An estimated 300 to 500 people gathered at Hong Lim Park on a blazing hot Sunday afternoon to protest the treatment of 16-year-old teen blogger Amos Yee, and to rally for the freedom of expression.
“In the last few years we have seen an unprecedented crackdown on freedom of expression in Singapore,” said organiser Jolovan Wham, a member of the Community Action Network (CAN), a group of Singaporeans in support of free speech. Contempt of court cases such as those against cartoonist Leslie Chew and filmmaker Lynn Lee were mentioned, as well as the harassment suit against The Online Citizen and the defamation case against blogger Roy Ngerng, were given as examples.
Wham quickly drew the focus of the protest to that of free speech and proportionate treatment, saying that CAN had organised the event to oppose and criticise “what the state is doing to a 16-year-old child.”
“If the government can do this to Amos Yee, they can do this to other 16-year-olds. They can do this to other Singapore citizens,” he said.
Braema Mathi of human rights organisation MARUAH drew attention to the police reports lodged against Yee that had precipitated his arrest. “We too have to look at ourselves,” she said, referring to how Singaporeans react to speech they dislike.
Former political detainee Teo Soh Lung questioned the treatment of Amos Yee despite his youth. “If Amos had been an adult he would have been sentenced and that’s it,” she said, adding that there had been so many “shocking” twists and turns in legal proceedings since. “He has suffered more than an adult. And not only he has suffered, his family has suffered.”
“It is not Mary Toh who should be saying sorry to Amos Yee,” declared gender equality advocate Jolene Tan, referring to a heartfelt apology Yee’s mother had posted on Facebook. “We – us, our state, our society – we are destroying a boy.”
“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,” she added. “Only if we speak openly about things can we figure out how, together, to make them better for everyone.”
As Miak Siew, executive pastor of the Free Community Church, took his place on the mound as the final speaker of the afternoon, someone in the crowd yelled, “Do you forgive Amos Yee?”
“I don’t think there’s anything to forgive,” the pastor responded. He had previously been in contact with Yee, who had briefly been to the Free Community Church. After disagreements with Yee on Facebook, Miak chose to block and unfriend him.
“I think that’s deal with 16-year-old. Not report him to the police. Or threaten him with violence. Or everything that’s happening to him now. I hope that the government will consider a lighter approach,” he said.
Many in the crowd were older Singaporeans, having made their way down to the sunny, scorching park to support a young man who had criticised a political figure they disliked. When Jolene Tan said that “many people do think that Lee Kuan Yew was, in Amos Yee’s words, a horrible person” a loud cheer went up among the crowd.
“I feel that I should support Amos Yee because in Singapore we have very few young people who dare to speak out,” said 60-year-old Ho Khon Yen in Mandarin.
“We want thinking out of the box. Amos Yee… he’s not nuts. He said that the emperor has no clothes, even though the people said he did. We have been fools for 50 years,” shouted his friend Mr Neo.
Actress Neo Swee Lin was also in attendance. “Several people asked whether I was coming, and I thought about it. I know how hot it can be! But I’m not put off by the heat and the crowds because you have to stand up for what you believe in,” she told The Online Citizen.
“I think it’s quite disproportionate, the sentence that Amos is going through. He has been remanded for over 50 days,” said blogger Roy Ngerng, himself going through a high-stakes defamation case after being sued by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. “I hope the government shows compassion.”
Doctor Paul Ananth Tambyah agreed. “The government reaction is way out of proportion,” he said. “Frankly the country has got far more important things to focus on.”