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Amos in remand – a mother’s perspective

Mary Toh

By Kirsten Han

Supporters and journalists who showed up at the State Courts early Tuesday morning expecting a sentence and closure to the Amos Yee saga found themselves bitterly disappointed. There was a two-hour wait with little to do but watch both the prosecution and the defence go in and out of chambers to speak with the judge. There were the brief glimpses of Yee, shackled and clothed in prison garb, shuffling meekly from holding to the witness room.

By the time District Judge Jasvender Kaur entered the courtroom, it was fairly clear that things weren’t going to go very well for the 16-year-old video blogger.

The report assessing his suitability for reformative training said that Yee was both mentally and physically fit for a stint at a Reformative Training Centre (RTC), but psychiatrist Dr Munidasa Winslow had observed that Yee might be suffering from autism spectrum disorder.

Judge Kaur thus ordered for Yee to be remanded for two weeks at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) for another psychiatric assessment, after which she would decide between sentencing options such as reformative training or a Mandatory Treatment Order (MTO).

Everyone filed out of the courtroom, bemused by yet another delay. But there was no one more dismayed (with the possible exception of Yee himself) than his mother, Mary Toh. "They always want to paint him as mentally unsound," she commented with a frown.

Lost and confused by legal proceedings she found difficult to understand, Toh had flitted back and forth from her seat to the holding room to speak with her son, trying to get as much information as she could on the best course of action.

“I thought the three weeks of remand [which the judge ordered on 2 June] was for a full assessment. Why is he in for another two weeks now?” she asked as we left the building.

It’s been a difficult time for Toh ever since her son was arrested on 29 March, the day of Lee Kuan Yew’s state funeral, for posting his YouTube video criticising both the statesman and Christianity. Apart from the media attention and the rampant online speculation, she’s had to grapple with criminal procedures and make decisions in stressful situations. She’s also had to visit Yee while in remand, keeping him up-to-date with developments and trying to look out for his welfare as much as possible.

Yee has already gone through 39 days – albeit not continuously – in remand. But it’s his experience of the past three weeks that has worried Toh the most.

“I used to see him about once or twice a week, but tried to see him three or four times a week when I saw that his condition was getting worse,” she told The Online Citizen. “He has rashes, and he says his whole body itches.”

Toh said that Yee is kept in a “special room” every time he’s in remand: the lights are on 24 hours a day (although dimmed a little in the night-time), and the cell is under round-the-clock surveillance via a CCTV camera.

“It seems like he’s the only one who must be in this special room, which can hold up to four people. When he’s there they sometimes transfer two to three cellmates there to join him. They aren’t really happy about it, because the room has CCTV,” she said. “I’m not sure why he’s in this room. I guess to [the authorities] it’s more like protecting him.”

Individuals in remand spend 23 hours a day in their cells. For the remaining hour they are allowed to go to a bigger space that Toh describes as a “basketball court type of place” where they can play games and socialise.

It’s the only break from the monotony of each day, but Yee had told his mother that for the first two weeks of his last period of remand, his hour of “yard time” was often taken up by his sessions with experts assessing his condition (according to Toh Yee was not very clear on whether they were doctors, psychiatrists, counsellors or prison staff, but said he had met about five different people), answering the same questions and repeating the same statements over and over again.

The most distressing incident came when Yee expressed suicidal thoughts to a prison psychiatrist. According to both Toh and information Human Rights Watch obtained from his lawyer, Yee was strapped to a bed for a day-and-a-half.

“Why did they need to strap him? There was already CCTV in his cell,” Toh said. It was after that incident, she added, that Yee’s condition appeared to deteriorate.

“He used to read a lot of books, and it helped to pass the time. But after that he didn’t read any more. He told me, ‘You don’t have to bring any more books, I’m not reading.’ I think he was traumatised,” she recalled. “It was like he went through every day in a daze.”

Yee’s changed demeanour in court was not lost on his mother. While photos of him at previous appearances show a cocky, even smug, teenage boy, on Tuesday morning Yee sat in the dock, head bowed. “He’s usually smiling and cheerful, but today it’s different.”

“He feels tired, but he can’t sleep, and this worsens his health,” she said. “It’s partly because of the emotional issues, and also the light in the cell.”

Yee had believed that his long wait for his punishment had come to an end at last, and that he would finally know his fate. “The waiting is the most difficult for him,” Toh said. “He thought today would be the sentence, that the case would be closed.”

Thinking that he could get bail pending an appeal of his conviction, Yee had asked both his lawyer and Toh if he could go home. Instead, he was led out of the courtroom, still in shackles, for yet another period of remand.

Apart from finding out when – and how often – she can visit her son at IMH, there is little more that Toh can do.

She frowns. “They say he might have Asperger’s, but you cannot cure autism. So if they give him an MTO, what treatment are they going to do?” she said.

Still, she hopes that the next two weeks will benefit her son in some way. “I don’t mind if he is in IMH for these two weeks receiving proper treatment and care. I just don’t want it to be wasted time just sitting in remand again. He’s already been there for so long.”