about the campaign, he wrote:
First, we cannot allow the Singapore government to unfairly persecuted a child for making a video. If the Singapore government would punish one child for making a video about Lee Kuan Yew, then our children are also in danger of being bullied by the government.[…] Second, even as Amos should seek help or support, he should not be treated with state violence.[…] It is wrong for the government to imprison Amos and to want to send him to reformative training, for a non-starter “crime”.
Many have joined the campaign, but others support the court's ruling. Norman Wee commented on Ngerng's campaign:
If this campaign succeed, there is a real risk that All Singapore children would be like Amos. Amen.
Therefore the campaign should be *QUARANTINE AMOS, SAVE OUR CHILDREN*
Chew Xiangyi, an accounts assistant in Singapore, suggested that Yee was engendering “instability” in the country:
Having entitlement in opinion does not give you the rights to misuse freedom of speech.
In my opinion, i do not sympathise Amos Yee as he has created a chance for instability in the country. The very basic understanding of my country Singapore was stability brings wealth. Furthermore, the court had given this young man a chance by condition not to post “anything” online and he simply could not follow and challenge the legal system by; in my rephrase: “these lawyers take our hard earn money and i have no money and proceed to ask for donation money online”
Outside Singapore, among the Chinese-speaking communities in Hong Kong and Taiwan, more people spoke out against the Singaporean government's authoritarian ruling style and expressed their sympathy to Amos Yee.
Jie Fang from Taiwan compared Amos Yee and Charlie Hebdo in her report on public funded news platform, the PTS News Network:
Amos Yee is more like a satirical artist, like Charlie Hebdo. Because he chose to attack the authority, he is doomed to offend many. This is some exhausting and unrewarding work. At the end, he will be left standing alone. However, this is the point of satire, using the inelegant but powerful language to trigger people's laughters that mock at the complicated conflicts from their inner self.
Amos Yee told his friend when he was taken away from the court to the jail, ‘If you can see some humor in these horrible behaviors of our government, you will master story-telling.’ I just hope that this young man will not be sacrificed anymore in this ridiculous country.
Amnesty International has stated that Yee's sentence renders him the youngest Prisoner of Conscience in the organization's record.
To some degree, it appears Yee had anticipated his fate before entering the legal maze that he now occupies. In fact, he introduced the offending video by telling viewers that unlike mass media, he was not afraid to criticize the leader:
Why hasn't anyone said, “Fuck yeah, the guy is dead. Lee Kuan Yew was a horrible person.”? Because everyone is scared, everyone is afraid that if they say something like that, they might get into trouble, which, give him credit, that was primarily the impact of his legacy. But I'm not afraid. So if [current PM] Lee Hsien Loong wishes to sue me, I will oblige to dance with him.
For now, the dance continues.
Mong Palatino and Oiwan Lam contributed reported for this story.