When Making Fun Of World Leaders Gets You Thrown In Jail
It's kinda fun having a president who wets himself on Twitter every time someone mocks him. Well, if you ignore all the devastation and injustice, anyway. But at least we still have the ability to mock --- in some places, making fun of your leader gets you real punishment. Teenager Amos Yee knows that all too well. He was arrested in Singapore for a handful of insulting videos he posted on YouTube. This is his story.
The Government Targets Dissenters Under The Guise Of Attacking Intolerance
Lee Kuan Yew, prime minister of Singapore for over 30 years, died in March 2015. The nation went into mourning. 16-year-old Amos Yee, however, made the following video:
In it, he calls Yew a dictator, calls him out for suing critics, and argues that his reputation for building a successful Singapore is undeserved. The video says that despite Singapore being famous for its high per-capita income, Singaporeans work the longest hours and suffer the greatest inequality in the world, have the highest poverty rate among developed nations, and have the highest tax rate with respect to earnings. And yet the politicians are the highest-paid in the world. "... And whenever somebody wonders online if the government is pocketing the money for themselves, they get sued." Maybe it's not a huge surprise, then, that its citizens are among the unhappiest in the world.
They had to fly these models in for this stock photo, since none of the local ones knew how to smile.
Amos does not offer this critique subtly. That is not the teenage way.
"Lee Kuan Yew is dead. Finally!" he begins. "Why hasn't anyone said, 'Fuck yeah! The guy is dead'? Lee Kuan Yew was a horrible person." Later: "All day, you see 24-hour news coverage of necrophiliacs sucking Lee Kuan Yew's dick." He concludes with: "He should have committed suicide himself. You know why he didn't? Because if he did, his band of sycophants who have been voraciously sucking his oblong dick might despise him, and his oh-so-great reputation which he so desperately tried to uphold might shatter because it would be deemed quite controversial ... Lee Kuan Yew. An overrated, over-glorified person, a dictator exceptionally Machiavellian in nature. Good riddance, Lee Kuan Yew. I neither hope -- and neither will you -- rest in peace. But now with his death and upcoming elections next year, there is a high chance that with us citizens of Singapore, things can finally change for the better."
Yee was arrested and ultimately jailed for the video.
Unboxing videos get 60 days. Prank vids get 90.
"I felt it was important to review that the person who'd just died was considered very benevolent, but was bad in fact," he says. "From the tone of how I did it, I wanted to shock people, I guess. I wanted to attract attention, so that's why I did it that way. And I did that very well, clearly." He said in the video: "Everyone is scared. Everyone is afraid that if they say something like that, they may get into trouble, which -- give Lee Kuan Yew credit -- was primarily the impact of his 'legacy.' But I'm not afraid. So if [current Prime Minister] Lee Hsien Loong wishes to sue me, I will oblige to dance with him. Come at me, motherfucker."
"I will go full Kevin Bacon at your arraignment, you damn punk."
Curiously, Yee was not officially prosecuted for insulting the "dear" dead leader. He was prosecuted for insulting Christianity, under Singapore's Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, for the 20 seconds in the video that likens Yew to Jesus -- in that both were frauds. This was fairly obviously a pretext, and the government targeted him for his overall message, not this one tangent.
You know who wasn't OK with duplicity? Jesus.
"It was most likely -- probably -- definitely politically motivated," Amos says. He gave us another example, this time of a ruling party member who posted something that insulted Muslims and received lots of criticism, eventually forcing his resignation. But "he didn't get charged or arrested for that at all. And that, I think, is significantly more harsh than me, but he was pro-government, while I was anti-government, and I went to prison."
You'll Be Declared Mentally Ill
Amos was arrested, and before his trial, he was evaluated for what's known in Singapore as "reformative training." This is a sentence of 18-36 months for offenders aged 14-21. "It's actually mostly for really serious cases of kids under 21," says Amos. "Murder, rape, taking drugs ..." (Yes, "taking drugs" is a serious crime in Singapore, on the level of murder or rape. A few days after Amos's 2016 release from prison, Singapore hanged two men for drug crimes.) "So people were really shocked that my kind of offense would entail that kind of punishment."
