I first met Amos Yee in April, not long after he had first been charged. I was pretty curious: who was this brash boy with the drawl, who had posted the eight-minute rant I couldn’t bear to watch till the end?
In my (very) brief interaction with him, he proved to be every bit as cocky and self-important as he seemed in the video. He was 16 and felt like he was on to some political truth we adults were too uncool to recognise. He didn’t care that people were calling him rude, bratty, an asshole. No matter what anyone else thought, he felt he had simply expressed his personal opinion, and didn’t see why he had to apologise to anyone for it.
That was not the boy I saw today, coming up the spiral staircase from the basement of the State Courts.
The boy I saw today would barely lift his eyes off the floor and his feet. The boy I saw today clutched a totebag of belongings to his chest as if it were a shield. The boy I saw today would only walk with his mother, and wouldn’t speak to anyone.
Before the judge handed down the sentence today the prosecution made it clear that “this case is not about freedom of speech or diversity of views.” Amos Yee, the prosecutor said, had crossed the lines that Singapore had drawn to protect religious freedoms and public decency, and it was his “intentional acts” that had led to his conviction and over 50 days in remand.
However, Amos has now taken down his offending posts, and undertaken not to post sensitive content, which the prosecution described as a “significant repudiation of his previous posturing”, and a sign that he had accepted the “gravity of what he had done.”
Amos, the prosecution went on to say, now understood the boundaries laid down to protect racial and religious harmony in Singapore. He was now truly sorry, the awareness of his errors firmly impressed upon him.
But the boy I saw today didn’t look sorry. He looked broken.
Let’s back up a bit, and think about what started this whole months-long saga: a YouTube video. An eight-minute YouTube video that most people I’ve met haven’t even watched in its entirety. An eight-minute YouTube video in which a 16-year-old rants about a powerful man who won’t hear him (for obvious reasons). In which a 16-year-old rants about a religion that has most certainly seen much, much worse.
I asked Miak Siew, executive pastor of the Free Community Church, what he thought of the government’s claims that Amos’ case was about protecting religious feelings. “Please lah, who is angry? Can you find me a Christian who has been insulted?” he responded. “If our God is so small that He can be insulted, our faith must be so weak. People have said worse things.”
Yet this video – and also a graphic image of Lee and Margaret Thatcher having some athletic anal sex – made over 30 Singaporeans decide to take it upon themselves to police speech in the city-state. And the police deemed these reports urgent enough to act upon. And the Attorney-General’s Chambers found this all serious enough to be worth charges. And so on and so forth.
The prosecution today took pains to emphasise that Amos had brought all this upon himself. And yes, a 16-year-old did invite the state – or the Prime Minister, at least – to “dance”. A 16-year-old was perhaps uncooperative, refusing to play ball like so many others have before him. A 16-year-old did perhaps bait the state, challenging the Powers That Be to come get him.
But when the state rises to the bait, we learn more about the state than the boy.
Today in the courtroom much of the talk was about how sorry Amos is. How repentant. How cooperative. What a “seismic shift” in attitude. He now knows not to cross our laws. He now knows not to question or rock this harmony we have. We all live happily together in Singapore – nothing more needs to be said. It is not the Singapore way.
If O’Brien walked into the room and held up four fingers, perhaps the boy would say he saw five.
And so Amos walked out of the State Courts today downcast and beaten, the press clustering around him. He did not flip anyone the bird. He was not eating a banana. He did not make a statement. He did not have anything to say.
Across social media people expressed sympathy, but many others watched with morbid satisfaction. Good, they say. Now he’s learnt his lesson. Now he knows you can’t do this in Singapore. Keep your mouth shut.
Maybe he’ll bounce back after a good shower, hot meal and sleep. Maybe he’ll eventually pop up on social media again, and maybe he’ll even be as obnoxious as he was before.
But that won’t erase what we’ve seen these past months – the gradual wearing down of a boy for a non-violent offence that barely made a ripple in Singapore beyond the vagaries of social media, and the single-minded need to extract remorse from someone who took a bite of the rules but would not swallow like the rest of us have.
I did not completely agree with Amos when I saw his video. I found the video irritating, so I went away and watched something else instead. But that doesn’t mean Amos didn’t have the right to say it.
Amos did not incite anyone to violence. He did not try to alienate or denigrate an already marginalised community. He expressed an opinion. It did not have to be the opinion, it did not even have to be the right opinion – it was, simply, his opinion. One that might have changed with time, experience, age. Or maybe not. But it would not have been our business either way.
Instead what we did was handcuff a boy, shackle him and take him to Changi Prison. Institutionalise him. Hurl threats. Slap him outside the courts. Watched him sent to hospital as he got too down to eat, and said, Hah, now he’s learning.
Since Amos’ arrests we’ve perpetuated the idea that saying the wrong thing will get you in serious trouble in Singapore. That there is a reason to fear. That one should keep one’s mouth shut. That if the state won’t police you, there are always your fellow citizens who are up to the task.
Perhaps it is not only Amos who emerged traumatised and frightened today.