Blogger Roy Ngerng and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong traded barbs in court on Wednesday, with the latter getting increasingly and visibly exasperated by Ngerng’s long list of questions during over seven hours of cross-examination.
Lee took the stand on the first day of a scheduled three-day court hearing to determine the amount of damages that Ngerng will be ordered to pay after the court found in November 2014 that Ngerng had defamed Lee by implying that he had misappropriated money from the Central Provident Fund (CPF).
While Lee’s lawyers asserted that they had a “compelling” case for a “very high award of damages”, Ngerng’s opening statement submitted that “awarding a disproportionately high amount of damages… would cast a chilling effect on freedom of expression in Singapore.”
Ngerng was representing himself after having discharged his previous counsel George Hwang, who he described to The Online Citizen as having been “excellent.”
“However, I felt that as this is my case, I think it’s best to represent myself and fight for myself. My intention never was to defame the Prime Minister and it has always been to advocate on the transparency and accountability of the CPF, and I hope the court will be able to see that,” he told TOC.
He was assisted by four friends: Leong Sze Hian, Han Hui Hui, Janet Low and Tan Yun You. None of them are legally trained.
Ngerng was a little taken aback by how quickly he was able to cross-examine the Prime Minister, saying that it was “a bit faster than I imagined.” He began by once again apologising: “When I wrote the article there was no intent to defame you.”
What followed were long, grinding hours of questioning as Ngerng attempted to establish facts and pick out details related to his blog post, YouTube video, emails to the press and Lee’s responses.
“I’m not here to dispute the judgement,” he said, adding that he simply wanted to prove that there had been no malicious intent in his blog post – a key factor for the court when deciding on damages.
Both Lee and his counsel Davinder Singh of Drew & Napier voiced out that Ngerng’s line of questioning often strayed into contesting the previous court judgement, with Lee once sternly telling Ngerng that “we are not here to play games… there is no point to go over [questions on whether statements are defamatory] again unless to aggravate the situation.”
However, High Court Judge Justice Lee Seiu Kin repeatedly allowed Ngerng latitude to continue his cross-examination, at times asking PM Lee to answer his questions. Noting that Ngerng is not a legal professional, Justice Lee promised to offer guidance on procedure and protocol.
During his cross-examination, Ngerng reminded the court that an initial offer of $5,000 in damages had been made in May 2014 – this amount was rejected by Lee and his lawyers as “derisory”. Another offer, this time for $10,000, was also rejected on 30 May 2015 after it was deemed “unrealistic”.
“It was not a sincere offer,” said Lee, adding that Ngerng had gone on to aggravate the matter with his public blog and Facebook posts.
Singh pointed to a blog post Ngerng had written as recently as June, saying that his assertion that Lee and his lawyers “want to make me pay and pay” despite him merely wanting “the government to be transparent” was equivalent to “taking potshots” at Lee by alleging persecution.
Ngerng argued that Lee – as the Prime Minister of Singapore and therefore an individual of considerable resources – should not have resorted to legal action in the first instance, and should have sought other ways to engage and resolve the issue.
Lee countered that Ngerng had defamed him in a “sharp and direct way”, and that he therefore “could not let it pass.”
He later asserted that he had been watching Ngerng’s blog for some time, and that the latter had been “skirting closer and closer” towards making defamatory statements. Although Lee had not previously chosen to take legal action, he said that Ngerng’s May 2014 post had crossed the line.
He also rebuffed Ngerng’s multiple apologies, made over the course of the past year. “All I needed was one good apology,” he told Ngerng. “You have made offers, they have not been serious offers, and your conduct shows you are not sincere in wanting to close matters.”
The hearing will resume on Thursday, this time with Ngerng taking the stand to be cross-examined by Davinder Singh. Lee will not be in attendance.