Amos Yee and the intolerance of the hysterical minority


Christians are offended? Really?

Vincent Law, a family and youth counsellor, has stepped forward and bailed out 16-year old Amos Yee on Tuesday.

Yee was being held by the authorities because no one had posted the S$20,000 bail for him over the weekend.

He had been in remand for 4 days, and is being charged for three alleged offences which are (quoting local news reports):

  • Allegedly causing matter to be seen and heard by five victims by creating a video clip containing remarks against Christianity with the deliberate intention of wounding the feelings of Christians.
  • Allegedly transmitting electronically an image showing obscene figures, believed to be a cartoon or caricature of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Mr Lee in an unflattering sexual depiction.
  • Allegedly making an insulting video clip online containing remarks about Mr Lee which was intended to be heard and seen by persons likely to be distressed by the same.

As his case is before the courts, I shall not delve into it specifically.

Instead, my concern is a wider one of how the government decide what is allowable and what is not, in the area of things which are deemed to be sensitive for some religions and their adherents.

This relates, of course, to the first charge levelled at Amos Yee, as mentioned above.

Amos Yee’s allegedly offensive video, in which he ranted and criticised the late Lee Kuan Yew, and compared him to Jesus Christ unfavourably, was an 8-minute film uploaded onto Youtube.

Here are some facts about it:

Total number of words spoken: 1,202

Number of times “Jesus” was mentioned: 1

Number of times “Christian(s)” was mentioned: 2

Length of video: 519 seconds (8:39 minutes)

Length of time Amos used to compare Lee Kuan Yew to Jesus Christ: 64 seconds

The comparison of Lee Kuan Yew to Jesus Christ was, admittedly, not very flattering, for either gentlemen.

But is it so serious that such extreme measures is necessary to be taken against a 16-year old?

To arrest him at his home (I am told there were 8 police officers there to execute that order), handcuff him in front of his parents and grandparents, and then to set bail for him, and later to handcuff him again in court and keep him in remand.

And on the day when Mr Law bailed him out, the news reported:

“At about 6.10pm, Yee was brought to the bail centre, still handcuffed and with ankle restraints, accompanied by more than five officers.”

One of the conditions of his bail, which also included Amos Yee reporting to the Bedok police station everyday at 9am, was that the video in question be set to private as well.

All this make it clear that Amos Yee’s supposed “offence” is rather serious – “attacking Christianity”, and “offending Christians”, according to a Straits Times’ report on Wednesday (22 April).

However, are Christians really offended by the rants of a teenager whom few had heard of before this incident?

“I’m a Christian and I’m stepping up to say that I’m not offended,” Mr Law told the media outside the courthouse.

Mr Law is a Christian.

Indeed, another Christian started an online petition to urge fellow Singaporeans to “release Amos Yee from your anger”, referring to the vitriolic attacks levelled at the teenager from some quarters, which include threats and intimidation of a sexual and physical nature directed at the boy.

“We are not offended by Amos Yee’s statements,” Wally Tham, the petition creator, said.

“His opinions about our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ neither threaten our faith nor diminish our love for Him.”

The petition has garnered close to 4,000 supportive signatures since it was started a few days ago.

What Mr Law and Mr Tham say reflect what the Government itself had said in the past – that Christians here are not intolerant.

This is reflected in how the Government has treated the book and film which many Christians around the world had found truly offensive – The Last Temptation of Christ, which came into the spotlight in 1988, when Hollywood released a 2 hour 44 minute film version by director Martin Scorsese.

Unsurprisingly, Christians were up in arms, protesting, among other things, the portrayal of Jesus’ marriage to Mary Magdalene, and a brief scene wherein the two consummated their marriage.

Scene from Last Temptation
Scene from Last Temptation

The Singapore Government swiftly banned both the sale of the book and the film from being screened in Singapore.

The Singapore censors – the Controller of Undesirable Publications – said they were acting “on the side of caution” in doing so.

“Bearing in mind the widespread and strong objections registered against the portrayal of Jesus Christ in the film, the censors decided to disallow the book into Singapore,” said the permanent secretary to the Ministry of Information then. (See here.)

The authorities also explained that it had taken the measures after Christian groups, including the National Council of Churches in Singapore, had expressed concerns over the book and film.

Not everyone was supportive of the ban, however, including one of Singapore’s founding Cabinet member, former Senior Minister S Rajaratnam.

Mr Rajaratnam wrote to the press to express his objection to the ban.

