As most of us would have heard by now, Amos Yee has been granted political asylum by the United States. To be honest, I didn’t entirely expect that outcome. He would have had to show political persecution and he is not exactly a Francis Seow or a Tan Wah Piow.
It is true that his initial charges in 2015 arose in the context of a public outcry over the comments that he made about LKY (though he was charged for insulting Christians and for an obscene drawing), and it may be possible to throw some shade on those charges by saying that there could have been a political motivation. However, the 2016 charges are in relation to his videos which are lacking in political content. Prima facie, it appeared to me that his lawyers would have had a hard time establishing that there was political persecution.
But, the American Court has accepted that “….the evidence presented at the hearing demonstrates Singapore’s prosecution of Yee was a pretext to silence his political opinions critical of the Singapore government. His prosecution, detention and general maltreatment at the hands of the Singapore authorities constitute persecution on account of Yee’s political opinions.”
So, good luck to Amos. He probably can’t help but be offensive. Singapore is not the society for him. Just as well that he got political asylum in the USA. I just hope that as he grows older, he also realises that while freedom of speech is important and the state should not excessively regulate speech, individuals must also use that freedom in a responsible fashion.
I read the judgment of Samuel B. Cole, the Immigration judge in Amos Yee’s case. Amos has had the benefit of a well-organised presentation of background evidence by his Counsel and expert witnesses. I suppose one could say that there was no rebuttal evidence to contradict any of the evidence presented and, in the end, the judge found it easy to arrive at the decision to grant asylum. Really very good work by Amos Yee’s lawyer.
And then, on Saturday evening (25 March 2016), I came across the hastily written statement from MHA. Poor civil servants. They really should not be forced to write up a response on a weekend. Whoever wrote the MHA’s response has adopted such a casual style of writing that it sounds almost like some facebook rant. Ok, fine. Not that bad. But, it is seriously flawed as a response. The last line of the response is the real clincher:
“It is the prerogative of the US to take in such people who engage in hate speech. There are many more such people, around the world, who deliberately engage in hate speech, and who may be prosecuted. Some of them, will no doubt take note of the US approach, and consider applying for asylum in the US.”
It sounds like the way someone might respond in a quarrel with a friend. “Fine. Go ahead. It is up to you. You just wait and see. One day you will get cheated by people like that.” This is supposed to be the Ministry of Home Affairs! I think they would have been better off waiting until Monday to issue a carefully thought out statement.
Essentially, the MHA’s statement refers to Amos Yee’s 2015 offence of hate speech against Christians and 2016 offences of hate speeches against Muslims and Christians. The statement doesn’t refer to the obscenity charge in 2015 (the line drawing simulating LKY and Thatcher in a sexual act). It goes on to state that the US has a different approach to free speech which even includes allowing people to burn Holy Books and that Singapore takes a different approach.
The impression that one would get from this statement if one does not read the judgment is that Amos Yee succeeded in his application because the Americans have a more liberal view of freedom of speech. So, good luck to them.
However, the truth is that the Court would not have granted asylum on the basis of Amos Yee’s conviction for hate speech. For example, if Jason Neo had been charged and convicted for his statements, he would not have gotten political asylum. He would have had to show that he was being politically persecuted.
Quick refresher: In 2011, Jason Neo had posted a picture of a school bus with Malay kindergarten children and captioned it as “Bus filled with young terrorist trainees?” He was a member of YPAP. If he had been charged, it would have been virtually impossible for him to claim political persecution. He would have just been guilty of a criminal offence. The American courts would not view his case as being worthy of political asylum simply on the basis of freedom of speech.
Similarly, in 2008, a Singaporean couple were convicted of sedition for distributing Chick Tracts (“The Little Bride” and “Who is Allah?”). The Chick tracts are some seriously insane stuff with disparaging content. That couple would not be able to establish political persecution and the American Court would not grant political asylum simply on a free speech issue.
My point is that the MHA statement misstates the reason for the Court decision. It could have addressed the real reason adopted by the Court and questioned the basis on which the Court made the conclusion that there was political persecution. I guess the statement was really hastily drafted.
“The harm Yee suffered rises to the level of persecution. Persecution is “punishment or the infliction of harm for political, religious, or other reasons that this country does not recognise as legitimate”.”
In the case of Amos, the court identified it as political persecution.
“Singapore’s persecution of Yee was on account of his political opinions……. Singapore’s stated reason for Yee’s prosecution was for his wounding religious feelings. As explained below, Singapore’s prosecution of Yee for wounding religious feelings was pretextual, as its real purpose was to stifle Yee’s political speech.”
So, the Court thought that charging Amos for hate speech and obscenity was just a pretext.
“…. it is clear that Yee’s prosecutions for wounding religious feelings and obscenity was just a pretext to silence his opinions.”
How did the court arrive at this conclusion? There were 8 factors identified in the judgment:
“First the video “Lee Kuan Yew is Finally Dead”… was scathing in its criticism of not just Yew (LKY) but of the Singapore regime in general.”
“Second, religion was only tangential to the video. The video is almost entirely about Yew (LKY) and Singapore, and its discussions of religion were only used to make a point about Yee’s dismal opinion of Yew.”
“Third, the public response to the video was entirely about its criticism of Yew (LKY), not about its offense to religion. “
“Fourth, the evidence presented showed that Yee’s prison sentence was unusually long and harsh, especially for a young offender.
“Fifth, the terms of Yee’s pre-trial release prohibited him from posting to social media. These restrictions were also highly unusual and restrictive and served the main purpose to silence Yee’s criticism of the government. “
“Sixth, other people who made disparaging comments about religions but who were not similarly critical of the Singapore regime avoided prosecution. These include Calvin Cheng and Jason Neo… Both made comments critical of Islam, equating Muslims with terrorists. Neither was charged.”
“Seventh, regarding the obscenity charge related to the line drawing, many more-explicit pictures are available to the Singapore public and do not result in prosecutions. But this particular drawing had the face of Yew (LKY) superimposed on one of the figures…. This again raises the inference that the prosecution was politically motivated.”
“Eighth…… this is the modus operandi for the Singapore regime – critics of the government are silenced by civil suit for defamation or criminal prosecutions.”
Based on the above factors, the Court drew the conclusion that the prosecution of Amos Yee amounted to political persecution.
“So, though Yee’s prosecutions may have been legal under Singapore law, they clearly served a “nefarious purpose”, namely, to stifle political dissent”
How should MHA have responded to this judgment? Well, they could have simply disputed the finding of political persecution by asserting that the Court heard only suggestions from the Applicant’s witnesses. It was all one-sided and the Court did not get the full picture. The prosecution of Amos is not unique. The SG government has prosecuted numerous other individuals for hate speech. That is simply because those individuals had breached the law of the land. The fact that LKY was referred to by Amos merely triggered responses from the public and police reports were filed. But, in the end, he wasn’t prosecuted for making disparaging remarks about LKY. He was only prosecuted for his remarks about Christ and subsequently about Muslims and Christians.
That would have been a better response. Perhaps, a Monday morning response would have been a better idea?
(Looks like the boy referred to himself in the course of his testimony as the “biggest political threat” in Singapore. Was he trolling or was it just a case of a very large ego?)