HKFP Features HKFP Reports Interviews Politics & Protest

Interview: Singapore blogger Amos Yee on press freedom, feminism, and protest

HKFP Exclusive

Amos Yee is a 17-year-old vlogger from Singapore who frequently posts videos critical of the government and the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). Last year, he was thrust into the limelight after he was convicted in May of two charges: one of offending the sentiments of Christians in an explosive video comparing Singapore’s founding prime minister Lee Kuan-yew with Jesus Christ, and the second for posting an obscene doctored image featuring Lee and former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in a sexual position. The court gave him a four-week jail sentence and ordered him to undergo a mental assessment at the Institute of Mental Health. Yee claimed that he had been traumatised and starved at IMH, but later revealed that he had in fact faked the mistreatment.

amos yee

In December, Yee said he had left home and was running away from the police, who put him under investigation for more instances of “intending to wound religious feelings”. Yee then disappeared from social media for months. HKFP caught up with him shortly after he resurfaced in April, and spoke to him about press freedom, feminism, and his belief in the power of the internet as a tool for protest.

Could you give us a quick update on yourself? You said that to evade the police you were camping at East Coast at one point, and then you were hiding in an unknown location. Are you still on the run, and what’s your current status in terms of the police investigation?

Well, the room’s right here, so it seems like something happened in between. I’m not going to reveal what happened. But you must have seen my other religious videos, so I’ll be liable for more charges too. And the National Service thing – I didn’t go for the medical checkup. If [the police] ever catch me, I’m screwed.

amos yee

Amos Yee next to a PAP poster of Lee Hsien Loong. Photo: Amos Yee, via Facebook.

But now you’re home?

Yeah, this is the old room and stuff. But am I staying here indefinitely? I don’t know.

From January to April you disappeared from social media, and your mother said you were missing. Could you talk about that?

That was legit. Right now I’m [back home], and my mom lives in this home.

So what was the reason for the disappearance for those couple of months? People were wondering what happened to you, because you’re usually quite active on social media, you post updates fairly frequently. It seemed rather out of character for you to disappear.

It [was], wasn’t it? I’ll be liable for so many charges, and the police would come after me, so… if you want to escape somewhere, and you want to last long, you probably want to find the accommodation and the hiding places. And the Singapore police are known to be efficient [if they want to be]… What’s surprising right now is I’m back in my home, so what happened? I don’t know. [grins] 

amos yee

Amos Yee speaking to HKFP via Skype.

How are you sustaining yourself at the moment?

Concerning the money thing – first of all, I don’t have [artist crowdfunding platform] Patreons, because $15 dollars a video is not much. So Patreon is dead, because I haven’t advertised it, so that’s my own fault. And yes I put ads on my videos – before that, they put Polytechnic ads on my videos, and I don’t want to sell out, because that’s not my kind of thing… but then I [told myself], who even sees ads on videos? So basically how I see it is putting some stuff on my videos that nobody sees, and it makes me money. And now it’s making me a couple of thousand [Singapore] dollars a month, so it sustains me. [Unlike] what my mother thought, [she] thought it wouldn’t sustain me, so she put online that I might have run out of money… that is not true.

What are your future plans?

There aren’t any. I live my entire life based on impulse as of now, because that pretty much works best for me… but there are ideas for many other things, like videos, movies, music, any kind of art form I can get… it’s just a matter of what I’m interested in and what I do. I just follow my mood, and somehow it works for me. It’s pretty cool.

You recently posted a video teaching people “how to escape National Service”. Are you planning on serving in the army at all?

I’m not planning [to]… I don’t want to. Under the law they could [force me], and I don’t know why they haven’t. What I’m assuming is that… they know if they arrest me or whatever, I’ll put it online, and maybe even the foreign press would get hold of it, so then it would [result in lots of] publicity for me and it would highlight many of the country’s flaws again, and they don’t want that. So because of that they’re ironically letting me break as many laws as I want.

So they just want to keep it quiet?

Yeah… you see, Lee Hsien Loong has to play both sides, he’s basically fucked either way. If he arrests me, the entire world, the press and all that [would] know, it’ll highlight a lot of flaws like what happened with the Lee Kuan Yew video. If they don’t arrest me, then I make even more videos that criticise them and break even more laws. It’s a pretty good position I’m in.