Why religious hysteria must not be placated” was the title of his letter to the Straits Times in November 1988.

Straits Times, 1988
Straits Times, 1988

“The banning of a memorable book which the vast majority of Singaporeans have ignored for some 30 years without serious damage to their health and mind is unlikely to bring Singapore crashing down,” he wrote, referring to the book in question.


But Mr Rajaratnam said his concerns were not over the banning of the book per se, it was also “over the cast of mind and motive that led to the banning” – in other words, the rationale behind the ban, the thinking that “racial and religious cohesiveness” can best be ensured in Singapore by enforcement through law.

“I would have thought the best way of ensuring racial and religious harmony would be by compelling the hysterical minority to ‘empathise’ with the sane majority,” Mr Rajaratnam wrote.

“The reason why Singapore has so far been an exception to what is becoming a world-wide rule is that this Government had the courage always to be on the side of sanity against the intolerance of the hysterical,” he added. (Read the full letter here.)

Despite the former Senior Minister’s protestations, however, the ban remains in force.

Or is it?

Remarks by the government in 2006 seem to indicate differently.

Former Minister of Information and the Arts (Mita), George Yeo told Bernama  in February that year [emphasis added]:

“When Salman Rushdie’s book ‘Satanic Verses’ was published some years ago, Singapore banned it because we knew it will cause trouble.

“In contrast, we did not ban ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ because the Christian ground and the Muslim ground are different.

“We did not make our decision based on abstract considerations of right and wrong but upon the realities of our multi-religious make-up.”

Mr Yeo confirmed, 8 months later, that The Last Temptation of Christ had not been banned in Singapore.

Speaking at the Harvard Club in October that year, Mr Yeo said:

“When I was MITA minister, we banned Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses while allowing ‘the Last Temptation of Christ’ because the Muslim reaction was entirely predictable.”

ST, 2011
ST, 2011

And 5 years later, in March 2011, Mr Yeo explained exactly what he meant, when speaking at a religious conference in Singapore then.

He said the government’s decision on not banning the book and film “got questioned” by some.

“Our reply was the Christians were less likely to riot,” the Straits Times quoted him as having said. (See picture, right.)

His remarks caused quite a stir, with some questioning if the government treated different religious groups here differently.

A month later Mr Yeo told The Business Times that the “context” of his remarks “wasn’t made clear in the media”, and further explained what he was driving at when he made those remarks. (See here.)

But The Last Temptation of Christ wasn’t the only film about Christianity which had made some unhappy but was still allowed by the authorities here.

Mr Yeo revealed in 2006 that the government did not ban the “Da Vinci Code” because it “was entertainment and not likely to inflame hatred.”

However, he said, “Some Christians were unhappy of course but that was to be expected.”

So, it seems that the government would allow a film even if “some Christians were unhappy” because “that was to be expected”?

And what of The Last Temptation of Christ?

The Media Development Authority (MDA) keeps an online database of films and their classifications. (See here.)

Tan Pin Pin’s film on Singapore’s political exiles, for example, is listed as “Not For All Rating”. (See here.)

A search for “The Last Temptation of Christ”, however, throws up nothing.

This seems to confirm what Mr Yeo had said – that “The Last Temptation of Christ” is in fact not banned in Singapore.

But doesn’t this contradict what the authorities said in 1988, that the book and film were in fact banned?

Has the ban been lifted quietly sometime since 1988 and which no one knows about?

Or is the so-called “ban” not an outright one but one where if an application to screen the film or import the book was made, it would be rejected?

If it were this, then isn’t it as good as a ban?

Be that as it may, the point I am trying to make is this:

If works such as “The Da Vinci Code” and “The Last Temptation of Christ” which Christians have expressed unhappiness over, are allowed in Singapore in various forms (books and films), and the reason is because “Christians are less likely to riot”, or that such unhappiness “was to be expected”, why then is so much made of an 8-minute video rant by a teenager who spoke the word “Christian” only twice, and the name “Jesus” only once?

Are Christians really offended by this? How many among the 21 police reports lodged against Amos Yee were by Christians? Why have the Christian groups such as the National Council of Churches in Singapore not said anything?

Have all their feelings really been “wounded” by a 1-minute rant in an 8-minute video?

Given what the government itself has said in the past, it is hard to believe that they are.

Perhaps it is time to seriously ponder what Mr Rajaratnam said – that the government should be “on the side of sanity” against “the intolerance of the hysterical minority” who would make mountains out of molehills.

Mr Law and Mr Tham would agree, I am sure.



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