I arrived at the State Courts on Friday just in time to see journalists pouring out of the courtroom, following a Deputy Public Prosecutor into a media huddle. He was going through the conditions of Amos Yee’s bail, now transferred from police to court bail. His parents had not yet decided whether they were going to post bail this time.
Friends who had been in the courtroom told me that Amos had been whisked out of his closed pre-trial conference in handcuffs. The whole thing had been so quick that he hadn’t even had a chance to look up and see that people he knew were there for moral support.
The major events have since been reported in the media. Amos is spending the weekend in remand. No one has yet come forward to bail him out. The bail conditions are difficult for a 16-year-old: reporting to a police station every morning, undertaking not to post or distribute any content online for as long as his case is ongoing (which could be some time). It’s a challenge not just for the child, but also for the bailor.
Everyone has an opinion on this case – everyone has something to say about Amos, his parents, his video and blog posts. There are rumours and speculation everywhere, and the case has become, pretty much inevitably, politicised.
Yet there are many separate issues at play here, and in the drama and emotive reactions to a potty-mouthed 16-year-old’s video, many of these issues have not received the examination they deserve. The implications go way beyond Amos Yee – there are aspects of this case that concern all Singaporeans.
One might find Amos offensive. One might find him annoying, rude, arrogant, vulgar and disrespectful. One might thoroughly dislike him. One might actively choose to avoid him if caught in a social situation together. And that’s perfectly fine. No one is required to like Amos.
But all of that is completely separate from the fact that in Singapore, you can be reported and arrested for being offensive and annoying and rude and vulgar and disrespectful. That you can be charged for harassment despite the fact that no one was forced to watch your YouTube video (everyone who was distressed by the video could have, at any point, closed the browser and gone on with his or her life). That it can be a criminal offence, in Singapore, to say things that people don’t like to hear.
There are implications for freedom of speech here that we as a society have yet to really question and explore.
On top of that, this case has thrown up points of concern related to the way we treat youths. Although the United Nations considers those below 18 to be children, and therefore in need of protection even when they have fallen foul of the law, Singapore sees children as those below 14, and those above 14 and below 16 as young persons. As a 16-year-old, Amos is therefore old enough to be tried as an adult, slapped in handcuffs and hustled away. He is now in remand – probably not in a juvenile section – and might have to sit in there for some time.
Apart from the problems of using handcuffs on minors, is this really a proportional response to a YouTube video? Can we really, hand on heart, look at this treatment of a teenager and say that this is a rational, mature reaction?
And that brings me to yet another issue: how do we, as Singaporeans, react to things that we don’t like? Do we walk away? Do we engage each other to debate our perspectives? Are we willing to admit the existence of views we don’t like – even views we find abhorrent – because we believe in bigger principles of freedom and expression?
Or do we just stamp our feet and appeal to authorities to remove what we don’t like? Do we prioritise our desire to never be challenged or offended above someone else’s right to speak his or her mind?
From Amos’ case – judging by the vindictiveness of some adults in wanting to see a kid go down – it appears that despite 50 years of education, progress and development, we’re still in the latter category. Decades of nation-building have not taught us to engage and to talk, only to appeal to authority to fix things that are hard for us to take. Years of education and exposure to the wider world have not taught us to respond with grace to things that we strongly disagree with; we still insist that everyone conform to a narrow band of opinion and feeling, that there are “right” ways to think, “right” ways to speak, “right” ways to act.
If this is true, then we have far bigger problems than Amos Yee.