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2 Singapore cases highlight free speech limits

In this June 8, 2013, file photo, a man covers his mouth with a fifty dollar bill to represent the loss of free speech at the Speakers Corner in Singapore to protest a new government policy that requires news websites to obtain licenses. The cases of teen video blogger Amos Yee and independent news and opinion website "The Real Singapore" have focused attention on free speech limits, and perhaps the next election, in this cosmopolitan but famously strict city-state. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E, File)

A crackdown by the government on a teen video blogger and an independent news and opinion website has highlighted free speech limits in Singapore. A look at the two cases:

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THE AMOS YEE CASE

Amos Yee, who won a local filmmaking prize at age 13, has posted 30 videos to his YouTube channel, including praise for police response to a 2013 riot, a wry lesson in the Singlish dialect and a glowing review of Richard Linklater’s film “Boyhood.” His last — eight minutes of criticism of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, “his followers” and Christians (Yee says he’s atheist) — used statistics borrowed from blogger and political activist Roy Ngerng.

Yee’s attorney Alfred Dodwell said offended viewers filed 32 police reports, and his mother filed one apologizing publicly for her son’s actions. Yee would be out on bail if he had agreed to take down his videos and not post on social media. “I won’t say he’s a man of conviction, but he’s certainly a kid of conviction,” Dodwell said.

Grace Fu, Singapore’s second minister for foreign affairs, said she wasn’t concerned about the international response to the image of a teen shackled for speaking his mind online. “It’s not just any YouTube video. It crosses the red line on religion. But I think that Amos Yee is not doing himself or his family any favors,” she said. “How do you deal with a 16-year-old that is not able to comply with rules of society? It’s kind of a parent’s nightmare.”

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THE REAL SINGAPORE CASE

Editors of the news and opinion site The Real Singapore have been far less public than Amos Yee. A day after their site was shut down on May 3 (coincidentally U.N.-designated World Press Freedom Day), Ai Takagi and Yang Kaiheng left the country to visit Yang’s ailing father in Australia. They also face prosecution under sedition charges, with the next court hearing set for May 18.

Lawrence Wong, Singapore’s minister for culture, community and youth, said, “The space for expression is very wide open online. The feeling, though, was that TRS crossed a line. They were putting out falsehoods … blatantly false stories with a view to create anti-foreigner, xenophobic sentiments.”

Race is a complicated issue in Singapore, a proudly multicultural country. Temporary laborers from Bangladesh, India and elsewhere have poured into the city-state in the last decade, so much so that nonresidents now comprise more than a fourth of Singapore’s total population of 5.4 million. Political opposition leaders call for a more restrictive immigration policy, saying the government’s focus on economic growth has blinded it to resulting problems, from severe income inequality to overstretched social services.

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