Shortly after the March 23 death of the towering leader Lee Kuan Yew, who had ruled Singapore with an iron hand directly or behind the scenes for much of the 56 years since he took power in 1959, a youth named Amos Yee Pang Sang uploaded an obscenity-laced nine-minute video onto YouTube criticizing Lee and saying he was glad the patriarch was dead.
The furor over the 16-year-old’s action approximates what might happen if someone delivered a similarly insulting message in North Korea about Kim Jong-Il. The press quoted “experts” who called him mentally deficient and a rabble-rouser. Within hours, at least 22 public complaints had been filed with the Singapore police, demanding an investigation. Although the video was almost immediately taken down from Yee’s YouTube channel, he was arrested and charged with intending to “wound the religious feelings of Christians.” On his way to court, a 49-year-old assailant leapt out of the crowd to beat him in the face.
The incident raises troubling questions about Singapore’s maturity as a culture despite its position as an intensively developed and highly educated society with the third-highest gross domestic product in the world and the second in Asia behind Macau. Yee is not alone by any means. In early May, editors of The Real Singapore were threatened with fines of up to S$200,000 (about US$150,000) and a maximum three years in prison and their website was shut down after authorities deemed it to be offensive.
It appears that Singapore intends to tighten the screws further, with a proposed law to make it an offense to use Lee Kuan Yew’s name or image without permission. The new law is said to be aimed at giving LKY’s image and name the same protections as the national flag and anthem. Opposition leader Kenneth Jeyaratnam said he believes the prospective law is aimed at him for superimposing Kuan Yew’s head onto a Belgian work of art called Bipolar Perversion by Pascal Bernier, amateurishly depicting one bear with the Lee head having sex with another with one topped by Amos Yee’s head.
Although Yee’s offense was nonviolent, the teenager was handcuffed and jailed, with the judge refusing to allow anyone to post bail for him after an additional police report that he had violated his bail conditions.
The defiant teenager was sent to Changi Prison after writing two more blog posts, one describing what he describes as “the ridiculous terms of my bail: and a second apparently charging his father with being abusive.
The courts have since ordered the youth to be sent for assessment for suitability for reform school from 18 months to two and a half years. He has been vilified in the press and criticized by the courts for refusing “to learn his lesson” and offending the Lee family.
Certainly, in a country where Lee’s death kicked off seven days of national mourning and a gush of nearly hysterical reminiscence in the local papers, Yee’s video was bound to cause trouble. Lee sarcastically likened Lee to Jesus Christ, saying both were “power-hungry and malicious but deceive others into thinking they are both compassionate and kind. Their impact and legacy will ultimately not last as more and more people find out that they are full of bullshit.”
That got Lee charged with an offense for uttering “words, etc., with deliberate intent to wound the religious or racial feelings of any person.” He was also charged with electronic transmission of an obscene image and hit with a third charge under a new Protection from Harassment Act with making remarks about Lee that offended people who viewed it.
“The arrest of a young blogger for comments made in a video highlights the restrictive environment in which Singaporean journalists are forced to work,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “We call on authorities to release Amos Yee immediately and to undertake reform of Singapore’s outdated laws restricting the media.”
That is obviously not going to happen.
“It is absurd to suggest that Christians could be offended by Amos’s assertions that Christians are greedy and that Jesus Christ is bad,” said Kenneth Jeyaratnam. “They didn’t have to watch the video. If this prosecution succeeds what will be the next step?”
Jeyaretnam said prosecuting the teenager on obscenity charges for the video “makes Singapore a laughing stock internationally. Furthermore to prosecute a child for transmitting obscene images is hypocritical when Singapore fails to monitor pedophiles adequately and protect children from sexual exploitation.”
As Jeyaretnam pointed out subsequently, virtually anybody with an internet connection can download pornography of any and all descriptions. No genitalia were shown in the video, and the charge appears to revolve around the fact that Yee held up his middle fingers to the camera in an age-old gesture of insult.
“What makes the lack of rule of law and equal treatment under the law even more glaring is that Amos would be regarded as a child in most jurisdictions. In Singapore, under the Children and Young Persons Act, only juveniles up to the age of 16 enjoy special protection,” Jeyaretnam said. “Despite being a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the PAP government has not extended the protections under the Convention to children over 16 and below 18. Thus what is barbaric treatment of a child, particularly one accused of a non-violent offence, by the standards of other advanced countries, is perfectly legal in Singapore.
“Amos Yee said in his video that we had no freedom in Singapore,” Jeyaratnam said. “Ironically the authorities’ actions to suppress him and scare Singaporeans have proved his contention beyond a shadow of doubt.”