Teen Blogger Arrested In Singapore For Being A Teenager And Posting A Video The Government Doesn't Like

from the free-expression-matters dept

In Wired Magazine's 4th issue ever, back in 1993, it sent famed author William Gibson to Singapore, leading him to write an amazing article entitled "Disneyland with the Death Penalty," talking about the strange contradictions of the city state. It starts out with this sentence:
"It's like an entire country run by Jeffrey Katzenberg," the producer had said, "under the motto 'Be happy or I'll kill you.'"
Singapore is famous for both its clean, modern and high tech city... and the fact that it is more or less a dictatorship in which no criticism of the government is allowed. Talk to Singaporeans who have made it to the US for more than a little bit and you'll discover somewhat horrific stories about living in that country -- the kind of stuff that almost no one wants to talk about publicly. And in the last few weeks, the actions of the Singaporean government have highlighted just why so many Singaporeans are fearful of speaking out about what the place is really like.

A 16-year-old precocious YouTuber named Amos Yee was arrested last month, basically for saying mean things about Lee Kwan Yew, the country's founder and long-time Prime Minister -- though many say that he was actually the country's dictator -- who died just a few weeks ago.

Amos Yee's "controversial" video is still up as I write this. You can view it here, though I imagine someone may eventually try to take it down.
The title is "Lee Kuan Yew is Finally Dead!" and in it Yee unloads his feelings on LKY and his infamous tendency in going after anyone who criticizes him, including the international press. Yee more or less tells the government to try to go after him... and it did.

Watching the video, though, you see a typical teenager mouthing off to authority. That's what teenagers are supposed to be doing -- and Yee has quite a following as a precocious teenaged commenter on culture, both Singaporean and around the globe. The New Yorker has a profile of Amos, detailing some of his other videos that show him as a pretty typical teenager with opinions -- and the ability to create some fairly entertaining videos, like How to Speak Singlish (the modified English that some Singaporeans use) or his somewhat overwrought review of the movie Boyhood.

As the New Yorker's Nathan Heller writes about Yee:
Yee has all the hallmarks of a green and thriving mind; he is exactly the kind of person you would one day want reviewing your books, making your movies, maybe even running your country. Americans, who enjoy the benefits of free media, have a responsibility to take him more seriously than they take the government that has tried to quiet him for thinking freely in the public sphere. And those of us in the Fourth Estate have a duty to spread word of his ridiculous charges. If people like Amos Yee end up the custodians of our profession, the future of countries like Singapore can be brighter than their past.
And yet, he's facing the potential of three years in prison and many thousands of dollars in fines, based on "Penal Code Section 298" which forbids "the uttering of words that might hurt the religious feelings of any person," as well as a recent anti-cyberbullying law that the country passed.

We talk a lot on Techdirt about the importance of freedom of expression, and have called out other examples where people are pushing for laws against cyberbullying, with an expressed interest in stopping people from "hurting feelings" by unkind speech online. But when you have laws that make people criminals for merely expressing their opinions, you are shutting down the very way in which people learn and grow. Expressing opinions, having debates about them is a key part of growth, intelligence and innovation. Singapore wants to be seen as a modern and innovative country -- and yet at the same time it allows no dissent and no freedom of expression. It is a travesty.

Even some in Singapore have been willing to point out that this is ridiculous, and only serves to show the world that Singapore's ego is fragile that it cannot stand up to a bit of criticism:
What Amos Yee did was crude, rude and insensitive. But he is, at the end of the day, a provocative child playing at being hardcore. He’s certainly not the first – it was only the lack of access to YouTube that saved many of us from eternal embarrassment in our teenage years – and he won’t be the last by any stretch of the imagination. Is Singapore really so fragile, so easily threatened by offensive comment, that there was a need to charge a kid in court?

