The most winsome political dissident you’ve never heard of, Amos Yee, is a Singaporean, a YouTube personality, and an activist who takes his cause more seriously than he takes himself. He has hair like a haystack in late afternoon and the nervous timing of a standup nebbish. He curses as imaginatively as a Scotsman in an Iannucci script, and, despite his perfect vision, he wears glasses on camera, for style. He’s a humanist—a close student of street idiom and indie film—but he has a data wonk’s appreciation for comparative statistics and a wariness of received wisdom. On concerns such as gay rights, income inequality, and free speech, he’s outspoken on the right side of history. He is seventeen years old.
He is also, in his home of Singapore, an alleged criminal for what he’s said. On Friday, March 27th, Yee uploaded a video that criticized Lee Kuan Yew, the recently deceased founding father of postwar Singapore, and also took a swipe at organized Christianity. By the following Monday, after formal complaints from some fellow Singaporeans, Yee had been arrested under Section 298 of the country’s penal code, which forbids the uttering of words that might hurt the religious feelings of any person, and the Protection from Harassment Act, a recent law ostensibly set up to guard against cyberbullying. His blog, where he had posted an illustration of Lee and Margaret Thatcher in flagrante, was censored; it earned Yee an obscenity charge under Penal Code Section 292. He was released on a bail of twenty thousand Singapore dollars, and is currently awaiting hearings. He has been ordered not to post anything more online. If he’s found guilty, he could face a fine of five thousand Singapore dollars and three years in prison.
Previously, Yee’s targets had been overly pliant citizens, religious hypocrisy, governmental agitprop, and parents. His smart-alecky YouTube videos, which he began releasing a couple of years ago, were directed equally toward the Singaporean youth and a more international, American-style audience. It is easy to lose a lunch hour in such homemade productions as his exposition of Singaporean English and his review of “The Da Vinci Code.” Yee’s style is both manic and concinnate, confident and strangely self-aware. If most teen-agers deploy sarcasm and snark, he has a sense of higher-order irony—a pearl-like virtue in a society that tends to disdain intellectual risk.
Singapore today has a well-guarded culture of political deference. This year’s World Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders, ranks Singapore a hundred and fifty-third out of a hundred and eighty countries, just below Russia. All seven domestic TV channels are under governmental control, and it is illegal to own a satellite dish. (Radio and print are similarly regulated.) As Yee points out, the country’s rampant inequality—by some measures, the highest in the developed world—is a red flag given its tax levels and unemployment. Singapore may sparkle with clean streets and the kind of airport where you hope for a long layover. On rights, though, it’s stunningly retrograde. Homosexual acts between men are illegal, and can lead to two years in prison. The country famously uses caning to punish various nonviolent infractions, such as overstaying a visa. Oppositions to these policies are easily suppressed in a small place with stringent policing and, until the Internet, hardly any outlets where free thought could spread.
Yee’s arrest doesn’t just underscore his complaints about Singapore’s backwardness on rights and freedom. It shows the country’s dire need for cultural education through intelligent dissent. In the days after Yee’s arrest, a slew of local celebrities, including three Singaporean starlet types, were interviewed about his videos on national TV. In sequences depressing to watch, they all sided with the state. “If you say that, ‘Oh, people can say whatever they want, all the time,’ then what about those people who are listening?” Joshua Tan, a young actor, said. Well, what about them? The suggestion that citizens should withhold political criticism for fear of offense is preposterous—far more embarrassing to Singapore than any videos by Yee could be.
The citizens of developed nations in the twenty-first century should not need to be told that free expression is a basic attribute of political health. It’s part of Yee’s precocity to realize that a population molded into sheeplike complaisance is ideologically vulnerable. If his opinions sometimes tend toward the extremes (in a more recent video, he urges young people to drop out of school, the better not to, you know, go to learn the words of fools), his goal seems to be to unsettle the existing Singaporean power structure enough that young people have no choice but to broaden their expectations. His flamboyant thought and language is part of the best tradition of dissension, from Voltaire to the Velvet Revolution, and it accrues to creative fields beyond politics. Yee is something of a cinematic prodigy, having snagged two top prizes in a Singaporean festival for a hilarious short he made at thirteen, in his bedroom. My own favorite of his productions is a review of “Boyhood,” a movie that—he spares no imagery in telling us—blew him away.
Certain of the praiseful sentences that Yee sends toward Linklater’s film are gibberish. But a number of his basic observations are well-judged, and even the squawks of analytical nonsense are endearing: most of us in the verbal professions went through periods of blowing large amounts of wind through the instrument, trying to understand how the music works. (Some of us, maybe, never really outgrew that age.) For older people, Yee’s review offers a welcome reminder of those times at fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, when the world of mature self-expression was fresh and every art work seemed in need of overwrought endorsement.
If anything, Yee has all the hallmarks of a green and thriving mind; he is exactly the kind of person you would one day want reviewing your books, making your movies, maybe even running your country. Americans, who enjoy the benefits of free media, have a responsibility to take him more seriously than they take the government that has tried to quiet him for thinking freely in the public sphere. And those of us in the Fourth Estate have a duty to spread word of his ridiculous charges. If people like Amos Yee end up the custodians of our profession, the future of countries like Singapore can be brighter than their past.
This commentary was written by Nathan Heller and first published in The New Yorker.
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