“We are destroying a boy”

Jolene Tan
Jolene Tan at Hong Lim Park, (Image – Terry Xu)


By Jolene Tan

Speech for #FreeAmosYee protest at Hong Lim Park, 5 July 2015

Some of you have probably seen that Amos Yee’s mother, Mary Toh, recently posted on Facebook making a heartfelt apology to her son.

It’s really not her who should be apologising to Amos Yee.

We – us, our state, our society – we are destroying a boy.

Don’t retreat to the law here. Think about what is happening to the human bodies and minds involved. The law isn’t something abstract. If we think about the law as somehow above humans, it will very quickly become inhuman or worse, anti-human.

So let’s stick to the basics, which are: we are destroying a boy.

The main question I want to ask today is, why are we destroying a boy? What good does it do to destroy him?

Let me explain first what I mean about destruction. The state’s decision to prosecute Amos Yee has inherently involved violence. First, arrest.  Then, imprisonment. Shackles. The terror and the powerlessness of not knowing how much longer you’ll be in there, with no company, no purpose, no activity, no relationships, no change.

It goes beyond that, we’ve heard: there were no nights and no days, just the same walls of the cell, 23 hours a day. The glare of lights that never go out.

Even aside from this case, this raises serious questions about prison practice in Singapore. When I worked in a prisoners’ rights organisation in the UK, one thing I learned was that remand should not be a punitive experience. Remand prisoners are either not yet guilty of any crime, or, in Amos’ case, are not yet found by a court to deserve a prison sentence. So, as a simple matter of fairness, when someone is in remand to prevent them from absconding, the conditions in prison should not be further punishing them. They should have better conditions than prisoners on sentence.

And whatever the type of prisoner, remand or sentence, being kept in a cell 23 hours a day shows severe failure in the prison system. This quantity of confinement is completely destructive of physical and psychological well-being of prisoners and of prisoners’ ability to later function in the community.

Given this, it is testimony to Amos Yee’s phenomenal resilience that he kept smiling and waving and eating bananas in the courtroom as long as he did.

But he isn’t any longer. Because it doesn’t matter how strong you are. No one can be ground like this by the gears of the criminal justice machine, trapped without sense or clarity, and hold out forever. Sooner or later it will crush you. It is crushing Amos now. He has already spoken of distress so deep he wanted to kill himself.

Just initiating a prosecution, just setting this whole machine into motion, had these severe consequences. So don’t doubt it: we are destroying a boy.

But it’s gone even further than this. We’ve heard – and the state has not denied – that the response to Amos Yee’s distress was to strap him to a bed for more than a day. Sure, that’s going to make him feel a lot better.

And now he’s being detained in IMH, in conditions which are not centred on his needs and which are also likely to hurt his well-being. I don’t want to speculate on the claims that he has poor mental heath or autism – things which in the public’s mind are now being wrongly conflated with criminality, stigmatising people with autism or mental illness further. I just want to point out that, whatever the truth about Amos Yee, shutting someone up in an institution is a very problematic way to respond to alleged mental health or autism-related needs.

Autism is not an illness. It is not something to cure or treat. And poor mental health is almost never improved by institutionalisation. Taking people out of the community against their will should always be a last resort. What’s happened to Amos Yee and how it’s being reported is sending the message to society at large that physical force, physical restraint, isolation against their will and general dehumanisation are how to respond to people with mental health needs or autism. From the viewpoint of public awareness for these communities, this is a disaster.

So we are destroying a boy. And we are hurting vulnerable people.

Which brings me back to the first question I asked. Why? Why are we doing this? What human purpose is served? Knowing that prosecution is in itself a tool which inflicts so much suffering, knowing that the criminal justice system has enormous consequences for anyone caught up in it – when and how can we justify its use?

This whole affair came from a few minutes when a sixteen-year-old decided to vent about parents, God and “The System”. Frankly, this kind of venting is part of the proper and natural order of things. There is nothing more ordinary in the world than indignant teenagers goading authority with the aid of tasteless sexual metaphors. There was no incitement to violence or hatred, no demonisation of anyone vulnerable. In terms of threats to human society or human welfare, Amos Yee’s video pretty much ranks up there with kittens clawing the curtains.

The fact is, this society is not of one mind about Lee Kuan Yew or political ideology – and it shouldn’t be of one mind. Politics, and political leaders, are there precisely as a way for us to peaceably navigate the fact of our differences. We are all different, we’ve had different lives, we’ve have different amounts of money, we have different hearts, different bodies, different needs, we want different things, we worship differently or not at all. We each want society to be set up in different ways.

The hope that underlies democracy is that we can commit to navigating those differences peacefully. Through dialogue. The hope of democracy is that, despite our differences, we all count equally, and will all have the space and the chance to discuss and negotiate and be taken into account.

Only if we speak openly about things can we figure out how, together, to make them better for everyone.

It is hard to shake the sense that we are destroying Amos Yee simply because he highlighted a political difference that has been deemed unacceptable by those currently in power. The fact is, many people do think that Lee Kuan Yew was, in Amos Yee’s words, a horrible person. There are many people who wanted – desperately wanted – to see the end of Lee Kuan Yew’s influence on society. And everyone should have the right to express their opinions about the country’s political leadership and directions, without being silenced by the criminal law. The prosecution of Amos Yee casts serious doubt on the protection of that right in Singapore.

Amos Yee gave voice to political differences about the leadership of literally the most powerful man in our history. He criticised the way that that man’s power shaped the society we live in. If we destroy him for this reason, then we strike at the heart of democracy itself.