The 33-year-old Roy Ngerng doesn’t look very threatening, a bespectacled, slight Chinese Singaporean with bangs hovering over his eyes. But the former hospital administrator and blogger could have long years of bankruptcy ahead of him.
Ngerng, who blogs at thehearttruths.com, is the first blogger in Singapore to be sued by a member of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). Singapore’s High Court found in early November that he had defamed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a blog post that drew links between Lee’s leadership of a sovereign wealth fund and a megachurch’s ongoing trial for alleged misappropriation of funds.
Lawsuits are familiar to the PAP. In fact, they’re seen as essential to the protection of the Singaporean government’s integrity and have been used to hold the press in check, earning the island republic a standing of 150th in 180 nations, just above the Republic of the Congo, Mexico and Iraq, in Reporters Without Borders’ 2014 freedom of the press rankings.
The lawsuit against Ngerng was sparked by his writing of a blog post entitled ‘Where Your CPF Money Is Going: Learning From The City Harvest Trial,’ in which he wrote of a “resemblance” between the way members of the City Harvest Church were accused of misappropriating funds and the management of Singapore’s Central Provident Fund, known as the CPF, and sovereign wealth fund GIC, of which Lee is chairman.
At the time of Ngerng’s blog post, members of City Harvest Church had yet to go on trial. The case is continuing and no judgment has been delivered as yet.
Lee sent Ngerng a letter through his lawyers, demanding an apology and payment of damages along with the removal of the post. He claimed that the blog post had implied that he was “guilty of criminal misappropriation of monies”. Ngerng complied, but his offer of S$5,000 in damages was rejected as “derisory”, and Lee’s lawyers asserted that statements to the press were to be seen as “further aggravation.”
The damages and costs have yet to be determined, but it’s likely to be a large amount. The High Court usually hears cases whose claims exceed S$250,000, and Lee’s lawyers aren’t cheap, either. It’s unlikely that Ngerng, who was fired from his job at a government hospital in the mids of the affair, will be able to pay up.
But Ngerng’s also had some help. He launched a crowdfunding campaign in June, the success of which took everyone by surprise. He reached his target amount of S$70,000 in four days, which went towards the payment of legal costs.
The lawsuit has also elevated Ngerng to the position of hero in the eyes of some Singaporeans, many of whom are supporters of Return Our CPF, a series of protests held by Ngerng and 23-year-old student Han Hui Hui.
Held once a month, the protests were rabidly anti-PAP, speaker after speaker going onstage to criticize the party, which has been in power in Singapore since 1959. “Criminals!” a middle-aged Chinese man shouted at one such Return Our CPF protest in August. “Steal our money!”
For these protesters, Ngerng’s blog posts on the pension fund have struck a chord. The CPF is a compulsory savings scheme that every employed Singaporean and Permanent Resident must pay into. Yet there have been questions about the opacity of the system, a concern that Ngerng’s writing taps into.
There is also confusion over the way CPF monies are managed. The funds are indirectly invested by the GIC; the government then gives Singaporeans a guaranteed return of two to four per cent. But commentators like Ngerng point out that Singapore’s sovereign wealth funds are earning a much higher rate of return.
Others, including government officials, have pointed out that the interest given to Singaporeans is guaranteed, while investments made by the sovereign wealth funds are much riskier. But in a climate of suspicion and animosity, the narrative of a government making money at the expense of their own citizens can quickly take root.
Under the outrage of the protesters lies a fear of drowning in Singapore’s rising cost of living. “HDB [Singapore’s public housing] rise, Minimum Sum [the minimum amount of money one needs to leave in the CPF] rise, where will we have enough money to retire?” was a question asked over and over again. To them, Ngerng is a hero, speaking on their behalf.
The low point for Return Our CPF came on Sep. 27 when protesters showed up once again at Hong Lim Park – the only place in Singapore where citizens are allowed to hold demonstrations – to find that they were sharing the space with a charity carnival organized by the YMCA. Protesters then began to heckle the carnival’s guest of honor, Minister of State for Trade and Industry Teo Ser Luck.
Ngerng and Han led their supporters in marches around the park, encroaching into the carnival space. A video shot by a member of the public appeared to show the protesters shouting anti-PAP messages as special needs children were led onstage for a performance. Although subsequent accounts said the protesters had dispersed soon after the children went on, the damage was done: Return Our CPF became known as the protest that heckled special needs children.
The episode was roundly criticized. “You are not crusaders. You are not freedom fighters. You are not defenders of the downtrodden, Roy and Hui Hui,” wrote popular blogger Lee Kin Mun (often known as mrbrown). “As of now, you are a bunch of insensitive wankers who will do anything to get attention, even if it means scaring special needs kids with your antics.”
Police took action following the uproar, investigating Ngerng, Han and other participants. A month after the protest, Ngerng, Han and four other protesters were charged with public nuisance, of which conviction will bring a maximum fine of S$1,000. As authorities say that the permit for Return Our CPF’s event had been revoked, Ngerng and Han were additionally charged with organizing a demonstration without approval, which will get them a maximum fine of S$5,000 if convicted.
“I think the movement, and not just Roy, has lost some support. What is interesting is that the government has embarked on a review of the CPF scheme, as mentioned by the president at the opening of Parliament in May,” Andrew Loh from socio-political blog The Online Citizen wrote in an email to Asia Sentinel.
“The question now for Roy and the Return Our CPF movement is how they can engage the issue in a different way, other than protesting about it and demanding the return of savings. Also, will the result of the government review take the wind out of the movement's sail eventually?”
The whole debacle has been a blow to the image of Ngerng and Return Our CPF. With the possibility of mounting fines and costs to be paid, it’s unclear how much longer or how hard he will be able to push against the establishment. What’s also unclear is if many Singaporeans will miss him and his efforts.
“My main aim has been to raise awareness of the condition in Singapore. I hoped that if people knew what the government was doing, in terms of the lack of spending on social protection, for example, people would take a stand and speak up to protect themselves. I do not know if this has happened,” Ngerng told Asia Sentinel. “People need to know that when I am down and I can't advocate on this anymore, and this is a very real possibility, then they would need to step up.”