We say all teen boys should be locked up, but we usually aren't serious.
Reformative treatment starts with solitary confinement, then inmates are moved to cells. They sleep on mats on the floor, bathe out of a pail, use non-flushing toilets, and once a day stick their toothbrushes out of the bars so guards can apply toothpaste. Horror stories abound of inmates having to perform sexual acts or eat their own shit, and one offender sentenced to this asked for jail instead. For inmates who avoid the worst of it, their biggest complaint is still their total loss of freedom for one to three years ... which may sound like a mild punishment for the rapists who get this, but it's overkill by any measure for a teen who made a video.
Want to punish him? You already have an option.
To avoid being sentenced to reformative treatment, Amos told his jailers that he was aware of what he was done and was sorry. "I said I was remorseful," he says. "I lied." But then, at the prosecution's urging, he was sent here:
Not the happy kind of asylum.
A doctor had examined Amos -- for about ten minutes -- and concluded he may have autism, so off Amos went for two weeks of involuntary evaluation at the Institute of Mental Health. It's unclear what criteria they used for sending him there. In his videos, he jumps between calm, wacky, and obnoxious, but in person he's sociable and polished. Once again, Amos sought release by saying he was sorry for what he'd done -- his psychiatrist made note of this and his promise not to re-offend, and concluded that Amos does not suffer from any mental disorder.
Amos initially accepted both psychiatric evaluations in good faith. "I did exhibit pretty antisocial behavior," he says. But thinking it over, "the actual doctor in the institute, he was shocked because he said there was absolutely no indication that I had any mental problem. Maybe they did it just to show people. People who'd stay away from me, would see me as a mental case? That could be another reason. I don't know, that could be set up by the government. Goddamn."
And so, Singapore simultaneously insults dissenters, autistic people, and the medical profession.
The Public Sentiment Gets Dangerous
20 separate police reports were filed against Amos by Singaporeans offended by the video. "They were actual citizens," says Amos. "Of course, I understand their point of view. And I understand the shock. Their point of view is it's mean to hurt their feelings. You should put that person in jail. But it's an overly harsh punishment. I think it's too harsh. I think if someone advocates that, like Singaporeans, they're vile people. They should be more compassionate and forgiving."
His videos have received plenty of dislikes, and while we hope internet commenters don't represent society in general, they do represent portions of it.
We're noticing a theme here ...
Also, on his way to court, this happened:
That guy seriously thinks slapping and sprinting away makes him a superhero.
"He was a hardcore Lee Kwan Yew supporter," says Amos. "He was doing an act of patriotism, I guess. He slapped me to 'teach me a lesson.' Obviously that didn't work. I was shocked for about 20 minutes, but I got over it." That guy was arrested and sentenced for the assault ... to three weeks in jail. Notes Amos: "That was less than me!"
Not Everything He Said Was Entirely Innocent ...
The night before Amos's hearing, he was rushed to Changi Hospital.
Passersby assumed it was for the traditional pretrial lobotomy.
He had been refusing to eat and had low glucose levels. Furthermore, he'd been talking of killing himself. "That was all fake," says Amos. "You'll probably break that story -- you're probably the first one to tell this. Yeah, that was fake. It was pretty fucked up, actually. I wanted to tell an interesting story. At that time, when I was in prison, I wanted to suck up to the judge to avoid reformative training. So I lied. I've never been suicidal. That was really mean. Caused lots of people to worry. People were motivated to protest in the streets in Taiwan and Malaysia because of that" [they were also likely protesting his broader situation] "when really, it was fake. I went out looking traumatized -- I just acted. Suicide, that was easy to fake. It's easy to say you're suicidal. Just tell them." He starts laughing. "Don't laugh! It's mean."
It didn't get him out of his sentence, so yeah, not a whole lot to laugh at.
After his release, he announced on Facebook that his bailor, Vincent Law, had molested him. He invited the media to meet him for a press conference at a subway station (he would not show up). And he said in the statement, seemingly randomly, "Today, I have arranged a little meeting with a fellow visual artist I managed to converse with on Facebook, a humble fellow by the name of Dick Ow. And am to meet him at his residence in Pasir Panjang, at 7 p.m. I am heading to his house to collaborate with him on a few videos, would possibly have a sleepover."
