INTERVIEW: Meet the New Amos Yee

INTERVIEW: Meet the New Amos Yee
photo credit: REUTERS/Edgar Su/達志影像
What you need to know

Has Singapore’s ‘enfant terrible’ grown up?

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“The biggest contributor to my change is possibly feminism,” Amos Yee, the 18-year-old Singaporean video blogger, told The News Lens International just weeks after his latest stint behind bars.

Yee, as the BBC described in 2015, is “the enfant terrible who has fascinated and infuriated Singaporeans ever since he was arrested in March [2015] over a YouTube video.” That video, which is titled “Lee Kuan Yew Is Finally Dead,” openly criticized the legacy of Singapore’s founding father and longtime leader.

The teenager went on to spend 55 days in jail last year, after being found guilty of wounding religious feelings and posting a video and an obscene image online. The doctored image depicted Lee Kuan Yew, who is still revered by many, and former British leader Margaret Thatcher in a sex act. He was jailed for three weeks this year after posting more controversial material related to the beliefs of Christians and Muslims in videos, blogs and Facebook posts.

Amos, the entertainer

Yee made a name for himself on the Internet for his ability to shock; licking and humping religious texts was part of the act. While those actions may have appealed to hordes of his fellow atheists online, it was his fearlessness to do such things in the face of almost certain jail time that, for good reason, has perhaps garnered the most international support.

As U.S.-based Dave Rubin – whose interview with the blogger has been watched more than 188,000 times on YouTube – asked Yee in June, “Where did you get the balls to do this?” [sic]

Despite the compliment, and being credited with drawing international attention to the lack of civil freedoms in Singapore and its government’s harsh treatment of dissenters, Yee acknowledged to Rubin that his popularity in Singapore was at an “all-time low.”

How do you judge the impact or success of an internationally-known, notorious teenage video blogger from Singapore? Is it being featured on Al Jazeera or the BBC, shedding light on Singapore’s freedom of speech controls, and prompting statements from the United Nations? Or is it actually contributing to change locally?

As Singaporean freelance journalist and social activist Kirsten Han says, while Yee's case has indeed drawn a lot of international attention to Singapore, it has not made much of an impact in terms of free speech advocacy in Singapore itself.

“While Amos should have the right to express himself whether anyone agrees with him or not, he's not necessarily a good advocate for free speech in Singapore, because people don't like him,” Han says. “They don't see him as responsible in his speech or actions. He's also said some misogynistic things that have lost him support among a lot of liberal Singaporeans who might have otherwise supported him.”

Han adds that while the principle of freedom of expression shouldn't hinge on whether we personally approve of or like the individual, “but when it comes to public advocacy the image does actually make a difference.”

The sentiment is not lost on Yee, who believes his earlier work – often expletive-ridden and obscene criticisms of religion and the Singapore government – “was bringing activism a few steps back.”

“There is scientific evidence that shows that it really isn’t good activism; it will probably turn people off,” he says to TNL. “I think that my work might have that effect, which is why right now I have decided to change my style significantly.”

Despite pledging to try a “nicer” style henceforth, he believes he has had an impact.

The most “visible change,” he says, is “people all around the world are aware that Singapore is a horrible country.”

“Now there is a huge discussion about free speech,” he says. “I don’t know if any Singaporeans have changed their mind on it. But at least there is that discussion.”

He notes that it is “much easier to convince people in the West about how bad Singapore is, in comparison to Singaporeans.”

“Singaporeans are actually indoctrinated, whereas people in the West are not.”

Time for change

On Dec. 1, back at home after three weeks in prison, Yee published a new video on YouTube. In the five-minute clip he is once again critical of the “undoubtedly politically motivated” charges he was jailed on and says he remains critical of the Singaporean government and religion.

However, he appears humbled and grateful for the international support he received during his trial. He is also markedly more polite than earlier videos, and says he will do his best to express solidarity with democracy movements in other countries, including Hong Kong and Malaysia.

Had the fact that people in cities around the world had taken to the streets advocating for his freedom given him a new sense of responsibility?

Yee told TNL that while he is “genuinely thankful” for the support he received, it was not the key reason for his change.

