By: Roy Yi Ling Ngerng

We have never seen a mass attack on free expression in the recent history of Singapore like the one now going on against independent news media and bloggers. The government appears to have become emboldened in the past one to two years, spurred in part by a general election expected to be held soon.

The online media scene in Singapore really blossomed around 2010, when Singaporeans began to understand how to use it to write about issues that confront the voters, and when people realized that Facebook could be a platform to organise themselves. For Singapore particularly, the use of Facebook resulted in increased awareness that others had similar thoughts on rising inequality and insecure livelihoods.

These culminated with the largest protests in Singapore over immigration and the country’s retirement funds, the Central Provident Fund (CPF), in 2013 and 2014 which were attended by 5,000 to 6,000 people each.

By 2012 or so, the Singapore government  began to realize the threat that online and social media posed to their rule. Previously they had not taken it seriously and the Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong therefore dared to talk about opening up. He said in 2004’s National Rally Speech: “We should have an open society which is welcoming of talent, which welcomes diverse views, [and where] everyone participates in building and repairing and upgrading this shared home which is Singapore.”

“We have opened up over the years. We’ve got the Speakers’ Corner. We’ve allowed a lot more discussion,” he said.

The Speaker’s Corner is the only space in Singapore where protests are legally allowed.

The government felt it could appear to act boldly because the populace was relatively subdued by that time, and the People’s Action Party (PAP) government might be lulled into believing that they could loosen up (at least on the surface), with the belief that Singaporeans would not take advantage of the opening up of the space to threaten the PAP’s rule.

Indeed, that was the case for the next few years, the Speaker’s Corner went largely unused. There could be the possibility that there was a genuine want to open up, what with the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) and Transient Workers Count Too being set up at the same time in 2004 to advocate for migrant workers’ rights. However, the rights of migrant workers are a relatively niche issue which the government could have felt that they could close one eye to.

The new government under Lee Hsien Loong might also be lulled into believing that the policies that they had inherited and which they were continuing to cruise along with were largely accepted by Singaporeans due to the lack of protests.

Thus policies that curbed the freedom of speech and assembly in Singapore blindsided the PAP to the policies’ inadequacies. The willingness to open up in 2004 under the new prime minister was due to both ignorance of the on-ground realities and the assumption that Singaporeans would be docile enough not to upset the PAP’s plans.

When the right factors came together in the early 2010s, with more-organized use of social media, it empowered Singaporeans. More-coherent organization via social media is also probably why many of the major protests in Asia and the Middle East, such as the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong and Sunflower Movement in Taiwan also coincided with the 2014 CPF protests, with youths from various countries gaining a better understanding of how to use Facebook and social media to their advantage. The Singapore government perhaps acted the swiftest to curb such impulses, in part because it was easy to do so. Whereas the Hong Kong and Taiwan protests numbered in the hundreds and thousands and grew by the day, ours dwindled by the time Han Hui Hui and I were charged. Sept. 27, 2014 when our protests were disrupted, was the day that protest really blossomed in Hong Kong.

It took some time for the government to get their act together, in 2017 charging the Umbrella Movement leaders with public nuisance, the very same charges that Hui Hui and I got back in 2014. Taiwan fortunately had a change of government in 2016 which chose to enshrine democracy even further.

After we were charged, the government’s actions largely curbed the willingness of Singaporeans to protest even in the restricted confines of the Speaker’s Corner at the Hong Lim Park. The few who continued to do so were thereafter targeted for persecution, such as Jolovan Wham who has been charged on several counts, and many others who were investigated by the police as an act of intimidation.

Governments around the world have realized how they could buy Facebook over, and the ability to use it to organize social movements in authoritarian regimes seemed to have been crippled, what with Facebook’s assistance to allow trolls (such as China’s 50 cents army and Singapore’s Internet Brigade (IB)) to attack opposition voices while shutting down opposition platforms on flimsy excuses even as the pro-government voices are left standing.