Skeptics might have noticed the message was weird ("Dick Ow" is not a super common name, for some reason), but many took him at his word. This was yet another lie -- this time just some childish revenge against the bailor for being very strict about Amos's check-ins during the bail period.
No charges were filed. Asked for comment, Vincent simply said, "I am the Law."
"I made up this lie that he molested me," says Amos. "I really shouldn't have. I apologize for that."
You're Never Off Their Radar
Amos was sentenced to four weeks in jail, which was time served. That was 2015. In 2016, his videos included "Singapore is a Bad Country," "The Horrendous Death Penalty in Singapore," and this one, in which he has Singaporeans react to racist Donald Trump quotes (then reveals that the quotes are actually Lee Kuan Yew's). Also, more videos tearing apart Christianity and Islam. Surprise! He was sentenced to prison again.
It's almost like the initial sentence accomplished nothing.
We spoke to Amos only a few weeks after he was released for the second time. And a few weeks after that, he boarded a flight to Chicago. He claimed to be entering as a tourist, but the Department of Homeland Security took one look at Amos, realized something wasn't quite right, and searched his cellphone for more info. (DHS under Trump gets flack for phone searches, but this was actually in the last month of the Obama administration.) Text messages revealed that he wanted to stay in America, and the U.S. has a special place for people like that: federal custody.
Amos wasn't super stoked on three more months of prison -- which was more time than he'd served in Singapore -- and if the U.S. turned down his asylum request, he figured he'd be more screwed than ever once he was shipped back. But then, on March 24, the judge ruled on his request: "Yee has met the burden of showing that he suffered past persecution on account of his political opinion and has a well-founded fear of future persecution in Singapore. Accordingly, the court grants his application for asylum."
The happy kind of asylum!
Singapore's government responded with a 400-word statement accusing Amos of "hate speech," and generally seemed totally baffled that there are places where you don't get locked up for that.
It Does Change You
Amos kept right on tweeting new criticisms of Singapore, and has no plans of stopping. But he may change his tone a little. "What I'm known for is not just insulting, but insulting in a very over-the-top way," he says. "For humping the Qu'ran. Fapping with the cross." (Both those videos have been deleted from his channel after numerous users flagged them. The Islam one ends with him correctly saying, "I am so going to jail over this.")
In a sarcastic way. It wasn't an invitation.
"That was purely for entertainment basis, with politics as a sidetrack. Right now? It'll be much less shallow. I've decided to change from being an entertainer to being an activist. I read an article about PETA activism and their tactics. There's research to show that that's just not good activism. So yeah. Right now, it's about convincing as many people as possible. To opening their eyes to a tyrannical government. That's why I changed to be more effective. I probably wouldn't overwhelm people with insults. In my Christian video, I called [Jesus] a fucking fraud ... I don't see many Christians being receptive to that. Instead, I'll focus on a more convincing tone. Focus on the facts, be nice about it. Hopefully it doesn't get boring -- I'm actually really concerned about that. I hope to be able to overcome that. We'll have to see in my future videos."
"So don't forget to like and subscribe!"
He doesn't want to say the Singapore government succeeded in changing him. "They'd like to claim credit, but it's not because of that. They'll probably be even more scared if I'm more effective with my new style, if I'm even more effective as an activist ... I wasn't remorseful at the time [when I said I was]. Maybe I am remorseful now. Maybe I was overly mean. And I don't think that's good for society to promote that kind of hate. Let's say I change it up, become nicer, convince more people, inspire more people? I'd be an even bigger threat to the Singapore government. "
After this article was written, the US government appealed Amos's asylum ruling and kept him in custody. He was released on September 26 after 10 months in prison. Ryan Menezes is on Twitter.
For more stories that will keep you on the straight and narrow, check out What I Learned Getting Arrested For Drugs In The Middle East and 6 Ways Prison Is More Horrifying Than Movies Make It Look.
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