A Singapore court has sentenced the 16-year-old blogger Amos Yee Pang Sang to four weeks in jail, backdated to June 2 – meaning he was freed on the same day as the sentencing, ending an ordeal that began shortly after the March 23 death of founder and patriarch Lee Kuan Yew, who had ruled Singapore directly or behind the scenes for much of the 56 years since he took power in 1959.
It appeared that, after several weeks of draconian treatment of Yee, the government finally discovered the mess it was making of its international reputation and backed off plans to punish him further.
Blogger Kirsten Han reported for the Online Citizen that Yee emerged with his mother looking shell-shocked, shuffling his feet, from remand. “He did not look or behave like the boy I met not long after he was first charged. That boy was smug and cocky. The boy today is silent and downcast.”
Yee uploaded an obscenity-laced nine-minute video onto YouTube criticizing Lee and saying he was glad the patriarch was dead, accompanied by a gesture the government termed to be obscene. The furor that kicked off, with Yee temporarily confined in a mental institution, was likened by opposition leader Kenneth Jeyaretnam of the Reform Party to what happened to Andrei Sakharov and other dissidents in the old days of the Soviet Union. Others called Yee the “youngest prisoner of conscience.”
The government has been careful about charging Yee with making inflammatory remarks and hate speech about Christianity, not for his rant about Lee Kuan Yew, and with distributing obscene materials on his website and for causing distress to viewers. Nonetheless, most observers view it as government fury over the attack on the late leader.
The case has earned Singapore an international black eye, with negative stories in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian and the Independent, among others, and with Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the United Nations Human Rights Office for Southeast Asia calling repeatedly for the youth’s release. Rallies on Yee’s behalf were held last week in Taiwan and Hong Kong.
“The sentencing of Amos Yee to what is essentially time served is a face-saving way for Singapore to say they were not wrong for prosecuting him when in the fact the entire world community knows that they were,” said Phil Robertson, the Bangkok-based deputy director of Human Rights Watch Asia. “By causing such harm to Amos and his family, the biggest loser in this entire charade has been the Singapore government. which has shown that it is willing to run roughshod over anyone who expresses opinions that challenge the government and its worldview, even when those opinions come from a 16 year old.”
Over recent weeks, the government-controlled press quoted “experts” who called Yee 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.” Eventually he was locked up at the Institution of Mental Health to determine if he should be treated for autism or spend up to 18 months in reform school.
Yee didn’t help himself much by smirking about his offense in public. But on his way to court, a 49-year-old assailant leapt out of the crowd to punch him in the face, an action that appeared not to be too far out of line with the Singapore populace’s feelings about an insult to the late prime minister, who was lionized for nearly a week of ceremonies after he died. Overwhelming public opinion seemed to be against Yee, although a crowd of about 500 people appeared on July 5 in a local park to support him.
Yee was hospitalized late July 5 with low blood sugar levels before being released from the Institute of Mental Health a few hours later, where he has been held for two weeks to determine if he is autistic despite getting exemplary results as a student before leaving school to seek to study film and make YouTube videos. He has spent at least part of his time strapped to a bed because of fears he might be suicidal.
The case is the second in recent days that has raised questions about the always-prickly government’s methods of handling dissent. Roy Ngerng, 34, went through three days of questioning last week to determine how much he was going to have to pay for allegedly defaming Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who has asked “aggravated damages. Ngerng questioned the operations of the country’s Central Provident Fund pension system. He is already relatively penniless, having been fired from his job as a government hospital attendant in the wake of publication of the suit and lives at home with his parents. The final amount will be decided on Aug. 31.
“The case of Amos Yee highlights the wider, restrictive environment for freedom of expression in Singapore. Opposition activists, former prisoners of conscience and human rights defenders continue to express their concerns about the restricted space for public discussion in the country, and the government’s tight control of critical debate. The government persists in using defamation suits against critics, and the media continues to be tightly controlled through restrictive laws on censorship. Amnesty International urges the Singapore authorities to repeal or review and amend all laws which impose unlawful restrictions on the right to free expression.”