HKFP Voices Politics & Protest

A Singapore opposition politician’s experience of dissident Amos Yee’s US asylum hearing

By Kenneth Jeyaretnam

“The evidence presented at the hearing demonstrates that Singapore’s prosecution of Yee was a pretext to silence his political opinions critical of the Singapore government. His prosecution, detention and general maltreatment at the hands of the Singapore authorities demonstrates persecution on account of Yee’s political opinions. Yee is a young political dissident and his application for asylum is granted.” – The Honourable Samuel Cole, immigration judge.

With these words Yee’s plea for asylum in the United States was accepted, an outcome that left the young Amos elated according to his lawyer Sandra Grossman.

amos yee

Photo: Amos Yee via Youtube.

The Honourable Judge’s 13-page statement amounts to a damning indictment not just of Singapore’s detention and later prosecution and incarceration of a 16-year-old but also accuses the government of general maltreatment of the teenager. Above all it shows that the Lee family and their cronies, whilst completely free of checks and accountability inside our borders, will be brought to book on the international stage if they continue to run Singapore like a dynastic and feudal family empire, headed by a strong man with knuckle dusters and a hatchet.

In response to the judgement the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) rushed out a sloppy, childish and petulant statement over the weekend saying that the reason Amos won asylum was because hate speech is welcomed in the US. MHA added that no doubt more criminals would be seeking asylum in the US as they attempted to gain some faux moral high ground. This incredible response smacks of sour grapes and worse is patently untrue:

“Anyone who engages in hate speech or attempts to burn the Quran, Bible, or any religious text in Singapore, will be arrested and charged.”

“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 US approach, and consider applying for asylum in the US.”

It is a long judgement, and as I was the only Singaporean at the hearing in Chicago I hope I can offer some first hand perspective that may help to balance the government propaganda that will be swamping us over the coming days.

Singapore Merlion

Singapore. Photo: Wikicommons.

However, before we go any further, I want to warn any Singaporeans out there who fancy a fresh start in America that abusing a religious text is NOT a short and sure path to successful asylum in the US.

It does seem that our government wants to convince Singaporeans that the US judgement will lead to a flood of dedicated criminals, who think they can get asylum in the US by burning the Koran or committing a sex act with the Bible. But this is because our Government wants to convince us that Amos’s prosecution was all about the need to protect Singapore’s fragile ethnic and religious balance and prevent our country being plunged into sectarian wars and civil strife.

Almost the opposite is true. The way asylum works (in most countries) is that safe haven is not offered to criminals. You cannot run away to another country and change your nationality in order to avoid the long arm of the law in your own country. This is the reason Amos was kept in a detention centre – so that he could be deported straight away if his asylum bid was unsuccessful because his prosecution was proven to be a legitimate criminal one.

To be successful, Amos Yee’s bid for asylum would have to prove that:

A. He suffered persecution because of his beliefs in this specific case because of his political opinion, and that the government is either involved in the persecution of or unable to control the conduct of private actors;

B. He had a credible fear of persecution should he return.

Amos Yee attacked

Amos Yee attacked. Photo: Youtube screenshot.

There were a couple of surprising aspects to the hearing.

Cross examination

The first surprise for me and I think also for Yee’s lawyers was that the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) opposed Amos Yee’s asylum case. In many ways Yee’s case was a classic one of persecution, and there seemed to be no clear cut reason as to why it was so robustly opposed. I cannot speak for the other witnesses, but I was aggressively cross-examined. Luckily Amos had a dedicated, very capable and pro bono law firm behind him who were well prepared, even if I was a little taken aback.

Here is Sandra Grossman’s letter of thanks to me after the hearing:

Amos Yee asylum

Freedom of speech

From the comments I have seen so far combined with our government’s statement, it seems that there is a major misunderstanding amongst Singaporeans. I can assure you that the hearing did not revolve solely around freedom of speech issues particularly the argument that Singapore needs less freedom of speech to maintain a delicate balance of religious diversity. There were no great Charlie Hebdo debates, personal freedom of speech coming head to head with rights to freedom of religion and that sort of thing.

With regards to the hate speech aspect, the judge heard compelling evidence that hate speech was acceptable selectively. For example pro-PAP or other individuals were not punished for racially or religiously motivated hate speech as egregious as Amos Yee’s.

In my written statement I had already said:

“What was the nature of Amos Yee’s crime? Was he a dangerous criminal or a violent thug or was there an imminent fear that he was radicalised and would commit a terrorist act? No. His ‘crime’ was to load a video onto his blog that criticised and mocked the recently deceased former strongman of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew.”