What Amos and the two protesters did were against the law – but it’s also high time that we think about the laws we have, and whether the trade-offs made make sense in today’s context. Is the Singaporean situation really so precarious that freedom of speech and assembly needs to be curtailed to such an extent?
Of course, given the way in which general deference to authority is demanded in Singapore, plenty of others have come out in favor of throwing Yee in jail. The New Yorker piece describes how ridiculous some of this has become:
In the days after Yee’s arrest, a slew of local celebrities, including three Singaporean starlet types, were interviewed about his videos on national TV. In sequences depressing to watch, they all sided with the state. “If you say that, ‘Oh, people can say whatever they want, all the time,’ then what about those people who are listening?” Joshua Tan, a young actor, said. Well, what about them? The suggestion that citizens should withhold political criticism for fear of offense is preposterous—far more embarrassing to Singapore than any videos by Yee could be.
We see this same attack on free speech in other places (often college campuses) today, as well as in certain areas of social media, in which people immediately leap to the idea that we need "new laws" to punish those who say things that people don't like, because "what about those people who are listening." Those people can be offended. And they can have their feelings hurt. Because that's how a free society is supposed to be -- where not everyone agrees with one another, and sometimes people say things you don't like. And that's good for the community. It's good for ideas and intelligence in that it allows for people to be challenged and to improve their arguments.

Singapore, apparently, wants to put teenagers in jail for acting like teenagers. And thus, it appears that little has changed since that William Gibson article more than two decades ago -- and that's a real shame. In the age of the internet, Singapore has continued to try to position itself as a high tech mecca. But if it can't handle free expression, it's going to find that a difficult image to maintain.

Filed Under: amos yee, free expression, free speech, lee kuan yew, singapore, teenagers


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  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 15 Apr 2015 @ 3:43am

    If you can't take a joke, you are the joke

    He may have been critical, or even 'rude' to a corpse, but the actions of the government in that country, and those that support it, do far more to make it look like a joke, and harm it's reputation than anything the kid could have ever said.

    By responding in such incredibly harsh ways against criticism, they show that paper-thin lies and fronts to the contrary, they fear the truth, and what it would reveal about them, in particular the kind of government and country it actually is.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Just Another Anonymous Troll, 15 Apr 2015 @ 5:05am

    then what about those people who are listening?
    Then they can stop listening.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 15 Apr 2015 @ 5:19am

      Re:

      But but but, how can they practice outrage if they do not go and find and listen to things to be outraged about.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    PRMan, 15 Apr 2015 @ 5:41am

    Ignorant

    If he's as ignorant about his country as he is about Christianity, then I would venture to say he doesn't know what he's talking about.

    Notice you don't see a lot of Singaporeans around in other countries. They have no reason to leave, because it's a good situation there. Maybe the people actually voted for him so many times because they actually think he has done a good job bringing Singapore into the modern era and they wanted more of the same.

    As I've seen on many documentaries, private health care in Singapore is very cheap and world class, so why should the government spend a lot of money on something that is cheap anyway?

    Does he have some dictatorial trappings? Probably. But so does Obama and the current DOJ/NSA.

    Different countries have different rules. Since he was arrested for disparaging religion, perhaps he could have made his arguments without it respectfully and maybe it would have been OK.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Chronno S. Trigger (profile), 15 Apr 2015 @ 5:53am

      Re: Ignorant

      That's seriously your argument? He said rude things that might have been wrong so it's perfectly fine to arrest him? Damn, dude. You might claim that Obama has dictatorial trappings, but you are the kind of person that allowed it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Ahmed Stephen Gonzalez-Wong, 15 Apr 2015 @ 6:58am

      Re: Ignorant

      Clearly you are ignorant of the concept of "freedom of speech." It's an inherent right of every person on this planet, not to be eroded even if controversial, hateful, uninformed, unpopular, inaccurate, etc.

      Unfortunately most governments, and a lot of their citizens, have implanted their heads firmly in their rectums on this issue and have limited this right for reasons of "national security," "political correctness," and worst of all...for being "offended." Bullshit!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        edinjapan (profile), 15 Apr 2015 @ 7:33am

        Re: Re: Ignorant

        Obviously none of you have lived in or visited Singapore. Wonderful place! Climate is hot and dry or hot, humid and very wet. Only 3 things you can legally do in Singapore-shop, eat food and make money. Everything else is either illegal or too expensive to do.

        So, don't leave your toilet seat up, forget to flush, chew gum, grow your hair long, forget to tuck your shirt into your pants or go out to the pub in crowds larger than 5 people or you can be arrested, jailed and fined a lot of money.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 15 Apr 2015 @ 8:41am

      Re: Ignorant

      Fuck religion.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Speaking My Mind, 15 Apr 2015 @ 2:03pm

      Re: Ignorant

      Well then, it's a good thing hes not ignorant about Christianity, nor his country and I would venture you're actually ignorant.

