Singapore activist who crowdfunded PM defamation penalty says people contributed to show resistance

Written By: Anshu Dubey WION
New Delhi Updated: Apr 17, 2021, 06:35 PM(IST)

Roy Ngerng Photograph:( Facebook )

Story highlights

In an exclusive chat with WION, activist Roy Ngerng, who crowdfunded to pay the penalty for libel against Singapore PM, talks about why he thinks people chose to support him

"Resistance is greatest just before the finish line", said American Author Steven Pressfield. The story of Roy Ngerng, a Singaporean blogger and activist, is a clear example of the power a mass movement can have, especially in the age of internet and social media. 

Ngerng moved to Taiwan after he lost his job when he was sued by the Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong, becoming the first ordinary citizen to be sued by the PM of the country.

He was charged with libel damages amounting to S$150,000 in addition to S$29,000 in legal fees.  He announced in a Facebook post on Friday that he had raised S$144,389 ($108,200) through social media to cover the defamation damages. 

In an exclusive chat with WION, Ngerng talks about why he thinks people chose to support him, even the ones who didn't agree with his advocacy and boasts with pride when he says even if the court saw him guilty of defaming the Prime Minister, the people's support vindicated him. 

The following are excerpts from the interview:

WION: You have been paying the installments for the fine for five years, what triggered the idea to crowdfund it now?

Roy: Recently the Singapore PM sued another blogger. I was the first blogger, an ordinary citizen to be sued by the prime minister and in 2018 there was another blogger who was sued. His damages were recently announced, he had to pay Singapore $ 1,33,000 to the prime minister. So, he crowdfunded for the damages as well and he raised it in 11 days. So, at a point there were some supporters and friends who said I should do it too because the damages awarded to me were S$ 1,50,000. I had paid S$ 6000 upto this month so they encouraged me to do so. I was hesitant because I wasn't sure if there would be traction. When we started, I realised that there were many people who still remembered the advocacy ideas on Singapore pension funds and the lack of transparency came aboard to support and contribute. So I am very touched by it.

WION: Since you've given the world this innovative an idea, how do you think it can be used or misused in the future by others considering the power social media has in the current era?

Roy: [The] government's method of political prosecution is slightly different from other authoritarian regimes. In other authoritarian regimes, they are more forceful, they put dissidents into jail, perhaps even kill them. But in Singapore, because it is an apparent developed country, the methods the government uses are more sophisticated in order to ensure that they are still able to do business and trade investments. So the methods they have used put high financial penalty on the person who criticises the govt so that can stop them from criticising the govt or to put their job or livelihood at risk to stop them or to push them out of the country. This month, me and another blogger, we managed to crowdfund S$ 3,00,000 and it is a sign that the Singaporeans feel that there needs to be a platform for them to be able to resist. We are not able to protest in Singapore, even a one-person protest in Singapore is illegal and there is only one place, a park where protests are allowed and even then two of us were charged. I was charged in 2014 on the basis of public nuisance. It has been difficult. Recently Jolovan Wham was also charged for holding a piece of paper with a smiley face. I think it's an organic process, it has come to a point when Singaporeans feel that since there is no physical ability to protest and if the govt is to put a financial penalty on the person who speaks up, the resistance will come in a targetted form as a financial resistance back towards the government.

Malaysia just a few months ago also had a similar crowdfunding which was also a success. I think it is not unique in the world because of how authoritarian governments are still structured.

Singapore and to some extent Malaysia represent a form of soft authorotarianism where these matters have to be therefore be developed. In other countries, they do not resort to such methods, say in Hong Kong, the current oppression is so direct that there is very little form of resistance that can be developed and perhaps therefore those places can be used to challenge the current space in Singapore, though there is a conversation. Some people are saying what if the govt decides to come up with a new law to make it difficult for crowdfunding to be used as a form of resistance. And knowing the Singapore government, they have developed innovative ways of persecution that allows them to maintain an image of sophistication yet be able to effectively persecute.

I think whether or not this means of resistance is acceptable to other countries depends on their level of authoritarianism and also the solidarity that people have.

I have to say that in Singapore it is also difficult because people are actually quite scared to protest and even using financial means as a resistance, the fact that we were able to do it, has shocked many of us and it reflects a changing sentiment that has begun since the last election in Singapore.

WION: Do you think this idea can work in democracies? If yes, then how is it going to be different from the one that you experienced?

