Here is everything that is wrong with the BuzzFeed article on Amos Yee
This is what happens when you write about Singapore when you don't understand Singapore.
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The average American likely knows just two things about Singapore:
- The fact that we caned Michael Fay for vandalism during the Clinton years
- Chewing gum is banned here (it’s actually not)
However, thanks to a certain 18-year-old, there’s now a third thing to add to that list.
The Amos Yee Story
Here are the quick facts:
- Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) died in March 2015. Shortly after, Yee uploaded a video criticising LKY, comparing him unfavourably to Jesus Christ and implying Christians are “delusional and ignorant”, and uploaded to his blog an image of the late LKY and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher having anal sex.
- Yee was found guilty of two charges (wounding religious feelings and disseminating obscene material online), and sentenced to probation.
- Yee refused probation, refused to be evaluated for reformative training, was assessed by IMH and found to have no mental conditions. He was then sentenced to backdated four weeks’ jail in July 2015, so walked free.
- Yee was sentenced on Sep. 2016 to jail and a fine, this time for dry-humping a Quran in a video and defying orders to assist with police investigations.
- Yee flew to the U.S. in Dec. 2016 to seek political asylum, where he was detained. An immigration judge later granted him asylum, but the U.S. government formally contested the judgment.
- Yee now remains in custody, waiting for his next hearing.
Following the international news coverage of his arrest, trial and escape to the U.S., Yee became the newest cause célèbre for international human rights organisations across the world. Human Rights Watch called for his release from U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement custody, while Amnesty International called his 2015 sentence a “Dark day for freedom of expression.”
And for awhile, things went largely quiet. But on Aug. 31, a certain BuzzFeed contributor named Atossa Araxia Abrahamian decided she should rehash this whole thing once more in a piece titled “This Teen Troll Fled To The US For Political Asylum. Now He’s Stuck In A Detention Center.”
Against our better instincts, we read it (for our sins). And as horribly-written as it is, it still succeeds in showing that 18-year-old Yee is, well… what we recall him to be. A petulant teenager.
But first, let’s talk about the most glaring errors the writer made in her essay — the most sweeping of assumptions and the most cliched and misguided of generalisations:
1. This incredibly inaccurate paragraph
“If Yee were an American high schooler, he might be grounded. But Singapore thrives on order. Many Singaporeans are brought up with deep-rooted Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian values, conveyed at home and in school. You could compare the city-state’s penal system to a beefed-up, nationwide “broken windows” policy that aims to stop untoward behavior before it begins. If you litter, chew gum, or forget to flush in a Singaporean public restroom, you can be ticketed, fined, jailed, even caned. Homosexuality is illegal; you can’t buy or sell pornography. Police have even been known to bust public urination in alleys and elevators after the fact with special pee-detection devices.”
Oh look, the greatest hits all in one neat paragraph, rife with clichés straight off the bat. Also, caning is indeed used as a legal punishment for serious offences like rape, rioting and assault but not for the trivial offences Abrahamian mentions.
Littering: Under the Environmental Public Health Act, you can be fined S$2000 for a first offence, S$4000 for a second offence, S$10,000 for a third and subsequent offences. The courts could also impose a Corrective Work Order. No jail or caning, and people rarely ever get fined.
Chewing gum: Under the Regulation of Imports and Exports (Chewing Gum) Regulations importing gum into the country is subject to regulation, but the act of chewing gum itself in Singapore is not illegal. So nope, none of her claims apply here.
Not flushing toilet: Under the Environmental Public Health Act (again), you risk fines of up to S$1000, S$2000 and S$5000 for first, second and third offences if you don’t flush a public toilet. But hey, have you ever heard of anyone being caught, much less fined for this? Never mind jail or caning.
Homosexuality: It’s not illegal to be a homosexual. The act of anal sex between two men is illegal, but the government has long said it will not enforce that rule. So nobody’s going to get into trouble for this.
Buying and selling pornography: Well, why on earth would you want or need to do that?