What is left in Singapore therefore is the online media, which the government has decided to try to take out at one fell swoop now – with the latest string of attacks on independent online media. They include The Online Citizen, The Independent Singapore, States Times Review, Singapore Herald, The Coverage, New Naratif, Leong Sze Hian and seven independent journalists and bloggers who have faced various forms of political persecution in the hands of the Singapore government.

Perhaps the saying that the harder you push, the stronger the push back, might be apt now. The government is coordinating a mass attack on independent voices but there is also a level of push-back. Leong Sze Hian has countersued the prime minister for an abuse of court process. Jolovan Wham is appealing his guilty verdict because of the significant issues of civil rights that need to be brought up, he said.

The Independent Singapore refused to back down when NTUC Foodfare threatened to sue them because the former made clear that the articles they wrote were based on facts and NTUC Foodfare should challenge them on facts, instead of using the law to intimidate them. Even the States Times Review shut down but was revived via the Singapore Herald and has continued to evolve to circumvent the government’s crackdown.

As such, Singaporeans are not taking it sitting down. It is perhaps the case that the PAP is seeing its legitimacy being questioned. The cost of living has gone up for basic necessities since the 2015 general election and Singaporeans are angered by broken promises over public housing – the promised rising housing prices to secure the retirements of citizens are not going to materialize as public housing prices are collapsing under the realization that public Housing Development Board flats will have declining values because of their 99-year life spans.

I think to some extent, how I dealt with my defamation suit would have signaled to other activists how to deal with (or not deal with) political persecution. After I was sued, I apologized which weakened my case. It seems that Leong Sze Hian and The Independent have learned that there is no need therefore to bend backwards for a government that cannot be trusted.

The Coverage, which alleged that that Singapore had signed “unfair” agreements with Malaysia in exchange Singapore  Banks’ assistance to launder money from 1MDB, took down their articles but were still geoblocked by the Singapore government, a technology that restricts access to Internet content based upon the user’s geographical location. Having said that, both Leong Sze Hian and The Independent have much stronger cases than mine. Leong was sued simply for sharing a post which he did not write, and which he shared with no caption as well. The Independent Singapore wrote their offending articles based on interviews with the people involved.

I am also somewhat surprised that the government would continue to use defamation (both civil and criminal) against independent media. I would expect that after the public uproar that came with my suit that they would have learnt to adopt other means of persecution, in order to look more amiable. However, it does look like they have not learned although perhaps they believe the public would still buy into their propaganda of using the defamation laws, or perhaps the PAP is simply not creative enough to think of new ways to persecute Singaporeans – their socioeconomic policies are moreover an extension of what was done by the previous PAP leaders and the new breed of politicians in the PAP have not been innovative otherwise.

Singaporeans might not venture to speak up publicly but I am confident that by and large, they do not tolerate unfairness and injustice. The mass attack would make it quite clear to Singaporeans that the PAP government is acting beyond reasonable boundaries and that it certainly cannot be accepted that innocent individuals are attacked all at once together. Such action of bullying taken in a country where the populace is largely educated and discerning to some extent would result in a fallout at some level.

How this year will turn out, together with a rallying among the opposition by former presidential candidate Tan Cheng Bock, together with Lee Hsien Yang, the brother of the prime minister, whose son is being sued by his uncle’s government will be interesting to watch, to see whether an opposing force will be born out of this movement against the growing authoritarianism of the PAP.

In 2014, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong successfully sued Roy Ngerng for defamation over a blog post about the government’s handling of the Central Provident Fund (CPF), the country’s mandatory pension fund. Although Ngerng contended that his criticism was focused on the lack of transparency in the government’s management of the money and not intended as a criticism of the prime minister, the court awarded Lee a total of S$215,000. Ngerng, who was fired from his hospital job in the wake of the defamation suit, agreed to a payment plan that would take him 17 years to pay off the damages. He currently lives in exile in Taiwan.