When Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's founding prime minister, died last March, a 16-year-old Singaporean boldly took issue with what he saw as his country's abject celebration of a long-lived repressive autocrat.
"Why hasn't anyone said, 'Fuck yeah, the guy is dead!' " asked Amos Yee in an eight-minute video titled "Lee Kuan Yew Is Finally Dead" that gained him worldwide notoriety. "Because everyone is scared. Everyone is afraid that if they say something like that, they might get into trouble."
Yee's video — in which he invited the head of state, Lee's son, to "come at me, motherfucker" — landed him in prison shortly after Lee's funeral, and he was soon presented in court to face various charges as an adult: "deliberate intention of wounding the religious or racial feelings of any person"; circulating obscene material; and "threatening, abusive or insulting communication."
On Thursday, at the start of his two-day trial, Yee appeared in court in shackles. He pleaded not guilty to the two charges of spreading obscene images and offending a religious group. Prosecutors are weighing whether to bring the third charge, which relates to the insulting comments about Lee, at a later date.
Yee's video criticized what he described as misconceptions about Singapore's wealth, income distribution, and civil liberties, and compared the late Singaporean leader to such dictators as Mao Zedong, Adolf Hitler, and Joseph Stalin. He also likened Lee unfavorably to Jesus Christ. "They are both power hungry and malicious but deceive others into thinking that they are compassionate and kind," Yee remarked.
At the time, the police said that they "received more than 20 reports regarding an online video that contained, in part, insensitive and disparaging remarks against Christians."
"Police take a stern view of acts that could threaten religious harmony in Singapore," authorities said in a statement.
Yee was initially released on $15,000 bail ($20,000 Singaporean) shortly after his first appearance in court on the condition that he not post or distribute online content — but he posted online to solicit help in covering court fees and administrative costs.
In one blog post, Yee noted that the legal battle has been pricey despite having pro bono counsel.
"The public outcry continues: hate mail, discourse on the nature of freedom of speech in Singapore, petitions for me to be acquitted, etcetera, and would probably escalate even further when the trial happens," he wrote. "It has all been, thoroughly stimulating. But of course, as with every legal battle, one requires money."
When his bail was up again on April 17, he was remanded into custody after his parents decided against paying it. Four days later, the teen was bailed out by Christian youth counselor Vincent Law under an order that again prohibited him from posting on social media while his case was pending.
Last Thursday, as Yee returned to court, he was slapped by a 49-year-old man who was later arrested.
In a blog post titled "The Ridiculous Terms of My Bail," Yee wrote, "Every morning during weekdays, at around 7:30am, hundreds of thousands of Singaporeans stand up and recite the national pledge, and say the 2 lines 'to build a democratic society, based on justice and equality.' And now. Wow… god fucking damn, I'm really feelin that 'Justice and equality'…"
Yee faces a sentence of up to three years in jail and a fine if he is convicted of deliberately offending Christians. The charge of circulating obscene material concerns a graphic cartoon of Lee Kuan Yew in a sexual position with former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. If convicted on that charge, he faces a sentence of up to three months as well as a fine.
The outspoken teen's case has highlighted the limits of freedom of speech in Singapore. The Committee to Protect Journalists called for his release after he was arrested, and supporters have gathered outside of court.