“It is more a change in ideology,” he says. “The biggest contributor to my change is possibly feminism.”

He says that as his case was going through Singapore’s courts earlier this year, he was researching feminism and found feminist arguments “compelling.”

“I listened to what feminists had to say online, which I never did before, and then I agreed with it,” he says. “I agreed that online harassment was a huge issue, which I would have never thought before, because before that I was a huge inciter of online harassment to others, which is really bad.”

He now has a new view on free speech: that it is a legal term, which is misused by many in the so-called “anti-SJW” (social justice warrior) camp.

“Essentially what they are saying is, if your anti-feminist account that incites harassment gets banned, gets taken down from YouTube, they would call it anti-free speech,” he says. “I disagree with that. I would want those anti-feminist accounts to get taken down.”

He acknowledges people might find his new position “very strange,” given he is probably Singapore’s most well-known free speech advocate, but he believes there is an important distinction.

While platforms can control offensive content, using “legal rules to stop [someone] from saying it, that, I think, goes too far,” he says.

He now believes it would be “reasonable” for YouTube to delete his earlier videos – he has privatized many of them anyway, making them unavailable to most people to view.

“I could even go as far as to say that my kind of video that humps the Quran, and was overly rude to religious people. I’d probably want my videos and maybe even my account to be taken down too,” he says. “It is just not a good way to communicate information to people.”

“Actually, I probably would want every very influential anti-feminist account to be taken down,” he adds.

The regime

Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP) has ruled Singapore since the city-state gained independence in 1965. In the September 2015 general election, held six months after Lee Kuan Yew died, the PAP won more than 80 percent of the vote.

Lee’s “model of economic liberalization serves as an inspiration for many developing nations in the region,” the Council on Foreign Relations says.

“Over the past five decades, [Lee Kuan Yew] steered Singapore from a British colonial backwater to an industrial and financial powerhouse that by all measures has long punched way above its weight on the world stage,” CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Karen Brooks said after his death.

But Singapore is not without its problems. As Brooks said, "Lee Kuan Yew's brand of enlightened authoritarianism, in which the good of society took precedence over the rights of individuals, translated into considerable suppression of democratic freedoms.”

While Singapore has one of the highest GDPs per-capita in the world, in recent years there have been signs the democratic freedoms of its 5.6 million people are eroding.

Last year, prominent Singaporean blogger Roy Ngerng was ordered to pay S$150,000 (US$104,000) in damages to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for defamation. The prime minister brought the case in 2014 after Ngerng published an allegedly defamatory post on his blog. The post compared the Singaporean government’s use of the state’s compulsory savings fund to the alleged misuse of church funds by a religious group. Within days of publishing, the blogger, at the request of Lee’s lawyers, removed the post, apologized and wrote to offer damages and costs. Despite those actions the prime minster still sued, and the case against Ngerng was upheld by Singapore’s courts.

The International Commission of Jurists, an organization comprised of eminent judges and lawyers from around the world, said the decision was “a major blow for freedom of expression” in Singapore. “Under international standards, individuals must not be the target of defamation actions over comments made about public figures, particularly where the subject matter is of public interest,” Sam Zarifi, ICJ’s Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific, said after the decision was handed down last year. “This decision sends a clear message that the people of Singapore are not in fact free to express their opinions about matters of public interest,” Zarifi added.

Singapore has also moved to block international corporates from engaging in social activism in the city-state. In June, the Ministry of Home Affairs, said “foreign entities should not fund, support or influence” events like the annual Pink Dot gathering in support of the LGBT community, which has attracted multinational sponsors including Apple, Google, Facebook and Visa.

"The Government's general position has always been that foreign entities should not interfere in our domestic issues, especially political issues or controversial social issues with political overtones,” the state-owned broadsheet Straits Times quoted the ministry as saying. “These are political, social or moral choices for Singaporeans to decide for ourselves. LGBT issues are one such example.”

In August, Singapore's parliament passed a controversial new law defining what conduct can be penalized as contempt of court. Breaches of the law can result in fines up to S$100,000 (US$75,000) or up to three years imprisonment. Many activists and commentators are critical of the law, saying it could have a chilling effect on freedom of expression in Singapore and abroad.

