By Vernon Chan
This evening, blogger Roy Ngerng raised the full sum of $70,000 for his legal defense against prime minister Lee Hsien Loong. On 28 May 2014, the premier of Singapore filed his civil suit in the Singapore High Court, where the value of claims is above S$250,000.
PM Lee claims that Roy had defamed him in a post on his blog “The Heart Truths” alleging “criminal misappropriation” by the premier in the management of Singapore’s state pension fund, the Central Provident Fund [CPF]. The blogger acknowledged the defamatory nature of the article and issued a fomal apology. The two parties have nonetheless gone to court as a result of a breakdown in negotiations.
It is interesting to ask why hundreds, if not thousands of ordinary Singaporeans have decided to donate to Roy in amounts varying from $1 to $200, despite the blogger’s initial apology and statement. It would be more interesting to study the implication of this event for Singapore politics.
Setting new records?
In September 2012, Chee Soon Juan, the leader of the Singapore Democratic Party, discharged himself from bankruptcy when his offer to pay $30,000 to Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong was accepted. This sum was raised in 10 days from the public via public donations through Paypal and bank transfer. Chee was originally declared a bankrupt for failing to pay the court-ordered $500,000 in total damages to the two leaders after losing his 2006 defamation battle.
In 2014, long before the High Court has even set aside a date to hear Mr Lee’s civil suit, the people of Singapore have raised more than double Chee’s sum in less than half the time for Roy, a self-described healthcare worker who doesn’t deny having defamed the PM.
It is probable that the PM’s popularity would suffer for initiating a costly defamation suit against Roy; Lee’s predecessors may have made their case, with varying successes, before an international audience and the domestic judiciary of the special necessity for the city-state’s political leaders to defend themselves rigorously against attacks on their reputation and integrity, but reactions to each defamation suit over the years prove that these legal actions remain deeply unpopular and disquieting.
This week, the deep waters of disquiet have risen into a very public rebuke of Mr Lee’s actions against Roy. The concern is not the extent of public anger this civil suit has inspired but the political implications. Believing that his integrity and reputation had been besmirched by Roy’s blog posts, Mr Lee finds the public putting its mouth and money in Roy’s corner—sufficient money to fund his entire legal defense. A blow has been dealt to the political fortunes of PM Lee. In any country, when the public acts in such a decisive manner against its prime minister, it is clear that his political and moral authority has taken a beating—and one cannot help but worry for the political longeivity of that office holder.
In the event that Roy loses the trial and PM Lee is awarded the damages and costs the High Court judges deem appropriate, and the public raises this amount in full in record time, it would be not just a second blow but an absolute public rebuke and humiliation from which a prime minister, as a political actor, cannot recover from.
It may in fact be time for Lee to expedite the political renewal process for both party and nation and step aside for a 4th generation leadership that hasn’t been rejected this thoroughly by the public outside of the ballot box.
An end to defamation suits as a political weapon?
Decades of defamation suits launched by PM Lee’s predecessors have turned these legal actions into a uniquely Singaporean institution. Yet these decades of careful, consistent, and persistent application have not conditioned the domestic and international public, the common people and the intelligentsia into acceptance of this fact. Defamation suits are seen by the public as a form of bullying and studied by very credible political scientists in peer-reviewed journals as a political weapon. Roy’s raising of $70,000 in less than a week is no more and no less than a very public and open rejection and repudiation of the use of defamation suits by politicians. It also shows a growing sophistication of the Singapore public, who are sending loud messages to their leaders from outside the ballot box and other traditional consultative forums. In the New Normal, Singapore’s politians may still be attached to the old ways; its citizens clearly expect something entirely different.