Amos Yee released: teenage blogger appeared “traumatised”

Members of the media pursue teenage blogger Amos Yee after being released from custody, as civil society activists remarked the 16-year-old looked “traumatised” (Photo: Calum Stuart)

By: Calum Stuart

At around 5:20pm on July 6, teenage blogger Amos Yee walked out the doors of Singapore’s State Courts alongside his mother.

The crowd of reporters, photographers and camera operators, who had been waiting outside for hours, scrambled to catch the pair, surrounding them as they made their way through the courtyard.

The 16-year-old, who had been convicted of posting obscene material online and wounding religious feelings, was free, but he looked startlingly different from the boy who had dominated headlines in pervious months. Yee was known for his provocative views, cocky grins and carefree attitude as he entered court on earlier occasions.

Now he appeared pale and gaunt, often shaking as he clutched a bag containing his belongings. He mostly looked down as he was ushered away from the court, and struggled to utter more than a couple of words during his release.

Civil society activists who were at the court to offer support to Yee and his mother, Mary Toh, spoke of their dismay in the change they saw. Shelley Thio, a member of Community Action Network who has been supporting Toh through the trial, expressed her alarm upon seeing Yee’s condition: “I was very upset to see Amos when he was let out of prison - he looked absolutely traumatised, and couldn’t even manage to say a full sentence. He was shivering, he was afraid, and he kept holding on to his mother…

“He just looked like a different person from the Amos I’ve known. I don’t know what happened to him but it must’ve been awful.”

This was echoed by fellow activist, Jolovan Wham, who has led movements in support of Yee since his arrest. “He looked like a zombie,” said Wham. “He looked scared, he was huddled up, he was quiet; his body language was that of someone who had gone through a lot of suffering. If it is indeed proved that he was traumatised due to his time in prison, I believe his family has grounds to sue the state for compensation.”

Two hours earlier, District Judge Jasvender Kaur delivered a surprise verdict, giving Yee a four-week jail sentence that was backdated to time already served, essentially meaning that he was free to go. The prosecution said Yee had demonstrated that he was sorry for his actions, and therefore they would no longer be asking for him to be sent to the Reformative Training Centre (RTC).

During his sentencing, Yee remained silent and often with his head bowed as he sat shackled in the dock in prison garb. As he was ushered into the courtroom through a side door, a short burst of applause came from people sitting in the public gallery; the verdict was a welcome development for Yee’s supporters, as many had speculated he would be sentenced to RTC.

Prosecution’s case focused on attitude rather than crime: activist

Others, however, were more circumspect on the verdict. Writer and gender equality activist, Jolene Tan, who had spoken in support of Yee at a protest the day before, vented her anger at the treatment of the teenager as she left the courtroom. “I felt it illustrated how the entire case seemed to be less about any real harm Amos Yee had done, and more about intolerance to different views,” she said later.

“Disturbingly, the prosecutor’s arguments focused overwhelmingly on Amos’ attitudes rather than any harm that was done by his supposed crimes. What was the sentence meant to deliver: justice for a crime, or just as a way to quash Amos into docility?”

Yee’s case has been a polarising issue in Singapore for almost three months. The 16-year-old came to public attention in late March after he posted a YouTube video titled ‘Lee Kuan Yew is Finally Dead’ two days after the death of Singapore’s first prime minister. In the eight-minute video, which mostly involved Yee speaking to the camera, he described his relief that Lee Kuan Yew had died, drew comparisons with Lee and Jesus Christ, who he claimed were both akin to cult leaders, and dared Singapore’s current prime minister and Lee Kuan Yew’s son, Lee Hsien Loong, to “come and sue me” for his provocative statements. Yee also published a blog post which contained cartoons of the late politician.

His online antics were seen as deeply insulting and hurtful by many Singaporeans, particularly as the video was released during the huge outpouring of grief that gripped the country after Lee’s death. However, supporters of Yee maintained his actions should not have warranted state intervention: while offensive, he was merely a teenager with a YouTube account bad-mouthing authority figures. They argued that in a society with proper respect for free expression, even offensive speech should be tolerated. It was also pointed out that those who might have been offended by the video or blog post could merely not view them in the first place.

Yee was arrested two days after posting the offending material, and charged with insulting religious feelings and the distribution of obscene content after 32 members of the public lodged police reports. He was also charged under the Protection from Harassment Act for his anti-Lee Kuan Yew comments, although this charge was later withdrawn. Following the charges, his image was quickly adopted by freedom of speech advocates in Singapore.

Yee goaded attention from the press and the public during the early stages of his trial, and would often appear smiling or with seeming indifference as he attended his court hearings. On one occasion, a 49-year-old man assaulted Yee as he was walking into the court; Neo Gim Huah was later sentenced to three weeks in jail for the assault, which he claimed he did to “teach (Yee) a lesson”. While on bail, Yee also reposted the offending video on YouTube in direct defiance of his bail terms, and falsely accused his former bailor, child counsellor Vincent Law, of molestation while in his care before recanting this as a hoax.

After reportedly breaking his bail terms, Yee was initially remanded in Changi Prison. In June, a reformative training suitability report found that although Yee was suitable to be sentenced to RTC, he also showed indications of suffering from autism-spectrum disorder. The judge therefore remanded him again, this time to the Institute for Mental Health (IMH).

His arrest and remand made international headlines, and caused shows of solidarity in Hong Kong and Taiwan. His age also came as a shock to many, both domestically and internationally, who were unaware that under Singapore law a 16-year-old could be charged as an adult.

“More concerned about the future”: Amos Yee’s mum

In the courthouse, Yee’s mother expressed her relief that the trial was over. Wearing a ‘#FreeAmosYee’ T-shirt which has been distributed during the protest against his arrest, Toh admitted to mixed feelings: “I’m more concerned about the future. (At the moment) this is like a half victory; now what he needs is a good sleep and food.”

Outside the court, Yee’s lawyer Alfred Dodwell confirmed that Yee would be appealing against his conviction. “We can’t say we are happy with him spending 53 days in remand,” he said, “but now that’s behind us, so we’ll (focus on) the appeal. (Yee says) he’s happy to cooperate now, and he’s agreed to go for counselling.”

As they walked away from the court, Yee and his parents were pursued by members of the press as they attempted to locate a taxi. After several minutes they were led away by civil society activists who asked the press to respect their privacy, before leading them to a nearby shopping centre and through to a taxi rank on the far side.