Amos Yee’s asylum – MHA distorts US court’s decision

by Tan Wah Piow

Singapore tries to spin out of its embarrassment over the United States court decision to grant asylum to Amos Yee by presenting it as an endorsement of “hate speech”. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) called it “the prerogative of the US to take in such people who engage in hate speech”, and went on to warn that “many more such people… who deliberately engage in hate speech” would be applying for asylum in the US.

The short 372-word statement sounded astonishingly infantile. It repeated the term ‘hate speech’ on seven occasions, and in every other sentence penned by the MHA. It was not even an attempt to rebut the judgment jurisprudentially or intellectually. It was just a shabby damage limitation exercise to bury the politically inconvenient truth about the grant of asylum by fanning hatred against the teenager. Almost half of the statement was devoted to repeating Amos Yee’s objectionable ranting against Christians and Muslims as though the US court judgment was about the freedom to articulate hate speech.

The distortion by the MHA of the US court judgment is appalling.  By the yardstick of Singapore’s own law, it amounts to scandalizing the US court. This is yet another example of how the Singapore government deploys the dark art of sophistry, and the use of smoke and mirrors to deflect the adverse impact of this judgment on the credibility of the entire justice system in Singapore.

Contrary to the MHA spin, this asylum judgment is not about condoning “hate speech”. Whether the “hate speech” articulated by Amos was acceptable by the standards of the United States was not a relevant issue in Amos asylum appeal.

The US Department of Homeland Security [DHS]  which refused Amos’ asylum request had argued in court  that Amos Yee was “prosecuted under laws of general applicability” and not because of his political opinions. This also happens to be Singapore’s approach. The success or failure of Amos’ asylum appeal therefore did not hinge on the merits of Singapore’s law against “hate speech”. The central issue in the case was whether the persecution against Amos was politically motivated.

“Prosecutions under laws of general applicability may still constitute persecution when executed for a “nefarious purpose” said the judge. This is good law applicable in all asylum cases, whether in the US, UK or countries which ratified the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

In a case of this nature where the asylum Claimant was convicted following a trial, it is always a daunting task for lawyers to prove ‘nefarious purpose’ behind the prosecution. It is no doubt easier if the Claimant is from North Korea or Zimbabwe. Amos’ case is far more challenging as unlike North Korea, Singapore is generally perceived in the West as a country with an established judiciary.

The judge heard evidence from Amos, from independent international Human Rights organizations, and from Kenneth Jeyaretnam.  He heard evidence presented by Freedom House which described Singapore as “partly free”. He  also heard evidence that the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) “targets opposition leaders directly by selectively enforcing an arsenal of laws intended to intimidate and stifle dissenting voices, such as sedition, defamation, and wounding religious feelings”. On Lee Hsien Loong, the Judge considered the evidence of Human Rights Watch which stated that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong “is imposing a mix of absolute political control and repression of dissenting voice… as his father did”.

On the legal system in Singapore, the judge was told that outcomes in civil suits ultimately “raise questions about judicial independence, particularly because lawsuits against government opponents often drive them into bankruptcy.”

On the specific issue of the prosecution of Amos for “hatred speech”, the judge noted that the religious content in Amos’s 8.5 minute video Lee Kuan Yew is Finally Dead was only 30 seconds. “The video is almost entirely about (Lee Kuan) Yew and Singapore, and its discussion of religion were only used to make a point about (Amos) Yee’s dismal opinion of (Lee Kuan) Yew.”

He concluded that “it is clear that (Amos) Yee’s prosecutions for wounding religious feelings and obscenity was just a pretext to silence his opinions”.

The crux of the judgment which is most damning to Singapore is that “other people who made disparaging comments about religions but who were not similarly critical of the Singapore regime avoided prosecution”. This is what the MHA failed to address.

The MHA is probably less concerned about Amos Yee being granted asylum than the fact that the Judgment has now opened up a barrel of worms affecting the credibility of Singapore’s legal and judicial system.

We can now say without fear of being prosecuted for scandalizing the Singapore court that in the case of Amos Yee, “The political persecution  was a criminal prosecution by the Singapore Government and was therefore inflicted by the government”. These are the words of Judge Samuel B Cole of the Immigration Court in Chicago.