Social Media Uprising in Singapore

A blogger facing a defamation suit launched by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong -- apparently the first against a blogger in the island republic – has chosen to fight the case and hundreds of Singaporeans have come to his aid.

The blogger, Roy Ngerng, alleged in a May 15 posting on his “Heart Truths blog that Lee had diverted money from the country’s central provident fund. When the prime minister threatened suit, Ngerng withdrew the offending article but posted more blogs raising questions about the CPF without directly attacking Lee.

While it is the first time a government figure, it also “possibly the first time a Singapore citizen is strongly fighting back against Lee’s lawsuit with the help of social media,” said a Singaporean source who declined to be named. “Roy offered to pay S$5,000, which Prime Minister Lee rejected as derisory. Now Ngerng has raised S$70,000 or more to pay off his libel lawsuit from ordinary Singaporeans using social media. This would never have happened in Singapore in the old days.”

Many international news outlets including the International Herald Tribune, the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, the now-defunct Far Eastern Economic Review and AsiaWeek, Time Magazine and others have been sued successfully by the family of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his father, Lee Kuan Yew. As it has become clearer that Singapore’s courts are notoriously determined to back the Lees and the government, news organizations have meekly knuckled under, paid the fines and refrained from any critical reporting on the country.

According to Ngerng’s website, donations had climbed to S$72,043.91 by June 2. The blogger’s lawyer, the human rights attorney M. Ravi, told reporters more than 1,000 people had contributed to the defense fund.

Some analysts have interpreted the social media uprising as a sign of the diminishing fear of the Lee family’s formidable legal apparatus and the People’s Action Party, which has ruled the island republic without brooking opposition since before Singapore became a country in 1965. However, with Lee’s father, the founder of modern Singapore, no longer a major force in the country’s politics, there have been growing signs of independence on the part of the citizens. Public resentment has grown over such issues as immigration, housing prices, crowded transport and, for many, stagnant real household incomes despite years of trumpeted big gains in gross domestic product. Ion the most recent general election when overall PAP vote declined from 66 percent to 60 percent.

Lee’s lawyers twice asked Ngerng to remove the subsequent blog postings, which he did, lthough they didn’t contain the allegedly defamatory allegations. But Lee’s lawyers said the apology wasn’t genuine and was instead was designed to “to raise his public profile, garner support and sympathy and renew his attack” against the premier, according to a copy of a letter from Lee’s lawyer, Davinder Singh, on Ngerng’s blog on May 26. He apparently also didn’t remove a Youtube video criticizing the prime minister.

“Last Sunday, the Singapore prime minister issued a letter of demand to me for defamation,” Ngerng said in an entry on his blog. “I have thus far acceded to the requests of the prime minister to remove several of the articles that I had written and a video that I made. I have also offered the Prime Minister my apology. The Prime Minister, through his lawyers, has rejected my offer of damages …The case will now essentially focus on a hearing involving assessment of damages since I have already apologized. It will ultimately involve cross-examination of the Prime Minister on the quantum of damages.”

Singaporean authorities have maintained an uneasy relationship with the Internet virtually since it became a major means of social media communication. The government has been publicly determined to keep the medium free to maintain the island’s reputation as a major finance and communications center in Southeast Asia. In May, the Media Development Authority ended 17 years of so-called “light touch” regulation of the Internet, establishing guidelines that required all Internet sites with more than 50,000 unique visitors per month to register with the government.

The sites were required to put up a S$50,000 bond if they reported more than one article a week on Singapore-related news. If the government were to object, The action was taken under media guidelines published in May that required all Internet sites to register with the government if they have 50,000 unique visitors a month. They must put up S$50,000 bond if they report more than one article a week on Singapore-related news over a period of two months. If the government objects to an article, it must be taken down within 24 hours.