Last week, 33-year-old Singaporean blogger Roy Ngerng posted a call for donations to help him pay his legal fees for a defamation case. Four days later, he had over S$70,000 (US$55,718). At the time of writing, he had managed to crowdfund S$81,000.80 (US$64,475).
Receiving such a large amount of donations in such a short period of time is in itself fairly impressive for an amateur blogger, but what makes Ngerng’s case particularly interesting is the person he will be facing in court: the Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong.
The success of Ngerng’s fundraising campaign is beginning to present an awkward picture. Awkward, that is, for the prime minister. Will Goliath not only have to square off with David, but his own citizens as well?
Prime Minister Lee first sent a letter to Ngerng through his lawyer, threatening to sue him for defamation. Ngerng had written that he saw a similarity between the way a megachurch allegedly misappropriated funds (the trial is still ongoing), and how the money from Singapore’s state pension fund had been channelled towards the sovereign wealth fund GIC, of which Lee is chairman.
Lee said that Ngerng had accused him of misappropriating Singaporeans’ pension funds, which “constitutes a very serious defamation”. Lee demanded that he remove and apologise for the post, as well as pay damages.
The letter was the first salvo in a flurry of exchanges between Lee and Ngerng’s lawyers. The to-and-fro saw Ngerng having to take down another four posts and a YouTube video, while Lee was further aggravated by emails he had sent to local and international press.
It came to a head when Lee rejected Ngerng’s offer of S$5,000 (approx. USD 3,980) in damages as “derisory”. The two parties will now meet in court. Since Ngerng has already apologized and admitted that the allegation was “false and completely without foundation”, the case is likely to revolve more around the amount of damages and costs that he should pay.
Such court cases can be financially ruinous. Singaporeans have seen it before. Opposition politicians Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam (more often known in Singapore as JBJ) and Chee Soon Juan had both been bankrupted by defamation suits filed by members of the People’s Action Party (PAP), including Lee, his father (and Singapore’s first Prime Minister) Lee Kuan Yew and former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. Lawsuits – the most common being defamation, contempt of court and scandalizing the judiciary – appear to be a favourite tool of the government.
“I am now raising funds to fund the legal defense. This case might last for the next few months or even a year. We would need the resources to continue to campaign on this,” Ngerng said in a video statement. He estimated that he would need S$70,000 just to cover his own legal costs. He got it.
The response to his call has been astonishing. In the interest of transparency Ngerng has been publishing statements showing the amount of money raised each day. The accounts show that most donations aren’t very big sums, suggesting a large support base rather than a few rich benefactors.
Ngerng is not getting the support of all Singaporeans. Many have been put off by his problematic arguments and posturing, which has been described as “inflated and melodramatic rhetoric”. Ngerng has definitely not shied away from dramatics, positioning himself as speaking for Singaporeans against “tyranny and treachery”.
His analyses, although often raising valid questions, have also been called out for their flaws. Secretary-General of the Reform Party Kenneth Jeyaretnam, who has had plenty of experience in the financial sector, previously pointed out Ngerng’s errors in discussing the way citizens are able to use their pension funds to pay for public housing.
But Jeyaretnam is not one of Roy’s critics when it comes to this lawsuit. As the son of the late JBJ, Jeyaretnam knows firsthand how individuals and their families can be crippled by heavy damages paid to PAP ministers.
He also has other reasons for objecting to the defamation suit.
“The PM has an easy solution to questions over his government’s management of our money and that is to provide us with the figures and to answer the questions that have been put to him. Let him silence Roy with facts and figures if he can, rather than with a lawyer’s letter,” he wrote in a blog post which raised further questions about the state pension fund and Singapore’s sovereign wealth funds.
Civil society activist Vincent Wijeysingha also drew attention to another important point: citizens’ lack of access to crucial information. “By censuring Ngerng and demanding that he verify his claims in court, we are pretending that in terms of access to information, Ngerng is on a level playing field when clearly he is not. Over almost six decades of unbroken government, the PAP has thrown a veil around the nuts and bolts of our governance, particularly – especially – the Temasek-GIC-CPF [Singapore’s two sovereign wealth funds and the state pension fund] nexus,” he wrote in a Facebook note.
Opinions over this case are not quite black-and-white. Not everyone is a fan of Ngerng or his writing. But not everyone is standing with Ngerng because they believe him to be their representative or hero.
Some are donating money to Ngerng’s cause because they reject the habit PAP ministers have of resorting to costly defamation suits, actions that are more aimed at destroying opponents and critics rather than engaging in open dialogue.
The asymmetry in power and privilege is also stark. As a healthcare worker, S$5,000 was probably a very substantial amount of money for Ngerng to offer to settle this dispute. Lee, on the other hand, is one of the most highly-paid political leaders in the world. (In 2010 The Economist reported that his salary was 40 times Singapore’s GDP per person.) He can afford to dismiss S$5,000 and drag the case into expensive courtroom battles. Needless to say, this is something Ngerng – or most other Singaporeans – can ill afford. To some, Lee’s rejection of Ngerng’s offer and decision to take him to court just looks like bullying.
This episode has once again thrown up important questions for Singaporeans. How should political leaders – public servants elected by the people – engage with their citizens, even (or especially) the ones with harsh words and tough questions? How should a public official react to allegations, even the baseless ones? Should the powerful elite continue to ruin their opponents with costly lawsuits, or is it high time to break the habit?
Conversations taking place online and offline show that Singaporeans have yet to reach a consensus. But perhaps one principle could help resolve the issue: the principle of openness, transparency and accountability, not just for bloggers making allegations, but also government officials guarding opaque administrations.