When Roy Ngerng’s friends urged him to ask the public to help fund his bill for defaming Singapore’s prime minister, he was dubious: Six years had passed since the verdict.
Ngerng had been paying S$100 (RM310) each month off the S$150,000 (RM465,318) that was subsequently awarded to Lee Hsien Loong for his accusation that Lee misappropriated Singapore’s state pension money. So it caught him off-guard last month when he raised the roughly S$144,000 (RM446,706) he still owed in just nine days of crowdfunding, via 2,132 people.
He was following the lead of another Singaporean blogger, Leong Sze Hian, who said he raised S$133,000 (RM412,582) from 2,000 people within two weeks to pay off damages awarded by the High Court in March. That was for posting a link to a Malaysian news site that alleged Lee helped launder funds from a scandal-hit Malaysian sovereign wealth fund, claims Lee called a “grave attack” on his personal integrity and reputation.
“I wasn’t that sure if there would be support, until I realised people were supporting the crowdfunding movement as a means of resistance,” Ngerng said by phone from his home in Taiwan, where the 40-year-old says he moved after struggling to find a job in Singapore following the lawsuit. “People realise that speaking up for something is something you need to protect,” he said. Ngerng is still blogging: he has about 6,800 followers on Twitter.
Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party has been in power now for nearly 56 years, and its leaders have periodically brought defamation suits against critics and opposition members, who can face damages in the hundreds of thousands if they’re found guilty.
The two examples involving bloggers don’t necessarily mean that opposition groups in Singapore will gain political momentum via such crowdfunding, or that they will deter future lawsuits.
But blogs provide an avenue for government criticism in a country that ranks among the worst in the world for press freedom. While many have relatively small followings, some individuals have as many as 45,000, providing a potential alternative information source to mainstream media.
Some of them have been hit with defamation suits for reposting unverified information from third-party sources, or for accusing senior politicians of wrongdoing without providing evidence for the claims.
Party leaders, including former and current prime ministers, say they have acted to protect themselves from unfair and unproven allegations, and that they have also acted within the construct of the laws, which Prime Minister Lee has noted “apply to everyone”. Rights groups including Freedom House and Human Rights Watch have criticised the lawsuits as curtailing freedom of speech and political opposition in Singapore.
The crowdfunding campaigns come after an election last year where the PAP won 89% of seats, which could be considered a landslide in most other countries but was its weakest parliamentary showing yet. A survey released in October by Singapore’s Institute of Policy Studies showed the party’s credibility rating dropped “across the board”, including with younger voters, though the majority of respondents agreed the party remained credible.
The PAP has since shaken up its succession planning with Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat’s surprise announcement last month he’s stepping aside as Lee’s designated successor. Heng said he would probably be too old to take over as premier, with Lee intending to stay on until the pandemic crisis is over.
“The increasing popularity of crowdfunding has provided an anonymous way for citizens to voice their displeasure and discomfort against the PAP’s use of litigation” which has bankrupted some critics, said Nydia Ngiow, Singapore-based senior director at BowerGroupAsia, a strategic policy advisory firm. “With a more vocal younger voting population, such efforts also underscore increasing public demand and support in recent years for a more level playing field in the political arena.”
In response to questions, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said defamation laws weren’t meant to stop people from criticising the government or politicians, but anyone alleging corruption or attacking someone’s reputation must prove the allegation. He added it was “absurd” to suggest that about 2,000 contributors to a fundraising campaign constituted a “public backlash” to the libel laws, saying “far more” people routinely attended election rallies and other events in Singapore.
“Defamation laws have been on the statute books for decades,” Shanmugam said. “Wouldn’t it follow therefore that a significant majority of Singaporeans support the defamation laws, since they have supported the government through the decades?”
“Singaporeans, like those in many other countries, are free to, and do, discuss politics, criticize politicians and policies,” the minister said. However, Ngerng’s allegations “were all false, scurrilous. Such speech cannot qualify for any protection.”
Singapore’s Defamation Act is based on UK law from the time the city-state was a British colony. They contain clauses that formalise an apology as a mitigating factor for courts to consider in the assessment of any damages, according to Kevin Tan, an adjunct law professor at the National University of Singapore who has written and edited more than 40 books on the country’s law, history and politics.
“There is no advantage one way or another for government officials,” Tan said of the laws.
Opposition parties and government critics in Singapore have previously solicited donations to cover legal fees and penalties. A court ruled this month that Leong must also pay nearly S$130,000 (RM403,223) in legal costs and disbursements related to his case, according to his lawyer Lim Tean. A spokesperson for Lee’s office declined to comment, while Lee’s lawyer did not respond to requests for comment.
“I feel like a beggar,” Leong said, adding people would stop him on the street to take pictures and stick money in his pocket. “It’s like the fear seems to be turning into anger and jubilance.” Leong continues to comment on Facebook, mostly about his own case. As of May 15, Leong said he had raised the full amount to cover the costs awarded against him in the case.
The amounts raised pale in comparison to past damages. Opposition politician Tang Liang Hong was ordered to pay a record S$8mil (RM24.81mil) in 1997 for defaming 11 PAP members, including then-leader Goh Chok Tong and Lee Kuan Yew, the late father of the current premier. While the amount was later reduced, the high litigation costs reportedly prompted him to move to Australia. Tang was not able to be contacted.
Chee Soon Juan, secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party, was declared bankrupt after failing to pay S$500,000 (RM1.55mil) for defaming PAP leaders during the 2001 election. He was cleared to run in the 2015 election after paying a reduced sum of S$30,000 (RM93,077) in 2012.
Still, there’s little evidence the crowdfunding campaigns will deter Singapore officials from bringing defamation lawsuits in the future.
Lee has an ongoing case against a third blogger, Terry Xu, chief editor of The Online Citizen, over an article allegedly containing “false” statements surrounding the family house owned by his late father. That case has been in train since 2019, and those close to Xu say they expect a verdict in August or September.
“I don’t think they will stop government leaders from embarking on legal actions to protect their reputations,” said Eugene Tan, an associate professor of law at Singapore Management University. “We shouldn’t assume that these crowdfunding attempts will work for every individual.” – Bloomberg