Dressed in a black T-shirt and khaki shorts, Amos Yee cut an unassuming figure when he showed up at the Singapore State Courts on 17 April.
The 16-year-old was facing serious criminal charges – some of which he would be convicted of on 12 May. They were of wounding religious feelings, harassment and posting obscenities. But the teenager breezed past reporters, munching a banana.
This is Amos, the enfant terrible who has fascinated and infuriated Singaporeans ever since he was arrested in March over a Youtube video.
To his mother, he is just “different”, a child born in the wrong place. But to many others he is seen as the boy who dared to insult Lee Kuan Yew.
Jeers and cheers
On 23 March Singapore lost Lee Kuan Yew, the deeply respected former prime minister seen as the country’s founding father.
Days later, Yee posted his video, titled Lee Kuan Yew is Finally Dead! – becoming one of the few Singaporean voices openly criticising Lee’s legacy.
He likened Lee to Jesus Christ, and criticised Christians in general, a serious crime in a country which has seen race riots in the past and takes a zero-tolerance approach towards insults of race and religion.
Later, he posted a crude cartoon depicting Lee having sex with Margaret Thatcher, a personal and political ally of Lee’s.
At least 30 people lodged police reports; he was swiftly arrested and charged.
Since then, Yee has attracted insults and death threats.
But he has also earned praise and support from those who see him as a free speech advocate.
Several strangers stepped up to act as his defence lawyers and post bail. A local humorist started a campaign calling for leniency with a blog post titled Je Suis Amos.
Another blog detailing his quirky outfits went viral, as did jokes about “Famous Amos”, referencing the US cookie brand. Dozens held a vigil on the eve of the verdict.
Sociologist Tan Ern Ser said some may have agreed with him but disapproved of his “show of disrespect”, while others marginalised by Lee’s policies were “inclined to see someone who dares to openly speak up against the system as a kind of folk hero, and worthy of praise”.
Yee’s mother, Mary, told the BBC that her son was “a fantastic child, perhaps born in the wrong country”.
She described him as a precocious boy who loved reading and making videos. He won awards in a short film contest and acted in a local movie.
But he cut short his studies, and in a blog described how he struggled to fit in at school, where he had few friends.
The media has seized upon the fact that Mrs Yee took her son to see a psychiatrist after he posted his video. But his mother insisted that it was just a health check, and that the test results were “fine”.
Perhaps one reason Yee has become the object of deep fascination is his utter lack of remorse.
In recent years, Singapore has seen several people torn apart online for offensive posts. Faced with public fury, these people without exception have apologised,gone into hiding, or even left the country.
In contrast Yee broke bail spectacularly by not only reposting his material but also unleashing a torrent of Facebook and blog posts criticising his bail conditions. He pleaded not guilty to his charges during his trial.
Such unrepentant insouciance, and the fact that he insulted a founding father, may have tapped into a recurrent anxiety among Singaporeans that a younger generation, having known only prosperity, takes the country’s stability for granted.
This may be why the slapping of Yee on 30 April by a stranger, as he arrived at court, drew not just shock but also approval in some quarters.
Many denounced it as vigilantism, and the attacker jailed for three weeks, also being publicly condemned by the law minister.
But Singapore remains a place where corporal punishment is still seen by some – including the state itself, which sentences people to caning – as an acceptable form of discipline.
The 49-year-old attacker argued in court that he only slapped Yee because as an elder, he wanted to teach him a lesson.
There were those who thought “it’s about time the boy got his comeuppance”, while some did not condone the violence “but they’re still gleeful that [the attacker] did what they have an urge to do themselves if they could or had the guts to”, noted one blogger.
Wave of emotion
The state made it clear that it was prosecuting Yee for his remarks about Christians, not his criticism of Lee – a harassment charge for his anti-Lee comments was dropped.
But it was those Lee comments which sparked the most public anger.
Many Singaporeans accept Lee was a controversial figure, and comments criticising him are not new. At any other time, an anti-Lee rant by a teenager may have at most caused weary eye-rolling or jokes.
But when Lee died, the city state saw an unprecedented wave of emotion overcome its normally stoic citizens, as they lost the man seen as their anchor.
“Sensitivities were high after Mr Lee’s passing and also, I don’t think the vast majority of Singaporeans have a nuanced grasp of the discourse of free speech… or about the proportionality of criminal sentencing,” said Colin Goh, the humorist behind the campaign for Yee’s release.
‘Lack of boundaries’
Youth counsellor Vincent Law, who treated Yee and posted bail for him, said he did so because he wanted to show that as a Christian he was not offended by the video.
He said Yee was “like any 16-year-old rebellious kid”, who is “challenging authority, feeling he has to fit in a mould and conform to society’s norms”.
“He’s very intelligent, bright, pleasant and courteous… But he lacks a sense of boundaries and empathy for other people. He says he has to be honest and cannot compromise.”
Mr Goh sees Amos Yee as “a true litmus test for Singapore’s maturity in a post-Lee Kuan Yew world”.
“During [Lee’s] funeral, I thought Singaporeans behaved in a very mature fashion – calm, reflective, thoughtful, forgiving. There is some irony that Amos’s case has perhaps revealed quite the opposite.”
Still others believe it is a sign of a changing Singapore, whose strict hate speech laws have been criticised for muting critical discussion on such topics.
“We have a new generation that needs the space to be themselves, to express divergent views,” said Mr Law. “As a society, we need to give them that space and not stifle them.”