This was the first line of questioning in my oral testimony at the hearing. I raised the hateful speech of individuals like Jason Neo and of course Lee Kuan Yew himself and how these people had not been prosecuted. I was cross examined on this and asked whether I had found Amos offensive. The DHS Counsel did try very hard at this point to prove that Amos Yee’s posts were much more offensive than the ones I had mentioned. I replied that I was aware of the general nature of his posts but I found it mostly to be childish rubbish and did not pay it much attention. I did say that I believed in his right to be offensive.

More importantly, I emphasised that everybody in Singapore knew him as the boy who had criticised Lee Kuan Yew and the wounding religious feelings came later.

lee kuan yew

Lee Kuan Yew. Photo: Kevin Lee via Flickr.

As the judge says in his ruling:

“Jeyaretnam explained that others in Singapore had made similarly offensive comments regarding religion and had not been investigated or prosecuted including Lee Kuan Yew himself.”

The judge also said that:

“Religion was only tangential to the video. The video is almost entirely about Yew (sic) and Singapore and its discussions of religion were only used to make a point about Yee’s dismal opinion of Yew (LKY). In fact religion took up only about 30 seconds of the video’s eight-and-a-half minute content. The public response to the video was entirely about its criticism of Yew, not about its offence to religion.”

I had brought this point up in my oral testimony and the judge references that by saying:

“Both the witnesses testified similarly about the nature of the public attention to the video and their testimony went unrebutted by DHS.”

It is surprising but true that the DHS attorney did not cross examine me over this, maybe because the written evidence on public record is overwhelming.

My personal motivation

A lot of journalists have asked me why I chose to fly out to Chicago. The answer is I didn’t choose to. I had been supporting Amos Yee from before he first appeared in court here. I had also written an open statement to support Amos after which his lawyers Grossman LLC contacted me and asked if they could submit my testimony as evidence. During some later prepping sessions by video link the lawyer let slip that it would make a huge difference symbolically, if nothing else, were I to attend to testify in person. By then I felt I had an obligation to follow through so I scrambled around for a flight and left, ill-prepared as it turned out for snow in Chicago!

When people ask me why I went to Chicago what they are actually asking me is why I chose to stick my neck out for Amos in the first place. At first I thought to myself that it was the same reason that I put my neck out for Soon Juan, Vincent Wijeyasingha, Roy Ngerng and others. That I believe in standing up for persecuted individuals, that I believe in freedom of expression and that we will never reach our full potential as a nation until we have that freedom.

Singapore

Kenneth Jeyaretnam. Photo: Terence Lee via Wikimedia Commons.

Yee is not the first such person I have gone out of my way to help. For example, I looked after Roy Ng on a trip to the UK and France, accompanying him to Paris and introducing him to NGOs and rights organisations.

In truth there was something about Yee’s case in particular that struck a chord with me. Maybe it is because I also had a 16-year-old son and I used to be a 16-year-old boy myself. It was hard to see a child maltreated so horribly.

Mostly though, it was that his plight and the persecution he suffered. The way the government was unwilling to tolerate even a sliver of dissent and came down hard with spurious charges reminded me of the way they could not tolerate my father being in parliament. Again the vindictive and personal nature of the persecution stemming from anger at criticism of LKY reminded me of LKY’s vow to see JB Jeyaretnam on bended knee. Of course Amos Yee’s stubborn refusal to be bowed, to bend that knee in front of the altar of LKY, reinforced the link to JBJ in my mind.

I had already laughed my head off when Yee’s lawyer had said by video link that he was sure Amos would be grateful for my efforts. “No he won’t,” I replied when I stopped laughing. There is no point helping Amos if you are doing it for thanks or gratitude. Do I regret helping him? No, I am also elated but at the same time saddened that Amos had to flee to have a chance at a life and I am aware of how hard life is for an exile or a refugee.

I do feel though that the judgement has vindicated my father and the political persecution he suffered all cleverly packaged and disguised as either civil suits brought by private persons or even trumped up fake charges of fraud. Even now Singapore refers to my father’s “criminal” conviction even though that conviction was found to be a grievous miscarriage of justice and a non-existent offence and was overturned by a higher court.

Amos Yee, like JBJ, will forever be branded a criminal in his home country.

The judgement can be found here, and Kenneth Jeyaretnam’s original statement can be found here. Kenneth Jeyaretnam is the secretary-general of Singapore’s Reform Party and the eldest son of politician JB Jeyaretnam.

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A Singapore opposition politician's experience of dissident Amos Yee’s US asylum hearing