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HKFP Interview: Singaporean blogger Roy Ngerng on the costs of exercising freedom of speech

The spring of 2014 spelled the start of a two-year ordeal for Singaporean socio-political blogger Roy Ngerng. He was sued for defamation by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in May 2014 after publishing a post criticising the government’s management of Singapore’s Central Provident Fund (CPF) retirement scheme. He lost his job for reasons which he said were politically motivated, and had to rely on public donations to meet his legal costs. The case was finally settled on Monday but, for Ngerng, the future looks no brighter.

“The funds coming in this time round have been slow,” Ngerng told HKFP on Tuesday.

On Monday, the court ordered him to pay S$30,000 (HK$169,000) by Wednesday to cover the costs of the hearing, on top of the S$150,000 (HK$845,000) damages to be paid to the prime minister in installments over 17 years. In total, he is now liable for the equivalent of HK$1 million.

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Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sued Roy Ngerng for a total equivalent to HK$1 million. Photo: Wikicommons remix.

“In 2014, there was sense of injustice among a segment of Singaporeans who felt aggrieved that the government had been unresponsive towards the increased cost of living, and their inability to save enough inside their CPF pension funds,” said Ngerng. “However, the sentiment has since been subdued, especially after the last general election.”

He said that had raised S$6,446 (HK$36,000) as of Tuesday morning, and that he has asked one of his lawyers to return S$25,000 (HK$141,000) to him, which would go towards paying the S$30,000 due on Wednesday.

Defamation lawsuit

In this high-profile lawsuit, a first in Singapore against an online critic, Lee accused Ngerng of defaming him in a blog post about the management of the CPF and Ngerng was found guilty of defamation in November 2014, but the settlement was not reached until this week.

The Central Provident Fund in Singapore is a compulsory savings scheme for working Singaporeans and permanent residents. Ngerng had previously published blog posts about the CPF prior to the defamation case.

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Ngerng took down the blog post which was the subject of the defamation suit but continued protesting against the CPF. Photo: Heart Truths screen cap.

He told HKFP that the government made some “enhancements” to the CPF after his blog posts brought the issue to the public’s attention but they “are not realistic in terms of improving the plight of Singaporeans”.

‘An expensive activity.’

“Advocacy is an expensive activity,” Ngerng said. “Not only is it expensive, you can lose everything, as the previous opposition politicians have.”

“There is a segment of Singaporeans who align themselves with the ruling party and believe that the people who speak up are ‘troublemakers’ – a common term used. It is not only challenging to speak up but you face severe penalties via the law and also through monetary means.”

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Roy Ngerng speaking at a CPF rally in 2014. Photo: Roy Ngerng, via Facebook.

When asked whether he would continue to advocate for more government transparency on the management of CPF, Ngerng said, “for now, my focus is really on getting a job and getting back on my feet.”

“I have been applying for jobs with the government sector, non-governmental organisations and private organisations. I have received no replies. Unfortunately, in a landscape where most companies are beholden to the government, some by funding or contracts, most are fearful of hiring me,” he added.

Freedom of speech

The International Commission of Jurists and Reporters Without Borders were both critical of the lawsuit against Ngerng, with the former condemning the government for using a civil defamation suit to silence critics.

While Ngerng did not discuss his own case, he said, “there has been a series of transgressions against freedom of speech in Singapore… There are rules and laws which the government can effectively use to clamp down on free speech.”

He said that various legal moves have been made against another socio-political blogger, Alex Au, who was fined for contempt of court for a blog post, and cartoonist Leslie Chew, who was arrested for suspected sedition over a cartoon.

‘Naive’ to believe in change

“I never wanted to defame the prime minister or impinge on any of the personalities in government,” Ngerng said.

He said that he was merely concerned with lack of transparency about the management of the CPF and the retirement funds available to elderly Singaporeans.

“It is perhaps naive of me to believe that change could happen in Singapore, or perhaps ignorant of me to ignore the tools of oppression used against Singaporeans. I accidentally stepped on a mine, falsely believing that I had freedom of speech, until it was curbed through and through.” he added.

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HKFP Interview: Singaporean blogger Roy Ngerng on the costs of exercising freedom of speech