      That explains why a lot of middle class Singaporeans are leaving the country to seek employment overseas, because the situation over here is so good working 8 - 5 taking 2 hours to commute with crappy public transport and stuff, then not to mention the over times.

      Which documentaries are those?
      How long ago?
      Did you know they've changed the healthcare model now and that the government spends very little on healthcare, they only foot 40percent of the bill via your Medisave which is basically Sub Tax for medical issues, think of it as a mandatory government health tax for citizens, which is why many Singaporeans still go for a second insurance plan, ontop of Medisave, I know its such a rip off right?

      Not probably, definitely, state owns the press and media, does Obama own press and media and rig elections to be favourable for his party?

      Oh okay, so I guess theres no problem with North Korea or Iran then :3 Good to know!
      Those people should just be thankful to be alive.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 15 Apr 2015 @ 5:10pm

      Re: Ignorant

      Obvious troll is obvious. Don't feed.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      MrTroy (profile), 15 Apr 2015 @ 6:16pm

      Re: Ignorant

      If he's as ignorant about his country as he is about Christianity, then I would venture to say he doesn't know what he's talking about.

      I'm sorry, but you sound a lot like you have never been to Singapore, or possibly only as a tourist.

      Notice you don't see a lot of Singaporeans around in other countries. They have no reason to leave, because it's a good situation there.

      You're not looking in the right places, or you're not looking, or you don't know what you're looking for. When I was living in Singapore, it seemed like there were less Singaporeans that hadn't been to Australia than those who had. Singaporeans are also often found all over south-east asia, since it's so ridiculously cheap to get to so many countries from Singapore.

      Notwithstanding the desire for many Singaporeans to send their kids to college overseas - Australian universities hold huge numbers of students from Singapore, and they go to the UK and USA as well.

      Maybe the people actually voted for him so many times because they actually think he has done a good job bringing Singapore into the modern era and they wanted more of the same.

      10 years ago, it was a pretty safe bet that whenever you got into a taxi in Singapore, the driver would spend 90% of the trip complaining about the government (the other 10% was trying to understand your pronounciation of where you want to go).

      Yes, LKY and his party took Singapore from a muddy backwater that was kicked out of Malaya into a bustling, thriving shipping, banking and shopping hub with clean streets and low major crime rates. And if you are a member of the middle class, then you probably don't mind government policy all that much.

      If you're one of the many Indian or Bangladeshi construction workers, or Malaysian, Indonesian or Phillipino maids... then you may well have issues with the sheer lack of human rights available to you. If you're a third generation Indian immigrant with middle class aspirations, but you're denied a HDB loan or pushed out to a further suburb because of racial quotas, then you might get a little upset.

      If you're unable to afford a cheap car to drive your sick mother to the hospital when she needs it because the vehicle license costs one or more year's salary on top of the cost of the car, then you might take issue with some policies.

      Like most countries, there's good and there's bad.

      Also keep in mind that racial quotas also keep the Singaporean Chinese in the majority, and they tend to get the best treatment from the Singaporean government. Just because they vote the People's Action Party back in, doesn't mean everyone does. In the 2011 general elections, the PAP vote slipped from 66% down to 60%, so people aren't necessarily after "more of the same".

      As I've seen on many documentaries, private health care in Singapore is very cheap and world class, so why should the government spend a lot of money on something that is cheap anyway?

      As I've experienced in my shoulder surgery in Raffles General Hospital, this is probably only true in relation to countries with very expensive private health care (USA?). Certainly, health care in Australia, the UK and Thailand are all cheaper and just as good.

      Also, that's just talking about hospital care. General practice in Singapore is pretty much a case of prescribing antibiotics whenever you visit, thank you, come again.

      Different countries have different rules. Since he was arrested for disparaging religion, perhaps he could have made his arguments without it respectfully and maybe it would have been OK.

      Different countries have different rules; doesn't mean we can't point out when those rules seem capricious or unwarranted.

