S'pore’s Pounding of Powerless to Cost Them at Poll Time?

Although a Singapore judge has put the libel payment judgment against blogger Roy Ngerng Yee Ling on hold until Aug. 31, the publicity from the government's bullying of two powerless youths could cost it in the next election, critics of the government say.

Besides Ngerng, there is Amos Yee, the 16-year-old who made the mistake [see http://www.asiasentinel.com/politics/singapore-big-guns-small-threats/] of delivering an eight-minute obscenity-filled YouTube entry insulting Singapore founder and patriarch Lee Kuan Yew’s memory shortly after he died in March and has ended up in a mental institution for evaluation to see if he is autistic.

The delay in determining how much Ngerng must pay was delivered after three days of hearings to determine the fine, during which Ngerng, a gay rights activist who blogs at thehearttruths.com, and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong both took the stand.

Ngerng, 34, was convicted last November of defaming the premier and has been waiting ever since to see how much he is going to have to pay. He is already relatively penniless, having been fired from his job as a government hospital attendant in the wake of publication of the suit and lives at home with his parents.

Beyond, the court has blocked an attempt by Ngerng to engage a queen’s counsel, Heather Rogers, an elite London-based human rights lawyer, to argue his case, which would have included cross-examining Lee on the grounds that although she is an expert on defamation in the UK – the legal system on which Singapore’s is based – Rogers isn’t qualified to argue the case because it is “local-centric.”

That might be due to the fact that in 1989, another Queen’s Counsel and expert on defamation, Geoffrey Robertson, put Lee Hsien Loong’s father through three days of cross examination in a libel case involving the Far Eastern Economic Review that observers said all but humiliated the then-prime minister. Queen’s Counsels have been a rare sight in political Singapore court cases since.

With the ruling PAP’s hold on the electorate weakening, especially after Lee Kuan Yew's death, the Lee family’s constant lawsuits are starting to wear thin, especially against people as powerless as Ngerng and Amos Yee

“In a letter to US President Lyndon Johnson in 1967, the US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara warned the president, ‘the sight of the world's greatest superpower pounding a small backward nation (Communist North Vietnam) into submission on an issue whose merits are hotly contested is not a pretty one," a Singaporean source said in an email to Asia Sentinel. “To paraphrase McNamara, the sight of the world's highest paid prime minister suing an unemployed blogger for enormous sums of money on an issue that is hotly contested is not a pretty one. By seeking massive damages against this blogger, it will cost the ruling party votes in the coming elections and ruin the image of the Prime Minister more than the blogger's allegations ever did.”

The story began last November when Singapore’s High Court found in early November that Ngerng had defamed 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. Lee’s suit was triggered by Ngerng’s 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.

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 and apologized, 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.” He was convicted last November and has been waiting ever since to see the extent of the damages he is going to have to pay to the prime minister.

Ngerng launched a crowdfunding campaign to pay for his legal troubles, which surprised everybody, raising S$70,000 in four days to defray the cost of the suit. That money disappeared into the legal maw and Ngerng was ordered to pay another S$29,000 in legal costs as well.

Lee Hsien Loong has remained uncompromising, asking for aggravated damages despite the fact that on the stand Ngerng has repeatedly said he had no intention of defaming the prime minister. Ngerng has broken into tears on the stand and has repeatedly said he will be ruined financially by the case.

"I'm so sincere, I've apologized to you so many times that I've lost count," Ngerng said adding that he had sent his apologies about seven to eight times.

Lee said the apologies weren’t sincere. "All I wanted was one apology and a follow-through,” Lee said. “You went on to do other things. Your conduct shows that you have no intention of closing the matter properly."

"We're not here to play games,” Lee said during several hours of testimony. “There's no point going through it again other than to aggravate damages."

"Roy Ngerng is being taken to task for speaking his mind, and in a normal democratic country, the accused would have simply refuted any real or perceived accusations with counter-arguments,” said Phil Robertson, the Thailand-based deputy director of Human Rights Watch Asia. “But Singapore is far from a truly democratic government, which is why they seem to think it is okay for a public leader like Prime Minister Lee to sue his activists rather than debating with them. This whole lawsuit is a shameful example of the insecurities of Singapore's leaders running rampant and their preference to sue perceived opponents into submission."

“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 in a previous story. “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.”