Amos Yee’s successful bid for political asylum in the United States this past week is another sign of how the Government’s abuse of the law has backfired.
Yee’s “persecution”, as described by the judge who presided over his hearing, by the Singapore Government bears another look, if for nothing else then for the sheer audacity of the Government’s abuse of the legal process.
Perhaps calling the treatment of Yee “persecution” is a bit far-fetched, but certainly a strong case can be made of abuse of the legal system by the Government for a political purpose.
Yet, Yee’s is only one of several cases in the past few years where the Government’s use of the law had been pushed back by those who were targeted.
We look at, besides Yee’s, another two such cases – the harassment case brought against The Online Citizen (TOC) website, and the clampdown on the Pink Dot movement here.
In all three instances, it does look like the Government’s action was all politically motivated, and it does not bode well for Singaporeans’ constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech and free expression.
Amos Yee – hate speech against Christians or just insensitive towards Lee Kuan Yew’s family?
The most important thing to remember when talking about Amos Yee’s case – and here we refer to the first instance when he was charged in 2015 – is that no Christian group, organisation, the Catholic Church or the National Council of Churches Singapore (NCCS) had expressed any grief over Yee’s 8-minute video.
This is significant to note.
It was, however, reported that 21 police reports had been lodged against Yee – but the identities of the people behind these 21 reports were never made known, or if their complaints were over Yee’s portrayal of Lee Kuan Yew in the allegedly offending video or over his remarks about the Christian faith.
But the more significant point is that not a single Christian leader or organisation had expressed any unhappiness over Yee’s video. This is especially noteworthy given the fact that Christian groups are vocal when it comes to things which they see as offensive or which would cast their faith in a bad light. For example, Christian groups and the church itself had spoken out against the film, The Last Temptation of Christ, the Health Ministry’s FAQ on sexuality, and more recently over the Disney film, Beauty and the Beast, just to name a few such instances.
But none of these groups has spoken out against Yee’s video.
It is also worth noting that many Christians, in fact, had spoken out in support of Yee, or at least to say that they were not offended by what he had done in 2015. The social worker who stepped forward to assist Yee was a Christian. A group of Christians had also created an online petition saying they were not offended by his video and called on the public to “release Amos Yee from your anger.”
And as the US judge observed, Yee’s mention of Christians or the Christian faith in his video was “tangential” to his main point – what Yee saw as the over-the-top mourning of the passing of Lee Kuan Yew.
The judge’s observation is proved by the following facts about Yee’s video:
Total number of words spoken: 1,202
Number of times “Jesus” was mentioned: 1
Number of times “Christian(s)” was mentioned: 2
Length of video: 519 seconds (8:39 minutes)
Length of time Amos used to compare Lee Kuan Yew to Jesus Christ: 64 seconds
Given these facts, it is hard to accept that the prosecution of Yee was based on “hate speech” against Christians, or that he was guilty of “attacking Christianity” and “offending Christians”.
Yee’s criticism of Christianity, that it is a power-hungry entity, is mild and in fact nothing new. Many have made worse criticisms of the faith – and were not prosecuted.
One would have to conclude, as did the US judge, that Yee was prosecuted for what the Government, led by Lee Kuan Yew’s son, saw as an insensitive posting made at a time when Lee Kuan Yew had just passed away.
In other words, the prosecution hid behind the cloak of protecting religious faith. The real reason, as not a few see it, for hauling Yee to court was to teach him (and others) a lesson not to be disrespectful of Lee Kuan Yew, even if the latter is already dead.
To recall: Yee was handcuffed in front of his parents and grandparents at home, accompanied by a reported 8 police officers, and later Yee was handcuffed and shackled again in court.
And on the day when Yee was bailed out, the news reported:
“At about 6.10pm, Yee was brought to the bail centre, still handcuffed and with ankle restraints, accompanied by more than five officers.”
And all this for a drawing of two stick figures having intercourse, and some unkind words directed at Lee Kuan Yew.
Clearly, given the facts, the treatment Yee received during his first case was an abuse of police powers, and an abuse of the legal and judicial process by the Government, as many had pointed out at the time.
