The Many Lives of Amos Yee

Native son of someplace else


The Delinquent

In the first telling of the story, the most popular, he is a spoiled brat — a classic example of bad parenting. Spare the rod and this is what you get. The fact he will not continue with his studies despite good grades demonstrates his disdain for authority. He is possibly a lost cause already.

Twenty-odd concerned citizens realise the police need to step in and provide the missing discipline. Cheers erupt when the hoodlum is apprehended. But the crowd is not quite convinced this is enough. A petition is created to ask that he be treated as an adult. He needs some respect knocked into him.

Later, out on bail, the little troublemaker is recalcitrant and continues to defy authority by posting again — this is against the terms of his release. He even condemns his father in public accusing him of horrible crimes. This is outrageous. More ire. Rules are rules dammit. Honour thy parents, etc.

He is called back to court for his transgressions. Meanwhile, a virtual queue has formed of people wanting to slap him. One person jumps the queue, jumping out of cyberspace and landing a good smack to his left cheek. There is a collective fist pump but most are discreet about their glee. A few less so.

Yeah Baby

The Special Needs Kid

In this version of the story, he is a kind of idiot savant — clearly gifted yet very odd. A self-described “anti-social introvert”, his inability to form close relationships coupled with a complete inability to filter his speech hints at some kind of high functioning autism. There are many other diagnoses but this is the most popular. In one account, he is banging on the walls of his cell doing a Rain Man. One way or another, it’s some kind of pathology or mental condition.

He needs counselling, not incarceration. This should be obvious to anyone who sees how he dresses. He admits he likes to wear pajamas in public. A blog is set up dedicated to his fashion sense… or lack thereof.

By his own account, he is a victim of child abuse. This explains a lot. His videos were a cry for help. What is the matter with people? He is a child dammit. Why are so-called responsible adults pushing for his further abuse instead of calling for compassion? What is the matter with people?

The Broken Hearted

There is even a story for the romantics. On Valentines Day, just 6 weeks before the big story gets under way, our young man presents the shards of his broken heart for all to inspect. The YouTube video makes it clear that, not only is he not over the rebuff of his first love, but also that he has way too much time on his hands to mull it over.

He was a lonely boy looking for love. And after many meaningless crushes, he finally found a girl he could respect inside and out. Alas when he confessed his feelings, via text, her response was, “who is this?”

Not discouraged, he pursued. His love was true and not unlike the young man in Cinema Paradiso, he waited by her door for the day she would love him back. Except it wasn't a real door, it was a virtual door… of text messages. Sadly the romance of movies is dead. In real life, being creepy is not rewarded. Eventually she told him to “This is never, ever going to happen. EVER.”

With communication cut off, he then embarked on shenanigans to get her attention. By the date of his confession, these had all failed but we are left with the sense he has not given up, “I wish she would give me one more chance. I never showed her who I really was.”

For the romantics, his most infamous video was perhaps just another young man showing off for his crush. Most guys would go for extreme sports — base jumping off the sides of mountains, that kind of thing. Not our protagonist. Our young Don Juan found his own way to get his love’s attention. No doubt he succeeded.

The Freedom Fighter

In this story, the young man is a hero to a politically oppressed people under authoritarian rule. His use of expletives and pornographic images is intentional: he wants to wake the masses from their slumber. He wants to provoke anger and outrage. He wants to push the people until they find themselves embroiled in a long overdue debate about free speech.

Il est Charlie.

Filled with the overconfidence of youth, he throws down a challenge to the country’s ultimate symbol of authority: “Come at me mother-fucker.

But there is a plot twist. He has misjudged his audience. The mofo doesn’t need to come at him. The people don’t need saving. “Being provocative does not make you a hero.” They turn on him themselves. This isn't the USA dammit. Look at that place. It’s a basket case. If saying whatever you want is free speech, then we don’t want it. We have Asian values. That kind of individualism destroys community. We are too small to risk that kind of instability. If you grew up in the 60s, you’d understand that. You just don’t know what it was like.

Big brother can kick back and grin. The little brothers are on the case.

Amos becomes the toast of two continents but neither is Asia. Some, on the sidelines, shake their heads in dismay. They think the kid has balls and like his style. They won’t join the lynch mob but neither will they step into the cross hairs. Support, when it comes, comes in whispers, and always starts with the disclaimer, “I don’t agree with what he did but…”

When given a 2nd chance for release on bail, he declines. He refuses to acquiesce to the Out of Bound markers set by the judge. No dice. His cred amongst the hardcore increases. He is willing to go the whole way. He is willing to be a martyr. Dissidents cheer.

The Almost American

His counsellor and bailor proclaims, “He was simply born in the wrong country.” It’s an identity problem. Nationality dysphoria.

Following the progression of his videos over the years, the Singapore accent is eventually replaced by something almost American… but not quite. It hints at the voices on the internet that are mostly yankee but a little bit… everything else.

The transformation of his speech, given that he has never lived abroad, is extraordinary. But the accent is only the most outward display of the change. Inside that active mind, values and opinions have been reformatted as well. Who is to blame?

Thanks internet. You have turned our kids into an alien species. YouTube is The Body Snatchers. One day, we will wake up to find all our kids sound like Bill Maher and George Carlin rolled into one. And then what?

The next gen are digital natives of a land we only came to know as adults. And eventually we will be extinct. So much has been gained, but so much lost. A small country that moves with the ebb and flow of global migration and capital cannot dictate the terms on which it engages with the rest of the world. This is a tide of change that is unstoppable. We are price takers, not price makers. And part of what we pay is in cultural change… aka “Progress.”

Today Amos Yee is the poster child of that change. And perhaps we can tame him. But can we tame the tide?

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