Free speech goes to court in Singapore

Blogger critical of a lack of government transparency faces defamation lawsuit from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Roy Ngerng of online blog The Heart Truths addresses a crowd during a June protest [Reuters]

Singapore – Roy Ngerng is set for a court battle over a defamation suit filed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, a case that has catapulted the blogger into the limelight in the fight for freedom of expression in this city-state.

A prolific blogger who runs the website The Heart Truths, Ngerng first received a letter on May 19 from Lees lawyer, Davinder Singh, alleging a post he had written constituted a “very serious libel” against the prime minister.

The offending blog focused on the Central Provident Fund (CPF) – Singapores state pension fund – and how money from there was channelled into investments in GIC, one of Singapores two sovereign wealth funds. Ngerng also noted that Prime Minister Lee is chairman of GIC.

“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 moniespaid by Singaporeans to the CPF,” Singh wrote in the letter. He demanded that Ngerng remove the article, issue an apology, and pay damages to Lee.

The issue came to a head when Lee rejected Ngerngs offer of Singapore $5,000 ($3,960) in damages as “derisory”. Lee then applied to the court for a summary judgement, saying the only issue to be determined is the amount of damage Ngerng should pay.

Ngerng heads to court on Thursday to fight for an open trial.

Pension fund questions

This case has had a profound effect on Ngerng’s life; he lost his job as a patient administrator at the government-run Tan Tock Seng Hospital. But the outpouring of support for Ngerng has been surprising.

When he launched a crowd-funding campaign on his blog to help pay his legal fees, the target amount of $55,500 was reached in just four days. His 10th fundraising update on June 22 indicated he has raised $87,400.

The level of support could perhaps be explained by his chosen subject: the management of SingaporeansCPF.

Matters surrounding the CPF have been close to Singaporeans’ hearts for a long time. As a forced savings scheme, Singaporeans and their employers are required to make monthly contributions into the fund to save for their retirement, rather than having a state-disbursed pension. The scheme has since been expanded to allow for Singaporeans to use the money for property, healthcare, and their children’s education. Funds from the CPF are also indirectly invested by GIC, earning Singaporeans a guaranteed interest of between two to four percent.

But the rules aren’t always well understood by the public.

The government, meanwhile, has insisted the CPF is widely recognised as a good system.

“Let me state that the CPF is put in place to help Singaporeans have peace of mind when it comes to their retirement years. With increasing longevity, it has become even more important to help Singaporeans sustain their retirement adequacy for longer,” wrote Minister for Manpower Tan Chuan-jin in a blog post.

A common Singaporean is asking a valid question about where our money goes. How can the prime minister, being the big man, instead of coming clean … sue the small man?

by - Ng Li Yok, taxi driver

But some Singaporeans remain unconvinced. About 2,000 people showed up at a June 9 protest dubbed “Return Our CPF”, the first in a series at which Ngerng spoke. A demonstration on August 23 was the latest.

Singaporeans with whom Al Jazeera spoke at that protest said they had followed Ngerng’s case closely and were in full support of his efforts.

“A common Singaporean is asking a valid question about where our money goes. How can the prime minister, being the big man, instead of coming clean … sue the small man? I’ve lost all my respect for [the prime minister],” said 44-year-old taxi driver Ng Li Yok.

A Singaporean consultant in the oil-and-gas industry, who declined to give his name fearing of reprisals, told Al Jazeera suspicions remain about the pension fund.  

“I’m 64, and I still have over S$100,000 [$79,000] stuck in my CPF,” the man said. “Roy opened up this chapter for everyone to know what’s going on.”

Need for transparency

Ngerng alleged the government has been earning a higher level of interest from its investment of CPF monies than it is passing on to the people.

“Fundamentally, Singaporeans want the government to be transparent about what they are using our CPF for and where they have invested our CPF in,” Ngerng told Al Jazeera. “This means to have full records… We want accountability in having the government then return our CPF monies and the earnings we should have earned back to us.”

Kenneth Jeyaretnam is the leader of the Reform Party, and also has 25 years’ experience working in finance. He doesnt agree with all of Ngerngs analyses, but urged openness as the best way to counter suspicions.

All were asking for is transparency. As long as they wont give us transparency … these questions are going to continue to fester,” he said.

Lee has been criticised for falling back on an old government habit of lawsuits to stifle public discourse, rather than engaging openly with citizens.

But the government disagrees. “When someone makes false and malicious personal allegations that impugn a person’s character or integrity, the victim has the right to vindicate his reputation, whether he is an ordinary citizen or the prime minister.

Ngerng and his supporters are demanding greater government transparency over Singapore’s pension fund [Getty Images]

“The internet should not be exempt from the laws of defamation,” wrote Lee‘s press secretary Chang Li Lin in response to an article by The Economist. Al Jazeera was referred to that response after contacting Chang for comment.

Rising anger

At the last #ReturnOurCPF protest, there was a sense of anger at having been kept in the dark.

“There are a lot of things we do not know [about the CPF]. My money is there, but it is not transparent. This is the venue for Singaporeans to vent their anger,” said 59-year-old Francis Gan. “Roy is a hero because he is representing the people, the true Singaporeans.”

As speakers took to the stage with harsh words for the government, cries of “Cheaters!”, “Criminals!” and “Steal our money!” could be heard from the crowd close to the stage.

Christopher Balding is an associate professor at Peking University’s HSBC Business School, who has researched Singapore’s economy and its sovereign wealth funds. He said a lack of transparency has led to inaccuracies and misunderstandings in Singapore.

“I am actually more knowledgeable, after much hard work, about Singaporean public finances and the CPF system then virtually all Singaporeans I have met. The information is quite difficult to obtain and understand,” Balding wrote in an email to Al Jazeera.

This lack of understanding has created an unhealthy atmosphere of anger and suspicion among Singaporeans, as seen by the recent protests.

“It creates a vacuum for information allowing wild theories to run wild. Because there is so little transparency people frequently think the worst,” said Balding.

“By refusing to be transparent and suing people like Roy simply for saying what they believe about what data exists, [it] reveals the government as weak and leading many to believe they are covering something up. People think the worst.”

Source: Al Jazeera