Harassment against The Online Citizen (TOC)
Also in 2015, the Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC) filed charges under the Protection from Harassment Act against TOC, for publishing a report of an interview it had with Dr Ting Choon Meng, the inventor of an ambulatory vehicle for military use.
In brief, Dr Ting had accused the Ministry of Defence (Mindef), which had displayed the vehicle at a National Day exhibition, of infringing his patent rights. Mindef rejected the charge, and following the publication of the interview on TOC, the AGC filed charges against both Dr Ting and TOC for what the AGC claimed were “falsehoods”.
The case, which went on for two years, finally ended up in the Court of Appeal in 2016. In January 2017, the Court issued its decision and ruled that the Government was not a legal human being whom the Harassment Act was meant to protect.
The Court dismissed the Government’s case, and awarded costs to the defendants.
TOC and Dr Ting had always insisted that the Government was abusing the law created by Parliament to protect the most vulnerable in our society.
A good law was being hijacked by an entity – the Ministry of Defence – which itself was meant to protect an entire nation. How is it possible that a single blog post could do damage to the Defence Ministry on the scale claimed by the Government?
The Court’s dismissal of the Government’s case is significant as it curtails such Government abuse for what can only be described as politically motivated intentions at a time when a general election was soon-to-be underway in September 2015.
A sudden cloud over Pink Dot
In June 2016, and out of the blue, the Government suddenly announced that it would “take steps to make it clear that foreign entities should not fund, support or influence” events held at Speakers’ Corner, like the annual Pink Dot event which had taken place that week.
“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 statement by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said then. “These are political, social or moral choices for Singaporeans to decide for ourselves. LGBT issues are one such example.”
The move caught everyone by surprise, given the suddenness of it and the fact that foreign companies had supported Pink Dot since its inception in 2009, without the Government expressing unhappiness over it.
The Government, which must have known about the annual event which takes place at Hong Lim Park, seems to have been influenced by some circles behind the scenes into taking the latest measures to curb support for the movement.
In a Straits Times report last June on the MHA’s announcement, the newspaper observed that “Pink Dot has met with opposition from religious groups.”
“In 2014, Muslim religious teacher Noor Deros started a Wear White campaign to signal opposition to homosexuality, while Faith Community Baptist Church senior pastor Lawrence Khong urged followers to dress in white on the Pink Dot weekend,” the Straits Times said.
Support for Pink Dot had also grown significantly through the years, with the last turnout at Hong Lim Park reported to be in the region of 25,000 people, its biggest gathering to date.
Was the Government spooked by both the more vocal and public opposition to Pink Dot by religious groups, and the growing support for Pink Dot itself?
That seems to be the case, if you consider that the ban also applies to anti-Pink Dot or anti-LGBT events. The Government, it seems, is trying to hold back both sides of the pink divide.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s government has always said it does not wish to “lead social values” and that it would let these evolve. At the same time, it aligns itself with the more conservative segments of society, for obvious political reasons, given that it views heartlanders, who make up the majority of voters, to be from this group of supposed conservatives.
There is vote in the status quo, so to speak, and anything which threatens this will be curbed.
Nonetheless, the question which is left unanswered by the Government is: why the sudden move to ban foreign sponsorship of Pink Dot when there had always been such sponsorships for Pink Dot in past years?
What, really, is the reason for the ban?
Indeed, what really are the reasons for this abuse of power in all three instances cited here?
Why prosecute Amos Yee to such an extent when others who similarly offended were let off scot-free, as the US judge noted?
Why attempt to hijack a genuine and good piece of legislation meant to protect the vulnerable, for your own selfish political agenda?
Why the sudden curb on free expression under the guise of an inexplicable excuse of forbidding foreign sponsorship of Pink Dot when it has always been allowed, even if tacitly, in previous years?
Last May, when speaking to students, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, said “Singapore society should evolve towards more freedom of speech but some restrictions, such as on hate speech, are necessary.”
He added that “society has to find the right balance and some freedoms have to be curbed for it to evolve in a way that advances other freedoms.”
“Every society faces this,” he said. “We haven’t found the perfect balance, and we have to keep evolving.”
Yes, we have to find our own way forward, but it doesn’t help if the Government behaves arbitrarily, or in an abusive manner, or in an opaque fashion.
A leadership which behaves in such a way is a bad one, for it does only what is politically expedient for itself.