COMMENT: A conversation with Amos Yee and family

SingaporeScene
Singaporean student Amos Yee walks alongside his father ahead of a previous court appearance on April 17, 2015

Alfian Sa'at is a writer, playright and poet based in Singapore. He is the resident playwright at W!LD RICE. The views expressed are his own.

By Alfian Sa'at

I wasn't planning on writing about Amos Yee, but I'm quite upset by the way the media is painting him—with insinuations that he might fall within the autism spectrum, that he is so psychologically disturbed that he needs psychiatric evaluation, that there is something about his behaviour that might be 'abnormal'.

I had the pleasure of having supper with Amos and his family. The mother, Mary Yee, is a twinkly-eyed lady who would lean in to listen to you speak. She looked perpetually curious and attentive, her head craning around even as she hugged her floral tote bag close to her. One could speculate that she's passed on some of that inquisitiveness to her only child.

"You know Amos wanted to change his name?" she told us.

"Why?"

"Because his full name is Amos Yee Pang Sang. And in school the kids used to tease him and called him 'Anus Yee Pang Sai'. You know 'pang sai' in Hokkien means to 'pass motion'."

I wanted to ask if he had wanted to change the name 'Amos', or 'Pang Sang', or both. But I took a quick glance at Amos, who was scowling, and spotted the thought bubble over his head that said, 'Mum, please, don't embarrass me in front of these people'. So I left it at that.

The father, Alphonsus Yee, was a bit more reserved, a burly man who rides a motorcycle and who would stand around with his arms crossed, palms cupping his elbows. It seemed to me that the mother still thought of her son's antics as an enduring source of mystery, whereas the father had reached his limit with such unsolvable enigmas. I tried to break the ice with the father by saying, "I think your son is very intelligent."

And the father said wearily, “Yes, he's intelligent. But he's not wise.”

And what about Amos himself? He's a waif of a teenager, very pale, with painfully narrow shoulders, and it seemed as if his shock of unruly hair was an attempt to add some mass to a wispy frame. He had a habit of stroking his chin before he spoke, which I found quite endearing, because chin-stroking is the aspirational gesture of kids who want to be taken seriously—as intellectuals. I asked Amos who his favourite film director was.

“I love Stanley Kubrick,” he said.

“Yeah? He’s good, but I wasn’t too sold on Barry Lyndon,” I said. “It’s too mannered for me.”

“Oh, but have you watched it twice?”

“So it rewards repeat viewing?”

“I guarantee.”

Amos has very strong opinions; and honestly he reminded me of a precocious teenager—self-possessed, intensely loyal to things he loved, but not to the point where he would shut himself from discovering other works.

“If you love 2001: A Space Odyssey,” I said, “You should check out Solaris by Tarkovsky.”

“You mean there’s a sci-fi film that’s as good as Space Odyssey?”

“Maybe even better. I guarantee.”

He nodded, and stroked that chin again. And then we got to the subject of the video. I told him, “I agreed with what you said about LKY, but did you really have to mention Christians? You could have made your point just by saying that those fawning and swooning over him acted like they were part of a cult.”

“But all religions are cults.”

“Okay, then why pick on Christians? You could have said something about religious fervour without being so specific about it.”

“But Christianity is the religion I know best.”

And there it was. ‘But’, the favourite word of any mouthy teenager who thinks that adults, with their unexamined conventions, are vaguely ridiculous. “And how about all that swearing,” I said, putting on my fuddy-duddy hat. “What if it turned people off from the substance of what you were saying?”

“But that’s just how I express myself. I'm being true to myself.”

“You have to ask yourself if it’s essential to your message. I think you make your videos to communicate something to your audience. I understand your need to be authentic, but sometimes your audience trips up on the expletives and they’ll stop listening.”

“But sometimes swearing is the message itself.”

“Yes Amos, I’ve watched enough Scorcese and Tarantino to know that.”

“And those are great examples!”

I smiled and didn’t tell him that he was as far away from a gangster or hitman as anyone could imagine. And then the subject turned to remand and jail.

Amos said, “Why should we worry about jail? Look at Mandela, he fought for a righteous cause and he went to jail too.”

At which point Ivan Heng, who was at the table, rolled his eyes and said, “Darling, you’re not Mandela. So in the meantime you just stay out of trouble.”

Amos looked a little chastened, and I could see that he was aware that the analogy he offered risked making him out as someone with delusions of grandeur. Glen Goei, who was at the table as well (supper was on him), said, “Maybe you’re not afraid for yourself. But think about your parents. Don’t you think they’ll worry if you go to jail?”

“But we can’t always live our lives based on what our parents might think of us.”

“We’re just asking you to put yourself in their shoes,” Glen said.

Amos stroked his chin again. I could see a retort simmering—“if I were a parent I’d want my child to act according to his conscience…to live as a free and principled human being…to have the moral courage to stand by his actions.” But Amos held his peace.

So here’s my take on this whole absurd affair: Amos Yee, as a teenager, is as normal as they come. They chafe at authority, will always look for wriggle room and bargaining leverage, have a sharp instinct for pointing out adult contradictions and hypocrisies, and speak in a language of ‘but’s’ and ‘why not’s’ that are designed to try your patience. Any attempt to 'discipline' him becomes a contest of wills; you can slap bail conditions on him but if he thinks they are unfairly punitive (even before any conviction) then you can expect brinksmanship and defiance. With teenagers like these, you can try reasoning with them but you must also be prepared to confront the idea that your reason is actually unreasonable. What is abnormal is that because of the charges against him, all this is being played out on a much larger stage. And this I think is the tragedy of the whole thing: when a brat acts up—and of course Amos can be taunting and bratty—the best thing that you can do is to ignore him and let him exhaust himself.

But no, some people decided to get all sanctimonious, and we end up with the sorry spectacle of an adult smacking a child mercilessly in a shopping aisle. We don’t think of the child as being uncontrollable at that moment; no, it is the adult who has lost all self-control. And this is how it looks like to me—the people who filed those police reports, the 8 policemen who arrested Amos at his house, the AGC, the man who smacked Amos outside the State Courts, Bertha Henson, Lionel de Souza, the journalists who keep misreporting the case—all of you look so violent, hysterical, foolish and feeble. In trying to solve a 'problem' like Amos Yee you've only ended up displaying your own problems and neuroses--your pettiness, your cruelty, your beastliness, your insecurity--in all their garish detail.

This article was originally published as a Facebook status. It is reproduced here with the permission of its original creator.