The shame of how Singapore treated Amos Yee

JULY 12 — The clip making its rounds online is heart-breaking. Sixteen-year-old Amos Yee is exiting court, clutching a plastic bag, his mother by his elbow, his father clearing the way cluttered by pushy cameramen and this boy — he is shaking.

He is free — the judge having sentenced him to four weeks in jail for “obscenity” and “wounding religious feelings” ordered him released on account of his already having spent over a month in prison — but he looks trapped.

I’ve since read sensational summaries of his 55 days in remand which allege he was shackled to his bed and denied access to a toilet.

For 23 hours a day, he was kept in a cell with closed-circuit security cameras and with the lights always on. He usually spent the one hour each day he was allowed to leave his cell undergoing psychiatric assessment, reports Amnesty International.

Even if none of it were true, the entire ordeal would have been terrifying for an adult let alone a child.

Most of us know a smart-mouthed 16-year-old — at 16, I could well have been that smart-mouthed adolescent. The one that says and does provocative things just to be perceived as intelligent, exciting and worthy of attention.

How is this a crime?

By no stretch of my imagination can I comprehend how a YouTube video resulted in this fiasco which has been an embarrassment to both the state of Singapore and the Singaporeans in it. Even the UN Human Rights office saw fit to comment and remind the government to adhere to its obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Singapore teenage blogger Amos Yee (R), accompanied by his mother Mary Toh Ai Buay (L) and father Alphonsus Yee (behind), walking out from the state court in Singapore on July 6, 2015. — Picture from AFP
Singapore teenage blogger Amos Yee (R), accompanied by his mother Mary Toh Ai Buay (L) and father Alphonsus Yee (behind), walking out from the state court in Singapore on July 6, 2015. — Picture from AFP

Even more than the national humiliation this incident has brought upon us — with the world watching the might of our state being taken out on a single scrawny teenager — I’m far more embarrassed by the reaction of the apparently large section of the Singaporean public who endorsed, applauded and most vile of all, celebrated a young man’s torment.

Every Singaporean active online would have seen a slew of anti-Amos posts ranging from the banal to threats of rape and physical harm.

A PAP grassroots leader purportedly said: (I) would cut his dick and put it in his mouth. Another apparently adult poster managed: I really hope and I will pay, for him to get raped in prison.

Threatening rape and actual physical injury strikes me as worse than Amos’ original obscene post but none of these adult commenters have had to sit through weeks of hearings and detention.

Even worse than the obviously soft-headed with their vulgar threats and transparent trolling are people — whom I expected to know better — making lengthy justifications about the limits to free speech.

Claiming to be as “liberal” as the next person, the worst of these critics have deluded themselves into the most dangerous of thought traps: I support freedom of speech but not for this boy because… it’s here the reasons vary from declaring we have more pressing issues to worry about or that Yee is too “selfish” to merit our concern.

That isn’t how this works. You don’t get to pick and choose who deserves what rights at which point.

I am familiar with the reasons given for having limits on absolute free speech in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society but that’s just not a reason to detain anyone from making an annoying but fundamentally harmless YouTube clip.

If 50 years into independence one child’s silly rant can undermine our religious harmony — then we can’t actually have any religious harmony worth talking about, I think.

To me what these “free speech is wasted on Amos” comments reveal is a sort of pathological need on the part of some Singaporeans to believe in the benevolence and rationality of our rulers.

Faith in the patriarchy and meritocracy is such that people will try to find reason and justice in subjecting a 16-year-old boy to a public ordeal.

The videos could have very easily been ignored — and that would have been the end of the matter. But we ended up with something quite different, something vindictive and demeaning to all our people.

It’s a shame.