Singapore was able to evolve from a dirty, drug-infested swamp into one of the biggest metropolia in the world in less than a century, capping off one of the greatest stories of progress in the history of mankind. Although residing in a country where one in six households possess assets over a million dollars affords residents a safe, high-quality life, freedom of speech among the public has never been on the top of the government’s agenda. But not all of the island’s inhabitants seemed content. In 2015, a local Youtuber by the name of Amos Yee decided to criticize the country’s government and founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, during the country’s mourning period following his death. As the open show of dissonance brought attention to Singapore as a nation, its citizens anxiously awaited how exactly the powers-that-be would react.
This nine-minute long video uploaded to YouTube, titled Lee Kuan Yew is Finally Dead consisted of Yee speaking about Lee, the most respected man in Singaporean history, as well as Jesus Christ. Both were portrayed in a very negative light, described by Yee as “con men who were able to decieve large groups of people”. The video concluded with Yee urging Lee’s son, the current prime minister of Singapore, to attempt to file a lawsuit against him.
Unsurprisingly, the Singaporean government acted quickly, arresting Yee on charges of obscenity and intent of wounding the religious views of Christians. Two charges that fall under Singapore’s local penal code. The two days of his trial, gained huge international interest. Organizations like Amnesty International criticized the government heavily for punishing a teenager who merely voiced his own opinions. At the same time, several Singaporean citizens called for Yee to serve a huge sentence. Upon the conclusion of the initial trial where he was tried as an adult, Yee was found guilty and sentenced to a total of 53 days in prison. Following several appeals, Yee’s sentence was reduced to 6 weeks. After spending 21 consecutive days at Tanah Merah Prison, he was permitted to spend the latter half serving house arrest.
In December 2016, two months after his eighteenth birthday, when Yee’s male classmates were enlisting in mandatory national service, Yee broke Singaporean law by evading service and fleeing to the United States, declaring his desire to be granted political asylum. After being detained at Chicago airport, he was later transferred to a detention facility in Wisconsin for a week before being granted official asylum, when he would continue to upload videos on his YouTube channel. The US government appealed their decision to grant asylum in April 2017, forcing Yee to stay at an immigration/customs center for five months. However, Yee’s was once again released with full asylum protection. A Reuters report stated that Yee spoke to them about how he was now able to openly criticize the Singaporean government, but would also be shifting his work to cast a critical eye on US politics.
Yee’s life in the United States had been difficult, to say the least. In the last year, he has repeatedly been asking for donations to fund his YouTube channel’s content, and in November 2017, he uploaded a video asking to be essentially be given a “home” to stay in in order to continue his work. In the video and subsequent Facebook posts, Yee wrote, “I’ve spent the last few months living with modern-day hippies who have recently asked me to leave out of fear of their children being seized by Child Protection services due to my unique views on paedophilia.” Yee received immense backlash from viewers in both Singapore and the US after he released a video where he spoke about his views on pedophilia where he emphasized that although he was not a pedophile himself, he did not condemn pedophiles as long as they didn’t break any laws. He went on to encourage the public to view these individuals as humans.
Regardless of personal opinions, the way the Singaporean government reacted to Yee’s video made it clear that they don’t plan to graciously entertain views that are deemed disrespectful and are more than happy to prosecute infractions, regardless of what it might mean for the ongoing “battle for freedom of speech” in this democracy.