Amos Yee had no deliberate intention to wound the feelings of the entire religious community, counsel for the teenager said in his defence on day two of the trial on Friday.
The 16-year old teen is being tried on two charges relating to remarks he made in a Youtube video, and a caricature on his blog.
His remarks in the video had the “deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of Christians in general”, says the prosecution.
The teenager had compared the late former prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, with the Christian religious icon, Jesus Christ, and making disparaging remarks about both of them in the video.
The defence, however, took the court through the exact words used in the video to show that their client had no such intention to hurt the feelings of Christians or the Christian community.
His words were “clearly” not to wound the feelings of the Christian community but “to draw an analogy to Jesus and Christians”, the defence said.
“This is a critical point for this honourable court to consider in this matter,” it argued.
The prosecution submitted, however, that Amos Yee’s remarks “were deliberately made.”
“[They] were not carelessly spoken, nor were they uttered on the spur of the moment,” the prosecution said.
Amos Yee “had spent about 2 to 3 days conceptualising and scripting the video, before personally recording, editing and uploading it onto Youtube”, the popular video-sharing site.
Further, Amos Yee has admitted that he “was fully aware that this comparison [between Lee Kuan Yew and Jesus Christ] was bound to promote ill-will amongst the Christian population” and that contents of the video would raise “discontent or disaffection amongst people practising the Christian faith in Singapore.”
The teenager had also intended for the video to be distributed and shared widely, as shown in his notifying certain websites to help promote or publicise the video.
“[Not] only did the accused make a conscious decision to upload the video despite being aware that the remarks were bound to promote ill-will among Christians,” the prosecution told the court, “he took active steps to try to disseminate the video and to garner greater viewership for it.”
Amos Yee’s actions were thus “pre-meditated” and not “conceived on the sudden in the course of discussion.”
The prosecution argued that Amos Yee’s remarks also did not come under the “fair latitude” provided in law for religious discussion.
Counsel for the teenager, Chong Jia Hao, from Dodwell and Co LLC, argued that the prosecution’s case is not made out, and that the law under which Amos Yee is being charged does not extend to wounding the entire religious community, as argued by the prosecution.
The defence said that there were two issues for the court to decide on:
- Whether the words used by Amos Yee were even capable of wounding the religious feelings of Christians in general.
- Whether there was “deliberate intention” of causing such hurt.
On the first point, the defence said, “There is no evidence before this court that Christians have been wounded by the statement made by the accused.”
“No religious leaders, especially the Christian leaders, have stepped forward or even made an official statement to say that their [sic] religious feelings of Christians have been wounded.”
On the contrary, the defence said, there “has been an equally many Christians who have come forward to say they have not been hurt.”
The defence pointed to Amos Yee’s bailor, counsellor Vincent Law, who is a Christian and who had publicly declared that he was not hurt by the remarks in the video.
Mr Chong also pointed to an online petition, initiated by a Christian, “that is probably signed by a multitude of Christians that they are not wounded by what Amos said.”
The petition has garnered several thousand signatures of support so far.
The defence also pointed to the fact that the prosecution has chosen not to call any witnesses to the stand to show that their religious feelings have been hurt by the video.
Two of the police reports made against Amos Yee, and which were tendered to the court, also made no mention of Christians or Christianity or Jesus Christ, the defence argued.
Instead, they referred only to “founding father” Lee Kuan Yew, and the late British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.
The two deceased politicians were depicted in a caricature which is the basis of an obscenity charge Amos Yee is also facing.
“So, what evidence is the prosecution relying on that there is even a basis for them to levy this charge against Amos?” the defence asked.
“We submit that wounding of religious [feelings] should be a high standard.”
The defence reminded the court that Section 298, under which Amos Yee is being charged, is not a blasphemy law.
“It must allow for the legitimate, even if robust, criticism of religion,” the defence said in its written submissions. “Amos’s words can at best only be considered a robust (even if misguided) criticism of religion.
“It is not intentionally directed at a religious person or group.”
In any case, the “dominant intention” behind the video was not directed at Christians, but at Lee Kuan Yew and his followers.