You’ve criticised Singapore in a lot of your videos. Do you intend to stay in Singapore?

Well, this is where all the action is. I fully admit that I have an international appeal, so that’s up in the air. For the time being… there aren’t any plans [to leave].

You’ve talked about going to prison and Institute of Mental Health (IMH). It was interesting because in your last video, you actually gave an insight into the system in IMH, where you said they don’t get exposed to fresh air, and have nothing to do except for a 5-minute appointment with a therapist once a day. How was your personal experience there and what were some of the things you learned?

The fact is that, I prefer not to go to all those places for obvious reasons, IMH or prison or whatever, but I’m pretty much swell with it… and that’s in an even more undesirable circumstances than other people would have, where I basically didn’t have any books at all. I’m willing to do two to three years in prison, but not like, 20 years – they won’t give me 20 years.

Personally for me [my time there] was fun… I met a lot of interesting people, I got to know the system better, and it was very relaxing… They just put me there, without any external distractions… I thoroughly enjoyed it. Then I got bored, and I was like, get me out.

Other people though, they’re not as cool as me, because they can’t entertain themselves by themselves, because I’m so used to being alone and thinking about life and human existence and books or whatever, I can basically fulfill myself with nothing. That sounds weird. But other people, they can’t. They’re used to external fun like clubbing or using the internet and stuff, so obviously they would really hate it. And they’re mentally disturbed, so they’re stuck, and they’d be frustrated, and [with] minimal activities… so for them, it was horrible, but for me it was great.

IMH

IMH. Photo: imh.com.sg.

They’re all interesting people, I mean, they’re criminals. The most interesting thing I found out was that almost all those people who were arrested in Changi and IMH, they all took drugs and they sold drugs. Most of them sold drugs, and they never got caught for it. Apparently it’s very easy to evade in Singapore, and they told me it’s very common. There’s an entire underground drug industry that is never reported in the media that is pretty big. So that was eye opening. And you know, there are other stories about how there are eight-hour sex marathons and fights and all that, so it was pretty cool.

You’ve been pretty critical of the media, especially what you said is the mainstream media in Singapore. You say they present certain sides of the story, you say they’re manipulated by the People’s Action Party (PAP). What do you think is the current state of the press in Singapore?

It’s horrible. It’s not just that they manipulate views, but they also really suck. They misquote people. Roy Ngerng and my friends are an example of that – they were misquoted by mainstream media, all of them, everyone from [media organisation Singapore Press Holdings]. And because they have large corporations or lawyers, no one wants to sue them… Especially political news, there’s definitely some people behind the scenes who are manoeuvering the viewpoints of the general masses – I can’t name an [instance] off the top off my head, but it’s there. They say they have editors, but they’re pretty much nonexistent. The reporters, whether they do their job bad or well, they still get the same pay. The reporters are really underpaid. They work for like ten hours a day, five days a week, and they get SGD$3k (around HK$17,000) a month. I make more than that.

lee kwan yew

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. File Photo: Wikicommons.

So with just government-controlled media, there’s no freedom of the press – but what about blogs or online media?

The only way you can get opposition views is on the internet, which is why it was so depressing in the 70s to 90s when there wasn’t the internet, basically all the news was from the government. So right now… especially in Singapore, we have to be reliant on the internet. Hopefully, all the older generation, they die and everybody uses the internet. Because that’s the only way we can get balance in the news. Right now, more opposition voices are growing, [and] the government is trying their best to take down these voices – like what happened to The Real Singapore (a now-defunct sociopolitical blog frequently critical of the government). They have more likes than many of [those] from SPH, so then they took [the site] down. It’s pretty sad.

If bloggers say things critical of the government, do they have to worry about defamation or getting sued?

They tried to do that, but I think after what I did, once it created such a great impact, I think more voices are coming out, because I “inspired” them. [There are] many other opposition videos made by kids and stuff, like Lhu Wen Kai or whoever, or people even in my Youtube Channel who work with me, they didn’t get screwed. With the government, they’re not that smart in policies, but what they are really smart in is manipulating the general public and the international people to like them. That they’re really smart at. And that’s also the only thing Lee Kuan Yew was smart at.

The bloggers and people who make videos like me, they criticise the government, so if they arrest them and they report that, then international people would not like it, and they would know more about how bad Singapore is, and Singapore is very reliant on foreign investments, and foreigners to get the economy going. So now they’re smart not suing them.

