The changing faces of Amos Yee

An aspiring film-maker at 13 and then school leaver, he is now a different person, says mum

Amos Yee, 16, (centre, clutching white bag, with his mother Mary Toh) walked free yesterday after his sentence of four weeks' jail was backdated. Before he was sentenced, the teenager was in remand for about 50 days.
Amos Yee, 16, (centre, clutching white bag, with his mother Mary Toh) walked free yesterday after his sentence of four weeks' jail was backdated. Before he was sentenced, the teenager was in remand for about 50 days. ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

Few people have divided opinion as sharply as Amos Yee, 16, who walked free yesterday after his sentence of four weeks' jail - for making remarks intending to hurt the feelings of Christians in an expletive-laden video and uploading an obscene image - was backdated.

The one person who stood most firmly by him is his mother Mary Toh, 48, who had earlier told The Straits Times that she will do "anything that can help him in his case".

The slim youth she worries about now is a far cry from the chubby infant who attracted nicknames such as "little Buddha".

"He's so different now," she said.

But Madam Toh added that she is still proud of her son, whom she regards as "a confident, creative child with character". "But as he has not seen enough of the world, he is not tactful enough in dealing with diverse situations," she added.

"Many people are also hurt (by him) in one way or another. I'm so sad that I don't know what to say."

Yee first made headlines when he was just 13.

He won two prizes at The New Paper FiRST Film Fest for a three-minute short film, which he wrote, shot and also acted in all four roles. His achievements gained the attention of director Jack Neo, who later offered him a small role in his film I Not Naughty.

In the footage from the 2011 TNP award ceremony, Yee is already seen experimenting with the faux-American twang that was to become his signature accent. In the video, he gives host Irene Ang a peck on the cheek, and later tells a reporter that the veteran actress is the third person he has kissed, after his mother and his father.

The affection for his father, computer engineer Alphonsus Yee, was tested after the teenager alleged in a blog post that his father had been physically violent towards him.

Mr Yee, at the start of the trial, apologised outside the court to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for his son's actions. He said: "After what he has done, what else can I feel? It's just another blog post."

Yee does not stick to conventional paths. At Zhonghua Secondary School, he performed well enough in his O levels to get into Nanyang Junior College. He said in an online resume that he was nominated for a humanities scholarship.

However, he chose to drop out of school, saying in a YouTube video that he considered the education system here irrelevant to learning life skills. He wrote on his blog that he had not enjoyed his time at Zhonghua, having had "absolutely no friends and... no one to talk to".

In another video, Yee confessed to having had an unrequited crush on a schoolmate, saying that, despite having perfect eyesight, he wore glasses in his videos because she did in real life. The girl, said Yee, rebuffed his advances.

The glasses were eventually confiscated by the police, he wrote in a Facebook post.

He was brought up a Catholic and served as an altar boy at the Church of the Holy Spirit for around two years in secondary school.

Mr Anthony Lawrence, 46, who was, at the time, in charge of the altar servers ministry, said that Amos was consistent in serving the 7am morning mass but always used vulgar language.

Mr Lawrence said: "Whenever we scolded him, he just smiled, so much so that we wondered if he was taking us seriously. And then, he stopped coming."

Yee said in his police statement that he had begun to question his faith by around 2013, especially after watching videos from the YouTube channel The Amazing Atheist. By mid-2013, he had renounced his religion altogether.

While out on bail in April, Yee made an unexpected switch to veganism after he met, through family friends, Ms Siok Khoon Kent, the general manager of American alternative lifestyle organisation Our Place International.

Ms Kent, a Singaporean who is based in the United States, said she felt "cross-examined" during their first meeting, which lasted more than three hours. "He is so intelligent, I had to be on my feet."

Before he was sentenced, Yee was in remand for about 50 days.

On June 12, his lawyer Alfred Dodwell submitted a letter to the judge, in which he said that his client was experiencing suicidal thoughts at the prospect of reformative training. Mr Dodwell, one of three lawyers who took on Yee's case pro bono, said the teenager had initially been "very courteous and engaged in the process" but that this third stint in remand had been "a shock to his system".

Additional reporting by Ariel Lim

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 07, 2015, with the headline The changing faces of Amos Yee. Subscribe