US gives asylum to Singapore teen dissident

An American court decision validating blogger Amos Yee’s claims of political persecution puts an uncomfortable light on the city-state’s judiciary

Singapore, March 25, 2017 4:09 PM (UTC+8)
Singaporean dissident Amos Yee waves as he leaves court after his trial on May 12, 2015. Reuters/Edgar Su
Singaporean dissident Amos Yee waves as he leaves court after his trial on May 12, 2015. Reuters/Edgar Su

Singaporean teen dissident Amos Yee has been granted asylum in the United States after a ruling that his prosecution and detention in the island state amounted to political persecution.

US immigration judge Samuel Cole stated in his judgment on Friday that the Singapore government’s prosecution of the 18-year-old blogger “was a pretext to silence his political opinions critical of the Singapore government.”

The decision represents the first time in years a Singaporean political dissident has applied for and received asylum in the West. The ruling, if not overturned by a US Department of Homeland Security appeal, could strain relations between the two strategic allies. The Singapore government has not yet responded publicly to the ruling.

Yee first rose to prominence after his arrest in March 2015 for an expletive-laden video entitled “Lee Kuan Yew is finally dead!” soon after the country’s elderly national founder expired of natural causes. In the video, the teen-aged Yee compared Lee to Jesus Christ, opining that both were “power hungry and malicious.”

The scathing video was posted during a week-long period of national mourning for the revered elder statesman, whose People’s Action Party (PAP) continues to govern Singapore today under the leadership of his son, prime minister Lee Hsien Loong.

People pay their respects to the late first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew at a community tribute site in Singapore March 28, 2015. Thousands of Singaporeans queued to pay their last respects to former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, who lay in state at Parliament House, waiting for up to ten hours in stifling tropical heat to view his body. REUTERS/Edgar Su - RTR4V86Z
Untouchable: Images of Singapore founder Lee Kuan Yew during funeral ceremonies in March 2015. Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su

Yee was charged and later convicted for wounding religious feelings after an ordeal that involved over 50 days in remand, including a stint for psychiatric examination at the Institute of Mental Health.

In 2016, Yee returned to court where he was again found guilty of wounding religious feelings for comments on Islam and Christianity that he made on his blog and other social media platforms. He was sentenced to six weeks imprisonment and given a S$2,000 (US$1,379) fine for ignoring a notice issued by the police to present himself for questioning.

The Singaporean government has stood firm against assertions that Yee’s run-ins with the law amounted to suppression of free speech. Responding to a 2015 article on the saga in The Economist, Singapore’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom Foo Chi Hsia said, “Amos Yee was convicted for insulting the faith of Christians…Protection from hate speech is also a basic human right.”

Teen blogger Amos Yee leaves with his parents after his sentencing, from the State Courts in Singapore July 6, 2015. The Singapore teenager who posted a video online deemed offensive to Christians and an obscene image of late leader Lee Kuan Yew will be released after the court sentenced him on Monday to jail time already served. The court sentenced Yee, 16, to four weeks of imprisonment from June 2, which means he could be released immediately after spending 50 days in remand. REUTERS/Edgar Su TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTX1J6TE
Persecuted: Teen blogger Amos Yee leaves court after his sentencing in July 2015. Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su

The PAP-led government is highly sensitive to allegations of political persecution via the courts. Earlier this month the Attorney-General’s Chambers threatened local activist Han Hui Hui with contempt of court charges and potential prison time for claiming on social media her conviction for staging an unsanctioned public protest was politically motivated. Han has since taken down her posts and issued an apology.

US judge Cole said in his decision that religion was only “tangential” in Yee’s YouTube video, and that the Singapore public’s response to it was because of his criticism of national founder Lee. Cole also noted that individuals who had made disparaging comments about religions but did not criticize the Singapore government had not been prosecuted.

Kenneth Jeyaretnam, secretary general of the opposition Reform Party, testified as a defense witness during Yee’s hearing. His deceased father, Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, was an opposition parliamentarian who was frequently sued by PAP politicians for defamation, punitive lawsuits that crippled him financially. He was disqualified from Parliament in 1986 on charges of misreporting his party’s accounts.

“I don’t agree or pay much attention to what Amos says, which is mostly the typical sort of things that teenage boys might run, but I strongly believe in freedom of speech and the right to freedom of expression,” Jeyaretnam told Asia Times. “Given my family history I know that the Singapore government is very clever in cloaking its slapping down of dissidents as an exercise in rule by law.”

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaks at the International Conference on The Future of Asia in Tokyo, Japan, September 29, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon - RTSPYKH
Like father, like son: Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong makes a point. Photo: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon

The US immigration court’s decision, handed down a day after the second anniversary of the senior Lee’s death, has been applauded by human rights groups.

“Singapore excels at creating a pressure cooker environment for dissidents and free thinkers who dare challenge the political, economic and social diktats from the ruling People’s Action Party,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch, a rights lobby. “It’s clear the Singapore government saw Amos Yee as the proverbial nail sticking up that had to be hammered down.”

“Amos Yee might have said things that some people in Singapore disagreed with, but he should not have been prosecuted and jailed simply for causing offense,” the Community Action Network, a local nongovernmental organization that supported Yee since his first prosecution, said in a statement. The freedom of expression promoting group noted that many people in the US worked pro bono to secure Yee’s asylum.

The Singapore government has yet to respond to the US court decision. HRW’s Robertson noted that the US Department of Homeland Security strongly objected to Yee’s asylum application. The decision threatens to complicate US ties with Singapore, a strong regional ally on counterterrorism and intelligence-sharing.

The US Department of Homeland Security has 30 days to appeal the court’s decision, which will be final if they fail to do so. Yee has been detained by US authorities since he arrived to seek asylum last December, and is currently being held in the Dodge County Detention Centre in Juneau, Wisconsin.

With the US court’s verdict on Friday, he is now eligible for release.

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