The inherent problem of defending free speech is that one cannot pick and choose whose speech to defend. It would be so much simpler if every free speech agitator was intelligible and coherent and dignified. But this is seldom the case. And, to be sure, Amos Yee doesn’t fit that description.
The 18 year-old Singaporean registered his first high-profile arrest in 2015 when he posted a video online mocking the death of the country’s founder and prime minister, the late Lee Kuan Yew. The deceased statesman’s son, Lee Hsien Loong, currently serves as prime minister. A short part of the video included comments about religion, which led to Amos Yee being convicted for wounding religious feelings, a crime under the Sedition Act, and he served 50 days on remand.
The following year, Yee was once again in front of the courts, and again for insulting religion after posts he made on his blog. Pleading guilty, he was imprisoned for six weeks and fined almost $1,400 for ignoring a notice issued by the police to present himself for questioning.
What Yee wrote is easy to find online and needn’t be reprinted. Nonetheless, it is clear that most of his comments were crude, inarticulate, and childish. This doesn’t mean, however, he ought not be defended for merely uttering an opinion.
This was the belief of a U.S. immigration judge, Samuel Cole, who on March 24 granted Yee asylum in the United States. The Singaporean arrived in the United States in December, and was detained at a Chicago airport, claiming political asylum. He is currently being held in the Dodge County Detention Center in Juneau, Wisconsin.
Cole’s verdict was that the Singapore government’s prosecution of the blogger “was a pretext to silence his political opinions critical of the Singapore government.” He ruled that Yee’s comments about religion were “tangential” and that his convictions constituted “persecution on account of Yee’s political opinions.” According to the 2016 World Press Freedom Index, Singapore is ranked 154th, below most of its Southeast Asian neighbors, and below the likes of Russia and Turkey.
Yee, however, was not immediately released after the judge granted his asylum, something that experts say is unusual. His attorney initially said that he would be released, but then said that the blogger will be detained while federal authorities consider appealing the decision. The Department of Homeland Security has 30 days from the time of the court decision to file an appeal. It had initially rejected his claim when he arrived in the United States last year.
While there has been speculation about how his possible asylum will affect relations between Singapore and the United States, it is hard to believe the city-state would risk any economic or diplomatic fallout by complaining too forcefully.
Indeed, Yee’s asylum would likely embarrass the Singaporean government internationally, but not much else. The reality is it has plenty of excuses to offer at home. It may well play the nationalist card: Yee abandoning his country. Indeed, a letter recently published in the Straits Times had this to say: “Singapore is now free of a badly brought up Singaporean. I truly hope Mr. Yee will go one step further and take up citizenship there.”
Note, too, that the Singaporean government also still has the religious card in its hand. Yee was prosecuted twice for wounding religious feeling, not for criticizing the government. As Singapore’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Foo Chi Hsia, said in 2015, “Amos Yee was convicted for insulting the faith of Christians… Protection from hate speech is also a basic human right.”
In the same year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong defended Singapore’s limits on free speech as a means of ensuring social stability. “In our society, which is multiracial and multi-religious, giving offense to another religious or ethnic group, race, language or religion, is always a very serious matter,” he said.
If one assumes, then, that the U.S.-Singapore relationship would not be dented by the United States granting Yee asylum (neither country wants that at the moment) and any diplomatic fallout could be soothed by careful negotiations, the question comes down to Washington’s intentions. To be more terse: Does Washington care?
If the Department of Homeland Security chooses to overrule the court’s decision and send Yee back to Singapore, where he is likely to face prosecution, it would be a strong statement that the Donald Trump administration really doesn’t care about human rights in Southeast Asia, a claim that has already been made by numerous political commentators.
It will also be a strong signal for other potential political asylum seekers. A press release put out by Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs was in equal parts passive and aggressive, but what it really did was to tug at the anti-immigration strings of the Trump administration. It stated:
“It is the prerogative of the U.S. to take in such people who engage in hate speech. There are many more such people, around the world, who deliberately engage in hate speech, and who may be prosecuted. Some of them, will no doubt take note of the U.S. approach, and consider applying for asylum in the U.S.” [My italics]
The final sentence is a not-too-subtle reminder to the American government that one asylum seeker might also mean many; the proverbial crack in the wall for one might well widen it for others.
“Sadly, it appears Amos has become a hostage to the climate of fear generated by Donald Trump’s abusive policies toward refugees and migrants,” Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, was quoted as saying.