Amos Yee: the childish thinker trying to rock a nation

Amos Yee is the dissident who made a name for himself with his controversial and seditious online postings, now sitting in an American jail hoping for asylum. He showed considerable skill in connecting with the public, but his sad and ill-thought-out message was always going to be his downfall.  

By Tan Zhi Xin

In what seems an almost-paradise of religious and ethnic harmony, education, a social welfare system without a welfare state, low taxes and crime rates most people are satisfied with the status quo. All, that is, but a small handful. Among this handful is a highly critical and outspoken young man who uses irony and satire to broadcast his detest for his fellow citizens. This country is Singapore. The young man is Amos Yee; a blogger who made it to international fame by posting inflammatory and anti-Singaporean materials online.

Yee says he is determined to bring about change. But before he could do so he was persecuted to the point he had to flee to the United States and claim political asylum. On arrival, he was flagged for secondary screening at the airport and detained in McHenry Country Adult Correctional Facility in Woodstock, Illinois. He is unlikely to be released before a hearing.

Yee has a long record of pushing the boundary of what is acceptable

Human rights defenders across the world will be interested to see if he gets asylum status, and if he does then the ripple effects will be felt in many places. Not only would Yee become the youngest prisoner of conscience to be granted political asylum by the US government, and the only one from Singapore, but the reputation of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) would be scrutinised. On a more global level, American acceptance of Yee’s asylum request would be a tacit endorsement of President-elect Donald Trump’s argument that political correctness is damaging.

The foolhardy Yee was only 16 years old when he first ruffled with the government’s feathers with a disgraceful slight to Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew. Unlike the hundreds of thousands of Singaporeans who flocked to pay their last respect to Lee, Yee insensitively posted a YouTube video titled, “Lee Kuan Yew is Finally Dead”. In the eight-minute video, Yee ranted about Singapore and compared the late Lee to Jesus Christ, Mao Zedong, Adolf Hitler, and Joseph Stalin.

He has served time in prison, both in Singapore and America

Yee was arrested under Section 298 of Singapore’s penal code, which forbids the uttering of words that might hurt the religious feelings of any person. Besides infringing the penal code, Yee was also guilty of violating the Sedition Act. He spent 55 days in jail for his actions. Following his arrest, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International called for his immediate release.

His belief that free speech should be unbridled, and his hope to continue criticising Singapore and the government without fear of persecution, is driving his attempt to seek political asylum in America. Indeed, it is no secret that Yee was persecuted for the content of his online posts, but the good order of Singaporean society practically required that to be the case.

Freedom of speech is vital to a healthy society; it cannot be abused

As lawyer Chia Boon Teck explains, “There is a limit to freedom of speech. If the line separating freedom and offence is crossed, the person will have to face the consequences.” After all, the right to speak out is a foundational principle of a free society, but where exactly should the government draw the red line? Is there one to begin with? The crux of the issue lies in the intersection between media law and media ethics.

The question is whether all ideas and materials – regardless of the nature of the content – should be published simply because it is supposedly legal to do so? This is the dilemma faced by most governments in the world, not just Singapore. Freedom of expression contributes to the marketplace of ideas and serves as a pressure release valve that prevents outbursts of unrest. It also facilitates public – but peaceful – differences of opinion. In this way, sociopolitical stability is ensured.

However, history also tells us that undirected and aggressive freedom of expression could go terribly wrong. The 1964 racial riot is an apt testament that public criticism has detrimental impacts and accordingly laws in Singapore are, “rooted not in protecting the individual, but rather the society as a whole.” This is based on the belief that there could be unrest if one group feels offended by another. As such, the hard-won religious and ethnic harmony enjoyed by Singaporeans should not be threatened by the thoughts and actions of intellectually-petulant toddlers like Yee.

Singaporean society should be reflective, but not of childish ideas

This brings forward the question, is Singaporean society mature enough for the kind of freedom of speech promoted by liberals and glorified by the Western media? Yee is an intelligent young man, with a passion for his cause, but he has unfortunately resorted to immature actions that could be highly damaging. It is not surprising that he was persecuted.

Had Yee been wiser in understanding the world he lives in he could have heralded a new opposition era here in Singapore. But he did not. Instead, Yee is taken as a joke, if not mentally unstable. But he chose to walk this path himself. In short, he is just too short-sighted.