A 16-year-old blogger in Singapore faces up to 18 months in a detention center for posting a YouTube video criticizing the city-state's deceased former leader, even as the United Nations and human rights groups demand his release.
Amos Yee, with his bushy hair and big glasses, shocked Singaporeans with an eight-minute video entitled "Lee Kuan Yew Is Finally Dead!" released days after the death of Lee, the country's first prime minister, in March.
"Why hasn't anyone said, 'Fuck yeah, the guy is dead?'" Yee asks in the video. "Everyone is afraid that if they say something like that, they might get into trouble… but I'm not afraid."
Just days after posting the video, however, the teenager was charged with wounding religious feelings and circulating obscene imagery. (He had also posted a drawing of two figures having sex with the heads of Lee and Margaret Thatcher Photoshopped on it.)
Yee was convicted last month and forced to take down the video, although it was reposted by others. On Tuesday, he was ordered to be detained for two weeks pending a psychiatric examination. He faces 18 months in a "reformative training center," essentially a juvenile detention center.
Humanitarian groups and the United Nations human rights office have criticized Singapore for prosecuting Yee, who has already spent more than two weeks in jail. “Nothing that Amos Yee said or posted should ever have been considered criminal—much less merit incarceration,” Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “The dismal state of Singapore’s respect for free expression can be seen in the decision to impose the criminal justice system on outspoken 16-year-olds.”
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On his YouTube channel, which he has been banned from updating, Yee critiqued Singaporean society, reviewed movies and books, and discussed life as a teenager in his hyperactive, high-pitched voice. His videos are typically filled with creative obscenities: In a video entitled "Why You Should Drop Out Of School," Yee defines a college graduate as "a person with a piece of paper that I can't even wipe my ass with—like seriously, your degree is not even absorbent to shit."
But when he took on Lee, the founding father of modern Singapore who is beloved by many, Yee struck a nerve. More than 1.5 million people came to a memorial for the first prime minister, who is credited with building Singapore from a small trading post to one of the most modern and wealthy countries in Asia. At the same time, Lee also presided over a political system that was essentially one-party rule and put in place laws restricting freedom of speech and consolidating the media under government control.
"He was a dictator but managed to fool most of the world to think he was democratic," Yee said in his infamous video, describing mourners as "necrophiliacs sucking Lee Kuan Yew's dick."
The video wasn't just cheap attacks—Yee included a range of statistics showing how Singaporeans pay higher taxes than most of the developed world while receiving fewer government benefits, even as elected officials take home huge salaries. (The prime minister of the tiny island state is the highest-paid leader in the world.)
Lee's son Lee Hsien Loong has been prime minister since 2004. In the last elections in 2011, opposition parties gained a handful of seats—more than ever before, but Lee's party was still left securely in control. Elections will take place by the end of 2016, and some believe Yee's case could inspire more voters to stand against the ruling party.
"I’m just trying to avoid going to jail and continue making my videos again," Yee wrote on his blog following his arrest. "But yes, I acknowledge that what I am in, is pretty big, and whether or not I am acquitted might have some very significant implications and possibly changes, to our country, and hopefully it’s for the better."
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.