Singapore's Teenage Rebel

Then he started telling us how he was never ashamed, when he was in some kind of trouble or something, to get right down his knees and pray to God. He told us we should always pray to God—talk to Him and all—wherever we were. He told us we ought to think of Jesus as our buddy and all. He said he talked to Jesus all the time. Even when he was driving his car. That killed me. I just see the big phony bastard shifting into first gear and asking Jesus to send him a few more stiffs. The only good part of his speech was right in the middle of it. He was telling us all about what a swell guy he was, what a hot-shot and all, then all of a sudden this guy sitting in the row in front of me…laid this terrific fart. It was a very crude thing to do, in chapel and all, but it was also quite amusing...

If that sounds like it might have come from the most recent 19.04 minute diatribe by Singapore’s most famous adolescent Amos Yee, it didn’t. It is a quote taken from The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger, a novel published in 1951 that has sold more than 65 million copies. The novel’s protagonist, a 16-year-old youth named Holden Caulfield, has become the living, breathing icon of teenage rebellion, trying to deal with issues of identity and alienation to find his own place in the world. Amos may have read the book.

“You think you are doing a service to the country. I think you are the unpatriotic one. I consider myself the greatest patriot of Singapore because I actually revealed to the world how much our nation sucks.” That is Amos Yee. “To questions whether it was a very inconsiderate thing to say for the families, you are not exempted from criticism just because you fucking die. I should have been more considerate about the families and people who are grieving? Well, you didn’t say the same thing when it was Osama bin Laden, and in many respects you could argue that Lee Kuan Yew was worse.”

Amos Lee Pang Sang could well have been created by an Asian JD Salinger. Shortly after Lee’s March 23 death, Yee uploaded an obscenity-laced nine-minute video onto YouTube criticizing Lee and saying he was glad the patriarch was dead and comparing Jesus Christ and Lee to each other unfavorably.

(See related story: It Doesn’t Pay to Insult Lee Kuan Yew, Dead or Not)

Granted the emotion over Lee’s death, nonetheless the furor over the teenager’s action was astonishing and perhaps could only have exploded in Singapore, or North Korea, in Asia. The press quoted “experts” who called Yee mentally deficient and a rabble-rouser. Dozens of public complaints were filed with the Singapore police, demanding an investigation. Yee was arrested and charged with intending to “wound the religious feelings of Christians.” On his way to court, a 49-year-old assailant came out of the crowd to beat him in the face.

When his defiance continued, first he was jailed and eventually was ordered remanded to a mental institution for observation.

Ultimately that set off a blast of international criticism from the United Nations Human Rights Office which called for the immediate release of Yee as a child political prisoner. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch criticized the affair. Ultimately the government, apparently realizing how heavy-handed it had been sentenced Yee to four weeks in jail and released him for time served.

(See related story: Teen Singapore Blogger Goes Free)

'I have opinions...'

This is Amos in his newest video: “Now, I am an intellectual, I am interesting, I have opinions, talk to me and I will share them with you…I feel like Marx and I have similar views on utopia, although we may take different approaches, so I feel I would be extremely appealing even if I were 10 years older. The young age just makes me more appealing. I am really fascinating I know. I am one of the few artists in the world who is not a fucking sellout, my niche is to present an opinion honestly, transcends any fear or hate that I might have, I know that expressing an opinion honestly despite controversy and hate takes a tremendous amount of metallic brass balls. But I endured 10 years of school. What else can’t I handle?”

If that doesn’t sound like Holden Caulfield, who railed throughout the book about “phonies,” it’s a question what would.

Therein lies the mistake on the part of the Singapore government. Teenagers, even Singaporean ones, think they are a good deal smarter than they are. Just like Holden, using vulgarities – which Amos unleashes with a great deal of glee and loudly while wearing a Scooby-Doo T-shirt – is a prerogative of teenagers and sailors. Amos came out of jail looking cowed and bewildered. He seems to have recovered his aplomb.

But enduring 10 years of school before he dropped out to befriend himself on the Internet hasn’t quite taught him what else he might have to handle. For instance, keeping his video and watching it when he is 40 might shake him

So far, unlike last time, the government hasn’t taken the bait. On August 9, the country turned 50 years of age. No summons has been issued for Amos. Maybe Singapore has discovered that teenagers can be obnoxious jerks. Maybe Singapore, unlike Amos, has grown up a bit.