Singaporean blogger Roy Ngerng has become the latest critic of the government to receive a lawyer’s letter.
Through his lawyer Davinder Singh, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is accusing Ngerng of having made defamatory statements in one of his blog posts. He is demanding that Ngerng take down the post, make an apology and pay him damages. The amount of damages he is asking for is not yet clear.
For critics, commentators and political opponents of the PAP government – the People’s Action Party having been the ruling party in Singapore since 1959 – the threat today is not assassination or getting beaten up by hired thugs, a danger faced by critics and journalists in many other countries. The threat comes instead in the form of lawyer’s letters and lawsuits.
Ngerng’s blog post, entitled “Where your CPF Money is Going: Learning from the City Harvest Trial”, had drawn parallels between Lee, Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund GIC and the management of the Central Provident Fund (CPF, the state pension fund) and the ongoing trial over Singaporean mega-church City Harvest Church’s alleged misappropriation of funds.
He went on to ask questions about the handling of both the state pension and sovereign wealth funds.
“Why have they created such complicated ways that the funds are being channelled, and why do they hide some information that they don’t want Singaporeans to know?” he said to Index on Censorship about his motivation in writing his posts.
The prime minister saw things very differently. “The article means and is understood to mean that Mr Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister of Singapore and Chairman of GIC, is guilty of criminal misappropriation of the monies paid by Singaporeans to the CPF,” wrote Singh in the letter sent to Ngerng. “This is a false and baseless allegation and constitutes a very serious libel against our client, disparages him and impugns his character, credit and integrity.”
If Ngerng does not concede to the prime minister’s demands by Monday at 5pm Singapore time, legal action will be taken against him. He is still talking to his lawyer about steps to take next.
“By eliminating the discourse through a lawsuit I am not able to get more information about [how our CPF is managed],” said Ngerng, adding that he hoped his case would at least further awareness and discussion of the way CPF rules affect Singaporeans.
This is nothing new. British journalist Alan Shadrake was famously taken to court in 2011 for scandalising the judiciary in his book “Once a Jolly Hangman” which examined the use of the death penalty in Singapore. He was found guilty and was jailed for about five weeks before he was deported to the UK.
The socio-political blog Temasek Review Emeritus was threatened with a defamation lawsuit in 2012 for publishing an article that alleged nepotism in the appointment of the prime minister’s wife, Ho Ching, to the chairmanship of Singapore’s other sovereign wealth fund Temasek Holdings. The blog deleted the article and published an apology.
The Attorney-General’s Chambers is also seeking to take legal action against blogger Alex Au for allegedly scandalising the judiciary in two of his blog posts. The court has so far allowed them to take action on only one of the posts, and the AGC is appealing the decision.
Many Singaporeans have objected to the threat of a defamation lawsuit against Ngerng. They argue that even if Ngerng’s assertions had been problematic, the prime minister should have countered them through openness and dialogue rather than a potentially financially ruinous lawsuit.
“The right to freedom of expression is enshrined in our Constitution, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and even in the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration signed by our Government. Yet, our Government’s actions, once again, are highly regressive, and serve to limit the space for expression instead of expanding it,” said human rights organisation MARUAH in a statement.
“Defamation actions do not address the concerns that Singaporeans have. Ngerng’s article, touching on issues like CPF and retirement funding, has sparked important questions that Singaporeans wish to be answered,” said another statement issued and signed by 54 civil society activists and supporters. “The prime minister’s threat of legal action, and the accompanying demand to remove the entire article, will eliminate dialogue and engagement on these questions when they should be debated and rebutted in public.”
This story was updated on Friday, May 23, 2014 to reflect an extended deadline for Ngerng to respond. The previous deadline set for response was Friday May 23. The new deadline for a response is Monday, May 26 at 5pm.