The blogger vs the PM – the writing is on the wall

By Howard Lee

$50,000. That is a lot of money by Singaporean standards, especially if you consider it was raised in a few days.

For sure, blogger Roy Ngerng raised this amount by crowd-sourcing to fund for his legal battle against Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and a few dollars from a lot of people is technically not that much to each.

But it is precisely this “few dollars from a lot of people” that deserves our attention. Looking at Ngerng’s chart of the donations pouring in, the money came in little bits and pieces. There was no one major sponsor, in what can only be described as a true grassroot effort. $10, $20, $50 – these are the kind of denominations that most would donate weekly to church when the hat gets passed around (and no, I’m not talking about the mega churches with credit card charging for tithe).

We may never know exactly what went through the minds of donors when they chipped in to this cause, but it is clear that a lot of people have rallied behind Ngerng and are doing what they can to support him for what happened. What do they think happened? The comments left by his donors are telling, because they represent the voices of people who are willing to put good money where their mouths are.

“My Hero Roy”, “KeepTheFaith”, “Support Roy”, “Dragon Slayer”, “4ROY”, “Stupid but Selfless Good Luck” and so on were some of the comments left by donors who wish to support Ngerng as a person. Even if he had openly and unreservedly apologised for the specific post that the PM had found offensive and defamatory, Ngerng has grown larger than life. David versus Goliath, the dragon slayer, the man who took on the Prime Minister – Ngerng has become a Singapore legend. Whether such a status is healthy for either Ngerng or the public remains debatable, but we can no longer deny that such are the honest views of some.

In that sense, Ngerng has embodied what many see as the struggle by the man on the street against the powers that be, never mind that Ngerng is by now fully aware of the dreadful consequences of this tussle. Such a struggle is not uncommon in society and the public is wont to search for heroes. Against who or what do his donors think Ngerng is struggling against?

The answer to this lies in another variant of comments. “BigBullyLHL”, “F**KLHL”, “shame on Leepengsun”, “Greedy Lee”, “Slap2 Pinky”, “2016papsuck”, “Support ROY against unrepentant PAP” and more point to one sentiment: That there is a segment of our population that feel indignant about the legal action that PM Lee has taken against Ngerng, and by extension what they perceive to be the collective will of those in power to silence their critics.

Whether or not they see Ngerng as a martyr is beside the point. What we can see, and take heart in, is that a certain segment of Singaporeans have developed an immense sense of social justice, such that they are able to see when someone has no need or want for money or reputation, that the relentless and unyielding quest for damages has evidently gone overboard.

Indeed, the PM and the ruling People’s Action Party have grown to symbolise everything that is wrong with the way power relations have developed in Singapore. People have grown weary of the power elite constantly using, as a matter of fact, completely legal means of defeating their detractors. Many politicians not from the ruling party or foreign journalists have paid the price, but when the axe falls on someone who has barely stepped into the political arena, a line has clearly been crossed.

Whether it is fair for the public to put hard-earned money into championing social justice is a point of contention – some are rightfully indignant that everyday citizens should never have to be subject to such pressures, much less pay the price for what is fundamentally the constitutional obligation of the state to protect. What is clear, however, is that in today’s climate, Singaporeans no longer fear contributing to what they believe to be just.

What is more important to note is that many have associated the PM with the PAP in this case. The case itself clearly states that it is the PM, in his personal capacity, that is claiming damages. The association is not merely a convenient link between the head of government with his party, but the automatic attribution of such unfairness with the PAP. It remains to be seen if the PM’s legal bout has further damaged the PAP’s reputation, or if the PAP’s reputation has made any action by its leader to be bullying-by-default. What is clear is that both party and person have suffered reputation loss just by the PM persisting to seek damages.

And yet, there is a third and final line of comments that cannot be ignored. “Right to know”, “81YrGranny”, “For Democracy”, “Need truths”, “uncover the truth”, “Singaporean”, “For the People” and other such comments seem to point to what a segment of the population believe to be the root cause of the entire fracas, and which is still lacking today – government and accountability.

For whatever reason the PM has to embark on this course of destroying his own reputation, it has not detracted some from clearly seeing Ngerng’s legitimate claim that the ways Singapore’s Central Provident Fund has been used and mobilised lie mostly opaque to citizens, the CPF’s most important and only financiers.

It is indeed strange that donors have amalgamated the legal tussle, which again Ngerng has openly admitted to be at fault, with the broader issue of government transparency and accountability. Rightly or wrongly, the association does demonstrate that the people have identified what is right and wrong in the court room, as much as what is right and wrong in our government, and have no qualms about chipping in to pursue what is right in both.

Heroism, social justice, government accountability – am I reading too much into a few comment? Perhaps. But the social movement is upon us, and this is yet another milestone in how politics and online media in Singapore have collided.

Whatever happens to Ngerng in the aftermath of this clash is no longer avoidable. What remains to be seen is whether the government can, quite literally, read the writing on Ngerng’s blog, do the right thing and salvage what little moral authority it has left.