Nearly two years ago, a now-34-year-old Singaporean blogger named Roy Ngerng intimated in his “Heart Truths” blog that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had diverted money from the country’s central provident fund.
In doing so, he unleashed a whirlwind that has cost him his job, got him sued for civil libel and demonstrated the ominous power of the Lee family when its members believe they have been maligned. Barring unexpected windfalls, he will be paying the prime minister until he is 57 years old.
Ngerng became the first blogger to be sued in Singapore, joining a long list of international newspapers and magazines that have faced the wrath of the Lee family. 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.
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 while cracking down hard when the government or the Lee family decide they have had enough. Two independent Internet portals have been closed while there is heavy government pressure on the third, The Online Citizen.
But few lives have been destroyed as effectively as Roy Ngerng’s. Hit originally with S$70,000 in court costs arising from the suit, Ngerng opted for the internet and crowdfunding, which apparently struck a nerve with Singaporean citizens irritated with the prime minister’s bullying. More than 1,000 people came to his defense, according to his then-lawyer, raising more than S$130,000. He is now going back to the Internet in his attempt to pay off an additional S$180,000 to the prime minister. The remainder of the crowdfunding from his earlier has gone into paying off the new bill.
The story began in May of 2014, when Ngerng made his original post, a fanciful chart mapping the relationships between the prime minister, the Central Provident Fund, the Monetary Authority of Singapore and other entities and claimed an “uncanny resemblance” between this chart and another regarding the relationships among the leaders of a church who were being charged with misappropriating funds.
Although he posted more blogs raising questions about the CPF, he didn’t mention Lee. Nonetheless, the prime minister’s lawyer, Davinder Singh, sued Ngerng, who subsequently apologized unreservedly to the prime minister.
About a month after the blog appeared, Ngerng was sacked from his job as a patient coordinator at Tan Tock Seng Hospital for “conduct incompatible with the values and standards expected of employees” and for misusing resources for personal pursuits.
Lee’s lawyer said the “abject and unconditional apology” was “not genuine” and ordered him to take down the additional blogs, which he agreed to do. Ngerng offered S$5,000 in damages, which Lee’s lawyer described as “derisory,” charging Ngerng had misled the Prime Minister by declining to remove a YouTube video as well about the matter.
Lee ultimately filed criminal defamation charges that cost Ngerng S$70,000 in court costs. His request to be represented by a Queen’s Counsel, an elite UK lawyer, was turned down. The end of the case was inevitable. No member of the Lee family has ever lost a libel case in a Singapore court.
In December, Ngerng, who is bankrupt and living with his parents, a carrot cake stall seller and a retired factory worker, was ordered to pay S$100,000 in general damages and S$50,000 in aggravated damages plus an additional S$30,000 in court costs. While it is an established principle that the plaintiff must show economic loss to get damages from a libel suit under UK law, the Prime Minister clearly suffered no economic damage since he was returned to office with a hugely increased vote share. That raises the question why he received such an award of damages from an obviously broke defendant.
Ngerng will now pay S$100 a month for five years, when the payments are increased to S$1,000. He is on the hook until 2033 – another 17 years.
Ngerng has once again turned to crowdfunding in his attempt to pay off the damages. He has raised S$17,600 so far, he said in an interview, much slower than during his last appeal. He can’t find another job in Singapore, he said, and is seeking one overseas.
“It is a mess,” he said. “I don’t have a job, I am applying to NGOs, government agencies, I have not got a call back. The reality is that many people are scared. A friend said there are people who support my fundraising effort, but hiring is impossible because they would face resistance from the government.”
Ngerng became a minor Singapore celebrity during the two years of the controversy. He joined the opposition Reform Party and, as a gay male, has become an active public speaker for LGBT issues and victims of HIV.
But, he said, “It has not been easy, these two years. At some point, you can get depressed and question your self-worth. I try to write, but as of now, the Singapore government’s propaganda is very strong. People are aligned with the government’s mindset. Sometimes it gets difficult to have these beliefs that are based on evidence and logic. But people don’t understand it. That is the reality of trying to fight in Singapore. You will lose everything.”