      Also, remember that we're talking about a teenager. Were you respectful, unfailingly, all the time, to everyone as a teenager? Even in private? Yes, this is YouTube not in private, but a video like that in your own house feels like being in private and talking to your friends, even if it's not.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Uriel-238 (profile), 15 Apr 2015 @ 8:51pm

      "Notice you don't see a lot of Singaporeans around in other countries. They have no reason to leave."

      Juxtaposition:

      Notice you don't see a lot of North Koreans around in other countries? They have no reason to leave.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        MrTroy (profile), 15 Apr 2015 @ 10:27pm

        Re: "Notice you don't see a lot of Singaporeans around in other countries. They have no reason to leave."

        Interesting juxtaposition with unexpected parallels.

        My instant response to this was: "North Koreans don't have an option to leave; Singaporeans do". Then I remembered that the Singaporean government actually makes it quite difficult for Singaporeans to work in other countries - all Singaporeans within a certain age range are required to spend a few weeks a year (I think 2? I forget) on national service... regardless of their current domicile.

        There are local laws that require workplaces to support national service for local staff, but it's difficult for Singaporeans to find long-term work in other countries that doesn't require them to spend significant chunks of their annual leave to go and work for the Singaporean government.

        So other than those not eligible for NS (elderly) or with permission to waive their obligations (sick, students), you really don't see many Singaporeans working abroad.

        But not because they don't want to.


        ETA - actually, it looks like foreign employment is possibly grounds for "disrupting" your NS obligations, though I'm not sure how hard that is to do. http://www.quora.com/Can-a-Singaporean-reservist-ever-be-called-back-for-operational-duty-while-unde r-disruption-for-overseas-employment

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    OGquaker (profile), 16 Apr 2015 @ 12:45am

    friends in hell

    By Henry A. Kissinger 23 March 2015 US Secretary Of State from 1973 to 1977

    Lee Kuan Yew was a great man. And he was a close personal friend, a fact that I consider one of the great blessings of my life. A world needing to distill order from incipient chaos will miss his leadership.

    Lee emerged onto the international stage as the founding father of the state of Singapore, then a city of about 1 million. He developed into a world statesman who acted as a kind of conscience to leaders around the globe.

    Fate initially seemed not to have provided him a canvas on which to achieve more than modest local success. In the first phase of decolonization, Singapore emerged as a part of Malaya. It was cut loose because of tensions between Singapore’s largely Chinese population and the Malay majority and, above all, to teach the fractious city a lesson of dependency. Malaya undoubtedly expected that reality would cure Singapore of its independent spirit.

    But great men become such through visions beyond material calculations. Lee defied conventional wisdom by opting for statehood. The choice reflected a deep faith in the virtues of his people. He asserted that a city located on a sandbar with nary an economic resource to draw upon, and whose major industry as a colonial naval base had disappeared, could nevertheless thrive and achieve international stature by building on its principal asset: the intelligence, industry and dedication of its people.

    A great leader takes his or her society from where it is to where it has never been — indeed, where it as yet cannot imagine being. By insisting on quality education, by suppressing corruption and by basing governance on merit, Lee and his colleagues raised the annual per capita income of their population from $500 at the time of independence in 1965 to roughly $55,000 today. In a generation, Singapore became an international financial center, the leading intellectual metropolis of Southeast Asia, the location of the region’s major hospitals and a favored site for conferences on international affairs. It did so by adhering to an extraordinary pragmatism: by opening careers to the best talents and encouraging them to adopt the best practices from all over the world.

    Superior performance was one component of that achievement. Superior leadership was even more important. As the decades went by, it was moving — and inspirational — to see Lee, in material terms the mayor of a medium-size city, bestride the international scene as a mentor of global strategic order. A visit by Lee to Washington was a kind of national event. A presidential conversation was nearly automatic; eminent members of the Cabinet and Congress would seek meetings. They did so not to hear of Singapore’s national problems; Lee rarely, if ever, lobbied policymakers for assistance. His theme was the indispensable U.S. contribution to the defense and growth of a peaceful world. His interlocutors attended not to be petitioned but to learn from one of the truly profound global thinkers of our time.