People always draw parallels between Singapore and Hong Kong, and you yourself have been compared to student leader Joshua Wong. What are your thoughts?

I don’t know what China would do to Hong Kong, so I don’t know. Joshua Wong isn’t as smart as me. He goes to school, for gods’ sake. He can fucking devote all his time [to politics].

joshua wong amos yee

Amos Yee and Joshua Wong.

He used to be part of an organisation called Scholarism, but it’s now disbanded and the leaders have now formed a political party called Demosistō, and they would be running in the Legislative Council this September.

That’s great. He should do that full time instead of continue going to school. And then he says, he isn’t really satisfied with school – I’m like, you like doing that Scholarism thing, there’s absolutely no reason for you to go to school, because you’ve already made a huge name, and I’m sure it would be more profitable than whatever job you’re going to get with your degree or your masters or whatever.

Also, his approach is loud and it disrupts public places – that’s not my kind of way to deal with it. There are so many innocent people and their lives are going to be disrupted, just because you’re upset with China. You wrote about that, didn’t you?

Yeah, I did. What do you think the people of Hong Kong or Singapore should do then, if they want to fight back against the government?

All on the internet. Especially in Singapore, because rioting is banned. And [the internet] is the best way, in my opinion; you don’t disrupt people, you [keep] the streets all clean… on the streets it’s all about being loud, but they’re fucking all stupid people. But on the internet, what stands out is great ideas. The focus is on great ideas and sharing these great ideas. And the internet is so prevalent today, it’s possible. And you’re thinking, that probably won’t cause lots of change. [But] Voltaire did it all on his pen, he wrote pamphlets, he shared it, and then he made Secularism great. Voltaire did it, why can’t I?

Wouldn’t you say though, that that’s a starting point in creating change, but isn’t it still a more passive approach? The seeds are sown, but don’t you feel that for change to actually happen, you still need to maybe go protest?

I don’t see any good reason why you should go out on the streets, but you know what, I’ll research more and get back to you. I’m not really familiar with it. All I know is that it disrupts people and I don’t like that approach.

[Protesting] is a way of fighting [the government], and that’s the way many people have implemented [changes] in history. It’s definitely not the best way, especially now that we have the internet. Voltaire did not have the internet, and he did it… And either way, you guys can shout on the street as much as you want and China still has power. That’s pretty sad.

The PAP won 83 out of 89 seats last year. What do you think lies ahead for Singapore?

I really don’t know. The opposition candidates – they suck less than PAP… But what I hope for politics in general is just more honest people [going] into power, but that won’t happen… To win in politics, you need to portray an extremely positive side of you, and basically that dehumanises you, because people are not all the time positive. And if you want to win the votes, especially if it’s erratic Singaporeans and they just vote in the last minute [for those who] have a nice face, they don’t really do much research – that’s how you win in politics… Which is why I never want to go into politics. I’m fucking honest with myself. I want people to be honest and show they have both [a positive side] and flaws and then go into parliament, but that’s not going to happen.

PAP supporters

Supporters of PAP. File Photo: Wikicommons.

Anything you want to say to Hong Kong people?

You guys are cooler than Singapore… You guys don’t have voting rights, and Singapore does, and I would expect based on just the labels that Hong Kong would be much more restrictive than Singapore, but it isn’t, it’s much [cooler], and you guys have a culture, all those cool shoot ’em up films and Jackie Chan…and Wong Kar Wai. You guys are cooler. Singapore doesn’t have any of that, and if they have that they send the people who make good art to jail.

You attract a lot of controversy and constantly mock different religions. You’ve said in the past that you’re against political correctness and you don’t shy away from using vulgar language towards people belonging to particular religions. What is your response to critics who say that doing so would detract from the more important points you’re making or that it even borderlines on hate speech?

That’s bullshit. People say that, [but] no. Especially right now, with the modern audience, the vulgar language attracts them. We really like vulgar language; it punctuates our entire internet system. Young generations really like vulgar language so that attracted the audience, which is why the Lee Kuan Yew video became viral. Because it was so vulgar, like all my other work.

