On Defamation Laws and the Future of Singaporean Politics

by / 0 Comments / 180 View / June 13, 2014

On May 18 2014, Singaporean blogger Roy Ngerng was served for defamation by the Prime Minister of Singapore, PM Lee Hsien Loong. He was to be potentially sued for “false and baseless allegations” against PM Lee. His published article on the blog primarily accused the prime minister of “misappropriating” the Central Provident Fund in Singapore, a compulsory savings scheme where citizens put aside a fixed proportion of their monthly income as state pension funds. Ngerng’s words in the article like “false appearance” and “dishonest” provided grounds for being served for what the PM believed was malicious slander against him. Ngerng, on May 23 2014, issued an apology to the PM, retracted the article and has offered $5000 in compensation for any “damages”.

This libel case has erupted on a very large scale, its effects seen in the countless polarized debates by zealous Singaporean netizens and the occasional mix of international opinions directed at both parties. It has acted as a springboard for related national issues to surface, the most prominent of which being the debate regarding the nature of Singaporean politics.

Esteemed Singaporean author, Ms Catherine Lim in an open letter to PM Lee characterized recent events as having reached “crisis proportions”. She sees this as both an “affective divide” and “an emotional estrangement” between the government and the people as a result of the People’s Action Party (PAP), having stayed in power since 1959.  Many international groups criticized how PM Lee, one of the world’s highest paid politicians, had threatened a social-worker-cum-blogger with a defamation suit perceived as a way to silence dissidence. On the other hand, many Singaporeans recognize the fine line between free and irresponsible speech. In a young city-state like Singapore which boasts a corruption-free government, the allegation that the prime minister is mishandling state funds is a serious one. For the sake of protecting not only a politician’s reputation but also public perception and social stability, such claims cannot be made without contention.

Another debate is one about transparency. While some believe Ngerng to be a promoter of open dialogue, others assert that there are more official and effective platforms through which he could have voiced his concerns. A request to explain how state pension funds are used in national investments or otherwise could have cleared any doubts, instead of making assumptions on a blog with an anti-party political agenda.

The Singaporean success story is one that has been repeated at National Day Rallies and in history textbooks. The triumphant narrative of a small fishing village struggling towards post-colonial independence and advancing as a global metropolis is one that any citizen should be proud to tell. Since the beginning of self-governance, pragmatism and rationalism have remained chief pillars of governance. The need to upgrade from slums and widespread disease to economic success motivated politicians to meet the ends of improving living standards, regardless of the means. Loosely referred to as a socialist democracy, the Singapore government made tough but necessary choices: for national defense, we had mandatory military enlistment for all males; to prevent employee strikes, we centralized all trade unions under a government subsidiary; we banned bubble gum because irresponsibly disposed gum stuck to train doors and could become a safety hazard. In the early stages of nation building, Singaporeans willingly exchanged personal liberties for a perceived common good. Some of these personal liberties include free press (Founding Father Lee Kuan Yew has stated, “Freedom of the news media must be subordinated to the overriding needs of the integrity of Singapore.”), unrestricted speech, and public assembly.

Earlier in May 2014, in a shocking vandalism case, “F*ck The PAP” was spray-painted visibly on the top of a block of apartments. Ngerng’s support base has been growing, seen from how the blogger raised over SG$70 000 via donations to fund a potential lawsuit. Mounting public discord, an increasingly liberal, educated workforce and voter support at an all time low in the previous general elections might signify a change in the nation’s socialist democracy approach to politics.

Is this the case of the all-powerful big guy versus the helpless whistle blower? Is a personal blog an effective or legitimate feedback channel for our politicians in this computer age? The purpose of this article is not to punch in a snappy quote from Alan Moore’s V For Vendetta and to blame Big Brother. I cannot state whether I am pro-blogger or pro-PM not only because I sympathize with both sides of the issue but more importantly because I am humbly in no place to state who is legally correct; that is the job of the Singaporean judiciary, if the defamation case should go to court. I find myself sorting through the debris of half-opinions and confusing arguments in the aftermath of this political eruption. But while I may be asking appropriate questions to shape a more informed viewpoint of the situation, sadly, what I realize is that my fellow Singaporeans are not doing the same. This is where (I hope) the actual purpose of my article comes to fruit.

When sieving through comment threads, I noticed the detached manner in which some citizens approached the case. “The blogger is clearly in the wrong,” chirped one of many similar Internet voices, “I can’t believe he is accusing the same government which has done so much for us Singaporeans.” I was flabbergasted, not by whom (blogger Ngerng) this individual had chosen to implicate, but by how he had chosen to defend the other party (PM Lee). This youth was using the government’s past achievements as an excuse to dismiss Ngerng’s claims.

Singapore is a nanny state. Many aspects of citizens’ lives are heavily controlled, from the managed float currency, to what appears on television and even in how retired people use their savings in their Central Provident Funds. For the longest time, quotas and restrictions have served our best interest and produced palpable socio-economic results.

Mine will forever be the generation that at one time could point to a Forbes list of the world’s wealthiest countries and find our homeland within the top five (1st in 2012 and 3rd in 2013). Mine will forever be the generation that grew up in a country with top ranking education and healthcare systems internationally. Mine will forever be the generation that was raised against a background of clean, crime-free streets. Mine will forever be the generation that saw our country host the first ever Formula One race held at night; that came to recognize the iconic city skyline as a symbol of economic prosperity. Hence it worries me that my generation sees the materialist privileges and comfortable lifestyles our forefathers achieved for us as a trade-off for other areas in which we have failed, like political apathy and complacency. For a generation that is constantly asking for more money from our parents, higher test scores from our teachers, and faster download speeds for our Internet, we have not been able to ask ourselves, “What more can we do to correct a cultural political awareness that is clearly lacking?” It is not enough for youths to continually look at past tangible successes of previous generations and think that it is sufficient to offset any intangible shortcomings in Singaporean politics. It simply cannot do that today’s generation passes off the Ngerng versus PM Lee case as being irrelevant just because all seems well on the surface.

This case reveals how the actions and reactions of both electorate and elected are scrutinized. It represents the fragile nature of politics in the 21st century. Most of all, it sends a dire warning of the need for vigilance and mindfulness of such issues, especially from the youth who will one day enter voting booths and determine the fate of their country. To possess the hardware of a democratic society, namely the fair and free elections, youths are sorely lacking in software such as participation and awareness. To be insular and easily contented with what we have is to be obsolete in this rapidly advancing global village. The real questions youths, not just in Singapore but all over the world who find themselves in the midst of an evolving political arena, should ask themselves is not what resources have been handed to them but what opportunities they wish to seek out for themselves in the future.

“Don’t post anything stupid online,” my mother chides me before I submit the first draft, “I hope you don’t get sued.” It sounds rather comical typed out but she says this in the most serious manner possible. For the sake of getting this message out, I hope I don’t get sued either. 

References

Lim, Catherine. 7 June 2014. catherinelim.sg » An Open Letter to the Prime Minister. Web.

The Economist, 5 July 2010. Politicians’ Salaries: Leaders of the fee world. Web.

The Real Singapore, (2014). The Truth Behind Singapore’s Democracy. [Web] Available at: http://therealsingapore.com/content/truth-behind-singapores-democracy

Straitstimes.com, (2014). Blogger Roy Ngerng takes down blog post about PM Lee. Web. Available at: http://www.straitstimes.com/news/singapore/more-singapore-stories/story/blogger-roy-ngerng-takes-down-blog-post-about-pm-lee-201