    This process started for me when Lee visited Harvard in 1967 shortly after becoming prime minister of an independent Singapore. Lee began a meeting with the senior faculty of the School of Public Administration (now the Kennedy School) by inviting comments on the Vietnam War. The faculty, of which I was one dissenting member, was divided primarily on the question of whether President Lyndon Johnson was a war criminal or a psychopath. Lee responded, “You make me sick” — not because he embraced war in a personal sense but because the independence and prosperity of his country depended on the fortitude, unity and resolve of the United States. Singapore was not asking the United States to do something that Singapore would not undertake to the maximum of its ability. But U.S. leadership was needed to supplement and create a framework for order in the world.

    Lee elaborated on these themes in the hundreds of encounters I had with him during international conferences, study groups, board meetings, face-to-face discussions and visits at each other’s homes over 45 years. He did not exhort; he was never emotional; he was not a Cold Warrior; he was a pilgrim in quest of world order and responsible leadership. He understood the relevance of China and its looming potential and often contributed to the enlightenment of the world on this subject. But in the end, he insisted that without the United States there could be no stability.

    Lee’s domestic methods fell short of the prescriptions of current U.S. constitutional theory. But so, in fairness, did the democracy of Thomas Jefferson’s time, with its limited franchise, property qualifications for voting and slavery. This is not the occasion to debate what other options were available. Had Singapore chosen the road of its critics, it might well have collapsed among its ethnic groups, as the example of Syria teaches today. Whether the structures essential for the early decades of Singapore’s independent existence were unnecessarily prolonged can be the subject of another discussion.

    I began this eulogy by mentioning my friendship with Lee. He was not a man of many sentimental words. And he nearly always spoke of substantive matters. But one could sense his attachment. A conversation with Lee, whose life was devoted to service and who spent so much of his time on joint explorations, was a vote of confidence that sustained one’s sense of purpose.

    The great tragedy of Lee’s life was that his beloved wife was felled by a stroke that left her a prisoner in her body, unable to communicate or receive communication. Through all that time, Lee sat by her bedside in the evening reading to her. He had faith that she understood despite the evidence to the contrary.

    Perhaps this was Lee Kuan Yew’s role in his era. He had the same hope for our world. He fought for its better instincts even when the evidence was ambiguous. But many of us heard him and will never forget him.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 16 Apr 2015 @ 1:46am

    It reminds me of Glenda Jackson's rapid burial of Margaret Thatcher:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XDtClJYJBj8

    Contrast and compare !!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 16 Apr 2015 @ 2:50am

    Look at the whole video. I wouldn't even rate it as tasteless -- a little crude but so what -- just normal for hard-hitting political commentary.

    I have no sympathy for mealy-mouthed commentators in Singapore who are quasi-offended and quasi-sympathetic to the quasi-idea that speech should be quasi-moderated.

    Even Techdirt is a little mealy-mouthed. Teenager? Do you really need that? Are you suggesting that an adult should be held to a slightly higher standard for speech?

    We're talking about protected speech here. Teenager or adult.

    Nothing to do with "teenager" things, like uttering implausible threats and getting unnecessary felony charges in the U.S. There, at least the underlying action, a threat, can sometimes legitimately be gone after, and context is important.

    Here, there is nothing.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Wendy Cockcroft, 16 Apr 2015 @ 6:13am

    Expressing opinions, having debates about them is a key part of growth, intelligence and innovation.

    Yes! Because you can learn about as much from someone who is wrong as from someone who is right. I'm serious. Researching the evidence I need to make my points teaches me as I go. And sometimes I have to admit that I'm wrong. If the evidence contradicts my position, I'm too proud to slink away, then come back and double down on a shaky position, so I'm pretty much forced to change my mind.


    Because that's how a free society is supposed to be -- where not everyone agrees with one another, and sometimes people say things you don't like. And that's good for the community. It's good for ideas and intelligence in that it allows for people to be challenged and to improve their arguments.

    I've had that experience, too. I like to be challenged because I need to know where the weaknesses in my arguments are. Then I can either improve or abandon them. If we're overly defensive of arguments or positions, we lose the opportunity to learn how to either build on them or come up with something better.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Sheogorath (profile), 17 Apr 2015 @ 1:05am

    And yet, he's facing the potential of three years in prison and many thousands of dollars in fines, based on "Penal Code Section 298", which forbids "the uttering of words that might hurt the religious feelings of any person" [...]
    What, Lee Kuan Yew was a god? o_O

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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