Roy: If you look at Taiwan, I am staying in Taiwan right now because after I was sued, I was fired from my job the govt sent out press releases saying that I defamed the prime minister. So, it was dificult to look for a job and I had to move to Taiwan. I was just having this discussion with my colleagues today and they were saying that it would be difficult or unimaginable for a politician to actually sue a citizen because there's free press, there's freedom of speech and there would be a lot of social retaliation from the citizens against the politician who would do that.

Therefore, there already is a form of a gate keeping preventing the politicians from abusing their power but if that were to happen, a person who is being persecuted is able to go out and put out his stand in a very transparent manner it would encourage a lot of support from the public as compared to a regime like Singapore where there is still that fear.

I think the trick about self authoritarian countries is that they are able to appear as if there is semblence of democracy by maintaining elections but there is no free press in terms of state control, citizens who protest or speak up are persecuted using different means. So the very fact that we were able to do this within 10 days is a success.

In a democracy they are not incumbent by the state control, I think the ability to crowdfund would move up much faster.

For example, in Malaysia, if I'm not wrong the amount was close to a million Malaysian dollars and they managed to do it within a month. The difference is that Malaysia went through a relatively democratic process in a sense that in 2018 they had a change of government, a government that had a little more respect towards human rights and they have had more movements and protests in the past few years and they have moved towards more representation from the opposition government.

Therefore, there was this space that allowed people to push and donate and be braver to step up using financial resources as a form of resistance.

WION: Now that your purpose for the crowdfunding has been achieved, do you have plans to continue using your strength for any other purpose?

Roy: Well, I think, hopefully not. I hope that this will send quite a strong signal to the govt that Singaporeans over the last two years have developed a different form of understanding of what they expect of their political leaders. It shows that they do not tolerate the use of such fotrms of persecution on people who speak up or people who question issues.

What is quite apparent this time is that people across the political spectrums supported. There are people who do not agree with the advocacy that I did but they supported because they wanted to send a statement that they believe that there needs to be transparency, discourse, critical debates, that I hope the govt is taking in.

The blogger before me who managed to crowdsource the funding announced yesterday that the prime minister's lawyer is asking for S$1,30,000 in cost.

Previously he managed to raise the amount in damages and now there is this cost that the prime minister wants.

I hope this is not a sign that the pm or the govt doesn't understand that there needs to be a different approach that people want and if the govt continues to use such an approach it would be very detached from the sensibilities of the citizens.

There is also an independent media- the online citizen, the editor of which is also facing a civil defamation suit from the prime minister. He might also have to raise a crowdfunding like that to deal with the damages as well. We will see if we are able to repeat this process.

Many people who have supported me say that they have done it for the previous blogger as well. They say they are taking a stand because of advocacy I did. There was someone from the opposition, very well-respected person who said he has donated because he wanted to appear forward to how other people have supported.

It is very sensitive for opposition politicians to be appearing in such campaigns. Therefore, I will also take the same step and pay it forward for someone else. Gradually we might see people who are motivated become more confident in being a part of a process like that. Since there are about four thousand people who supported both me and the other blogger, hopefully this will create momentum and send the govt a signal to stop using defamation suits. Though they might progress to other forms of persecution that they would have more control over.

WION: You were fined by the court and you paid through crowdfunding, how do you justify that?

Roy: when we started a crowdfunding, I was hesitant, uncomfortable, I think that was the same discomfort I had in 2015 when the damages were announced that I had to pay the prime minister because I didn't think that people should be contributing to the damages to pay to a personal suit of the prime minister because why should we lavish this money on the prime minister? But as we progressed, I realised people felt contributing to this campaign was a form of protest, as a form of someone describing a minor resistance. Eventually it was also how I supported the previous blogger, his campaign and I shared the post and talked about how it was a form of protest as well.

They send a signal, it's a form of resistance, a form of civil disobedience movement. Many people who donated to the cause, wrote about how they felt there was injustice, to prove that there was equality and fairness, in restoring hope. I think that's the kind of sentiment people have when they contributed. When the whole episode was over today, I felt I was vindicated. Even though I was found to have defamed the prime minister in the court but in the public opinion, the fact that we were able to raise this amount made it look like the public was vindicating me and this could be the sentiment the govt might be very displeased with and they will try to find ways to push back that form of empowerment. So that negotiation of power that's happening right now is interesting to see how it will develop from here.

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