And why are [these critics] giving me advice? They’re not the ones making the videos. They’re the ones who are telling the politicians, okay, just make good points, don’t be vulgar, and that’s what they’ve been doing. And do you see them popular? Do you see them with a viral video? No! They’ve all been following marketing [rules]. Last time I tried to do that too, like how do I write my script, do I use vulgar language, how much of an audience am I attracting if I use it here, and it’s way too stressful, fuck it. I’m just about being honest and being interesting – not even being interesting, just being myself. All of us are inherently interesting and different, and so if you just be yourself, you become popular.

Let’s say, though, if you posted a video that makes good points, you might appeal to more people who do not get repulsed by vulgarities and spread the ideas to them.

Yeah, but then you lose the portion of people who likes vulgarities. I think right now, in the current modern circumstances, it’s much more. You lose a big portion, which I fucking don’t like, but you gain the other portion.

So are you saying that you want to reach a wider audience with vulgar language?

I don’t intent to reach any fucking audience. I’m just telling you how it works, in my opinion. I just make videos however way I want it and whatever mood I’m in. [Let’s say if I’m not in the mood for vulgarities], then I make a mellower one. And apparently it works, there’s that whole variety.

But – on the point of hate speech – have you thought about the consequences? What if what you’re saying encourages more hatred against, say, Muslims, and perpetuates the global discourse which carries unfavourable stereotypes of them? People who follow you or look up to you – could what you say perhaps encourage them to be hateful against people of particular religions, because they see you as an opinion leader?

Well, I don’t advocate that, so that’s their responsibility.

You also appear to have pretty controversial views on feminism, which you’ve expressed on Twitter and other platforms. Could you elaborate a bit more on what you think about feminism?

Feminism is basically disguised as gender equality, but it isn’t. Which is why it’s called feminism, it’s not called humanism. Feminists are assholes. They’re biased, it’s all basically about getting more rights for females – just pretty one-sided… and they’re not chill with rape jokes. If we’re in a really humanist society, where everybody’s chill nigger jokes and rape jokes and all of that would be cool, because then we wouldn’t be sensitive about those things. That’s the society I want… You’re sensitive with rape jokes, then it’s not really a gender equality-cool country.

But females have been historically oppressed, which is why “feminism” would recognise the need to sometimes do more to get them to the same level as men.

Historically, that’s happened, but that isn’t an excuse to be like, all female should dominate men now since men dominated most of us in history. Naw. That’s the impression I’m getting.

I just advocate gender equality, [being chill with] rape jokes, take both sides. You never see them talk about how they have better custody rights, which they do, and that is very important to a lot of people, so – yeah. One-sided pricks, in my opinion.

What’s the typical day in your life?

It changes every day. I work on impulse… [I make videos] whenever I feel like it… I’m trying to be the anti-routine guy, because I find that none of that works for me.

What are some bands you’ve been listening to or books you’re currently reading? I’m surprised you like the 1960s Nirvana. No one else I know has heard of that band.

I like the 1960s Nirvana better than the other Nirvana. I never really got into punk rock… There’s a whole list in my head that amounts to thousands of books, music, [and so on]. The works that I think I really enjoy are the big books, like Atlas Shrugged, Ulysses, Infinite Jest – I’m probably thinking these three books are going to change my life. So if I get down to reading it, sweet, I’m going to have a whole new perspective on life. The problem is that they’re all really big books, they’re like a thousand pages.

frank zappa

Frank Zappa. File Photo: Wikicommons.

I’m listening to Frank Zappa [and] Trout Mask Replica, that’s fucking cool… I like anything that’s experimental. Sometimes there’s a point in being experimental. [I’m an] impulsive teenager, so I like to see weird stuff. I used to like all the classic stuff, but that gets really boring. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense, but that’s the point, in not making any sense, and that’s really deep. I like that.

Is there any particular reason why you post very private aspects of your life on the internet, such as sex and so on? Or do you just not have a filter?

I have a filter, I just didn’t use it at that time… I learned from that. That’s funny stuff for the audience, but if I really want to get a girl, don’t be a creep and don’t tweet online about her being cute, and that works out, so I think I got that down. In terms of relationships, [I’m] still a virgin… but then again I really don’t devote my time to those kind of things, so obviously I won’t be good at it. But I’m thinking, smart guy, so probably if I do that, I’ll probably have that relationship down.

And read Neil Strauss’ The Game, I’ll have it down… It works, doesn’t it? It does? Does it?

Interview: Singapore blogger Amos Yee on press freedom, feminism, and protest