Also in August this year, the United Nations said the latest charges against Yee reflected a “widening crackdown” not only on controversial expression but also political criticism and dissent.

The U.N. pointed to a case involving Soh Lung, an activist and former human rights lawyer, who was investigated for allegedly breaching the Parliamentary Elections Act for posts on her private Facebook account that discussed government transparency and accountability.

“Threats of criminal action and lawsuits contribute to a culture of self-censorship, and hinder the development of an open and pluralistic environment where all forms of ideas and opinions should be debated and rebutted openly,” says David Kaye, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression.

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Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像
Amos Yee arrives with his mother at the State Courts in Singapore September 28, 2016.
The activist

In interviews earlier this year with independent online news service Hong Kong Free Press and the popular U.S. podcast and YouTube show "The Rubin Report," Yee comes across as typically unapologetic, but also perhaps a touch boastful and obscurantist.

Today he is different.

“That interview is garbage,” he says, referring to his responses to questions from HKFP where he was critical of Hong Kong political activist Joshua Wong and feminism.

In the past, Yee says, he was “just enjoying life” and “didn’t know much about the state of the world.”

“I was just an entertainer. Now, I’ve transitioned from an entertainer to a full-fledged activist,” he says.

Yee agrees that a large part of his success in attracting an audience – he has tens of thousands of followers across various platforms – is because he expresses ideas in a way that is shocking, and he knows that his current fan base may be disappointed to see him tone down the act.

“I am suspecting that it may be a problem. In fact, I might change my style to be so nice that people might find it boring.”

He is also wary critics could say that he has toned down the vulgarity to avoid going back to jail. While he says he definitely does not want to return to jail, it would be a “complete misconception” to say a fear of prison was behind the change.

“It is just a coincidence,” he says, adding this year he has been studying feminism, anarchism, and politics “pretty vigorously.”

“At around the same time as going to jail, I thought I should change my approach.”

Yee’s challenge may be staying relevant. Outside of what he says can be an “echo chamber” of atheists online, his videos did not draw international attention because people supported what he was saying; people supported his right to say it.

He also has to appeal to two distinct audiences.

“One [audience] really likes me bashing the Singapore government, and aren’t interested in me bashing religion. The other one is interested in me bashing religion, and not that interested in me bashing the Singapore government.”

Yee is aware of cases like Ngerng’s, and that “the line,” in terms of what the Singaporean authorities will tolerate, is opaque. But he appears confident that if he steers clear of the provocative language and gestures of his past work he will be on safe ground.

“I think if I just criticize religion and the Singapore government, and not go too far with it, it is completely possible to do it legally,” he says. “Right now, I don’t want to go back to jail anymore. So I guess, don’t give them a reason to [send me back].”

He also notes that there is international pressure on the Singapore government not to once again draw attention to the city-state by arresting Yee.

“They know the effect it would have, arresting me again. It’s just more publicity for the cause.”

But while Yee plans to ditch the obscenities, he still wants to pack a punch. And, maybe this time around, he is a little older, and a little wiser.

“Now there is intent,” he says. “Now, I do want to grow an audience and convey a message.”

“I actually have an influence as a public figure and there are actually consequences for what I do with my content. I have to be more mindful of that.”

“Right now, what I consider success is not entertaining people, but convincing people on the other side to believe in my opinions.”

Does he see a path toward change in Singapore?

“The only thing I can think of right now, is speaking up,” he says. “Once we speak up there will be more of a demand to learn about these topics, and organizations will start up, have more forums and discussions, and essentially keep the political discussion and activism going.”

That, he hopes, could lead to a mass public protest on the streets in Singapore.

But he knows it will be a long road to get to that point.

Singaporeans, Yee says, are “really frighteningly, indifferent. I would go as far to say callous.”

And, unlike the politically active student groups in places like Hong Kong, Taiwan and Malaysia, youths in Singapore appear to care more about “anime movies and fashion.”

“Most of them don’t know what the difference between left-right, conservative-liberal is.”

Editor: Olivia Yang

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