ROY NGERNG YI LING does not look like a dangerous radical. An affable, earnest, rather wonkish 33-year-old, he was until June 10th a “patient co-ordinator” in one of Singapore’s public hospitals. He plausibly describes himself as “naive”. Mr Ngerng, however, is now a celebrity in Singapore, at the centre of a lawsuit that says much about the ways the place has changed in recent years; and the ways it has not.
He is now jobless, sacked for engaging in conduct “incompatible with the values and standards” the hospital expects of its employees. This is but one of Mr Ngerng’s travails. He is being sued for defamation by Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong. He might face financial ruin.
The alleged “serious libel” was made on Mr Ngerng’s blog on May 15th. Mr Lee’s lawyer argued that an article he posted about the Central Provident Fund (CPF), a compulsory-savings scheme to provide for Singaporeans’ retirement, accused the prime minister of “criminal misappropriation of the monies paid by Singaporeans to the CPF”.
Mr Ngerng has removed the offending post and apologised, and offered Mr Lee 5,000 Singapore dollars ($4,000) in damages—an offer his lawyers dismissed as “derisory”. But he has continued writing about the CPF and, on June 7th, spoke at a rally at Singapore’s “Speakers’ Corner” that took for its slogan “Return our CPF!”.
Mr Lee and his two predecessors as prime minister, Goh Chok Tong, and Mr Lee’s father, Lee Kuan Yew, have all taken legal action in the past to defend their reputations and that of the government as honest. They have always been successful.
Mr Ngerng’s case, however is something of a departure. It is unusual for damages to be demanded for an article published solely online. Singapore’s traditional media are insipidly sycophantic to the government. But, in a wired society that lives much of its life on social media, the internet has been an arena for much more robust and uninhibited debate. Mr Ngerng’s fate may make it less so.
Second, the topic on which he transgressed—the CPF—is one of burning concern to many Singaporeans. They have been allowed to use some of their CPF savings to help finance house purchases, so many find on reaching the age of retirement that they either have to move or to carry on working. Nobody seriously thinks Mr Lee is stealing CPF money. But Mr Ngerng’s argument that the fund pays an inadequate rate of interest and needs reform resonates with many people.
Third Mr Ngerng is not a politician, though in the midst of the furore he did find time to apply for a post as an unelected, “nominated” member of parliament. NMPs, introduced in 1990, are non-partisan figures appointed by the president to bring more independent voices into parliament.
Even many Singaporeans who think Mr Ngerng is wrong have some sympathy for him and feel the prime minister is bullying him. He managed to raise 80,000 Singapore dollars to cover his legal costs, mainly from small online donations, in less than a week. Since most people would suspect that the source of these donations could be traced by the government, this suggests that many Singaporeans are much less scared than they used to be of the consequences of opposing it.
In the most recent general election, in 2011, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) had its worst-ever result. And, although it still won 60% of the votes, it contritely took this as a setback and engaged in a “national conversation” to listen to Singaporeans’ hopes and fears.
It has since recast itself as a more caring, generous government, offering new benefits, for example, to the “pioneer generation” of older Singaporeans. The grumbling about it, however, has not abated. A well-known local commentator and critic of the government, Catherine Lim, claims Singapore is “in the midst of a crisis where the people no longer trust their government”.
That overstates the government’s problems. But Ms Lim may have a point in an open letter she wrote to the prime minister, when she suggested his government was “hardening its position and going back to the old PAP reliance on a climate of fear maintained by the deployment of the famous PAP instruments of control, notably the defamation suit.”
However, she argues, suing Mr Ngerng is counterproductive for Mr Lee and the PAP, since “Singaporeans see the defamation suit itself, and not the act that has entailed it, as the very cause of the erosion of trust.”
Even if she is right, of course, the government may well see short-term benefits in the effect of the suit, if its critics think twice before committing their thoughts to the internet.