“It is pretty clear that he was trying to challenge the reputation that Lee Kuan Yew generally enjoys,” Mr Chong told the court.
He pointed out to the court that even the title of the video was directed at Lee Kuan Yew and not any religion or religious community.
The bulk of the content of the 8-minute video was also targeted at the former prime minister and his followers, defence said.
“At most, Amos had possessed knowledge of the likelihood that his actions might wound religious feelings,” the defence submitted. “However, this is insufficient to constitute deliberate intention as he had used the comparison of Lee Kuan Yew to Jesus in good faith, and only to further his argument that people should reconsider their views of Lee Kuan Yew.”
Even if the court felt that Amos Yee did indeed have “some intention” to wound the feelings of Christians in general, such intention would be “an ancillary purpose” and not his “dominant intention”.
The defence also argued that a high standard must be applied to the charge because of the potential impact it could have on freedom of speech, which is a guaranteed constitutional right.
Referring to parliamentary remarks by the then Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs, Ho Peng Kee, made in October 2007 during the debate on amendments to the Penal Code, the defence said that “it is clear that the legislature has targeted those who would seek to stir up enmity or ill-will in a religious setting, such as religious extremists.”
Parliament had also raised concerns about the “seemingly broad scope of Section 298.”
Calling for the court to consider the need to balance the constitutional right to free speech and society’s need for public order, the defence said “one cannot subject a constitutional right to whims and vagaries of the overly sensitive feelings of a religious person or group.”
“So, the issue for this court’s consideration has far greater implications if Amos is found guilty, as this essentially means a curtailment of the constitutional rights of Amos and also a significant portion of the populace of Singapore.”
The defence also took the court through each sentence of the relevant part of what Amos Yee had said in the video.
“From the breakdown of the transcripts of the video, it is patently clear that the centre of focus was on the critique of Lee Kuan Yew. It was predominantly filled with arguments pertaining to how Lee Kuan Yew had contributed to Singapore, for the better or worse.”
The defence pointed out that the video was 8 minutes long, and the transcript of it was 8 paragrpahs long.
However, of this, “at best, [only] 10 sentences” had any reference to “Jesus” as a point of comparison.
And even if there was pre-meditation in Amos Yee making the video, such preparation was limited to the actual conceptualisation, scripting and performing in the video, rather than any intention to wound religious feelings.
“It is abundantly clear that Amos had made the video because he wanted to express his opinions on Lee Kuan Yew, inform the public, encourage public discourse and hence facilitate positive change in Singapore,” the defence submitted.
Accordingly, the defence said the charges against their client should be dismissed by the court.
Judge Jasvendar Kaur said she will give her judgement on Tuesday afternoon.
Some 70 to 80 members of the public had turned up for the hearing on Friday. Some arrived as early as 12 noon to reserve a seat.
There were some moments of excitement in an otherwise routine court proceeding.
The packed gallery applauded and cheered when defence counsel, Alfred Dodwell, argued for Amos Yee’s earlier statement to the police to be admitted into evidence. The DPP objected and said he was “bamboozled” by the request. Mr Dodwell shot back at the DPP, asking him if he (Dodwell) should be more concerned about him being “bamboozled” or what was in Amos Yee’s best interests. When District Judge Jasvendar Kau allowed the request, the gallery erupted into applause and cheers.
“Please behave yourself, otherwise you’ll be asked to leave the courtroom,” the judge told the public gallery.
The attendees, which included those who could not get into the courtroom, again cheered and called out Amos Yee’s name when the doors to the court opened after a short recess.
The teenager, who was in flip-flops, and wearing long brown pants and a white t-shirt with the word “PRISONER” on the back, looked surprised by the attention.
On both days in court, the teenager was handcuffed and shackled in both hands and feet throughout the hearing.
Both his parents were also in court.
“We didn’t expect such a big turnout,” Mr Alphonsus Yee, the father of Amos Yee, told reporters later. “People keep coming up to us to tell us to stay strong, saying they know we’re having a tough time.”