2. On Haw Par Villa
“Nothing conveys these mores quite like Haw Par Villa, a theme park on the outskirts of the city made up of a series of statues and gruesome dioramas depicting crime and punishment. Parents take their children there for a lesson in morality from the decapitated traitors, burning prostitutes, and disemboweled cheaters rendered in clay. Given the culture, (Alfred) Dodwell said, “when you have a teenager who’s hardly lived enough years to question anything coming up and speaking up against an elder, it’s frowned upon.””
Show of hands, those of you who’ve visited Haw Par Villa even once since primary school. A short five-minute conversation with an actual Singaporean and you’d know that the park is regarded as little more than an oddity left over from our pre-independence past. Some people might not even know it’s still open.
But if Abrahamian is to be believed, it looms like a national monument, with parents queuing up every day to cajole their kids into behaving. That’s just not true. We have the Apple Store in Orchard Road for that.
The stuff that were conveniently left out
Abrahamian neglects to mention the financial aspect of Yee’s antics. In a May 2016 interview with the Hong Kong Free Press, Yee said explicitly that he included advertisements in his videos:
“And yes I put ads on my videos – before that, they put Polytechnic ads on my videos, and I don’t want to sell out, because that’s not my kind of thing… but then I [told myself], who even sees ads on videos? So basically how I see it is putting some stuff on my videos that nobody sees, and it makes me money. And now it’s making me a couple of thousand [Singapore] dollars a month, so it sustains me.”
Obviously, the more people view his videos, the more money Yee makes.
Abrahamian also chooses to skip over one of the most despicable things Yee has done, which was to falsely accuse his bailor — family counsellor Vincent Law — of molesting him. Law refuted this allegation in no uncertain terms, and Yee later admitted in another Facebook post: “Vincent Law didn’t really molest me, haha”.
3. On why Yee fled to America? Not Sure.
In the BuzzFeed piece, Abrahamian tries to conjure an air of mystery for why Amos wanted to flee to the U.S. in the first place. She interviewed Nina Paley, an animator and artist in Illinois, who played a role in his journey to the U.S.
“I don’t really know what drove him,” Paley told me in July. “It might’ve been romantic ideas about America. He might have seen YouTube videos and interesting things coming out of the US and thought, This is where you can do stuff and speak your mind. Or maybe it was him just being a kid.”
Maybe. Or maybe there was another reason.
Yee served his jail term in Tanah Merah Prison from Oct. 13 to Nov. 2, 2016. He was allowed to serve his remaining sentence at home; this would have ended on or around Nov. 23.
Three weeks and two days later, though, he flew to the U.S., where he was detained at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport upon his announcement that he was seeking political asylum from Singapore.
It’s possible, although never explicitly said, that Yee’s motivation for flying to the U.S. in the first place was to escape his NS obligations.
“And no even though I signed up, I will not, and never intended (even way before uploading the lee kuan yew video) to go to national service; you gotta be f***ing retarded to think I’m willing to waste those 2 years of my life.”
2017 – Skipping national service
A mystery indeed.
So here’s how his immaturity continues to show through
Now, Yee currently remains in U.S. custody while he waits for his next hearing. So how’s he doing in the Land of the Free? What insights has Yee gained from his interactions with non-Singaporeans?
We’d have to hand it to BuzzFeed, though, for still being able to draw out one thing about Yee that clearly hasn’t changed.
Here’s a sampling of extracts from the article:
“He’d gotten into an argument with a visiting imam earlier on in the year, too. “I went to hear him speak, because criticizing religion is my job,” he explained. “I told him he was spreading lies.” That, he said, landed him in solitary for two weeks.”
“You interact with Mexicans, blacks, lower-class people. I found out how offended they get when you use the [n-word]. They’re really shocked about it!”
“I asked Yee what he thought would happen when he left detention. He shrugged. “I might come out and decide my politics are garbage.” But mostly, he wanted to go online and make more videos, meet girls, eat better food, see the new Spider-Man movie.”
Maybe he misses his family, friends and supporters back home?
“Did he miss anything? The internet, he answered. What about his mother? Not really; he never called.”
No one knows what Yee will try next. But one thing’s for sure, the next time Yee does something even remotely newsworthy, an American writer will be there to rehash the same old tired points again.
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Top image via screenshot from video.