The Perils of Blogging in Singapore

by Mickey Spiegel Mickey Spiegel is a senior advisor in the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch with responsibilities for Malaysia and Singapore. Since 2007, she has worked on issues related to arbitrary detention and due process rights, non-professional security forces, refugees and migrants, and LGBT rights. Earlier responsibilities as a senior researcher included extensive work on China initially involving detention and imprisonment following the June 4 crackdown on the pro-democracy movement centered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, then moving on to  issues of religious freedom and minority rights in Tibet and Xinjiang. Before coming to Human Rights Watch, Mickey, a degree-holding social worker and anthropologist, set up and monitored replications of a research program involving language learning among two- and three-year-olds throughout the United States. 25.06.2014

In Singapore, blogging dissatisfaction with government policies by insinuating corruption on the part of high officials is a surefire way to get hit with a defamation suit and to lose your job.  But it’s also a quick route to celebrity, as Roy Ngerng Yi Ling, a hospital worker who blogs on The HeartTruths, discovered.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong took umbrage when Ngerng blogged about an “uncanny resemblance” between the management of Singapore’s mandatory retirement savings plan and an ongoing, unrelated criminal case involving allegations of misappropriating funds.

 In response to a “show cause” letter from Lee’s attorneys, Ngerng apologized for his remarks and even used “crowdsourcing” to promptly raise more than S$100,000 (US$80,000) to pay some of the damages demanded – an indication of strong support from many Singaporeans. But for Lee this wasn’t enough and aggravated damages have been sought. 

Ngerng’s employer, the Tan Tock Seng Hospital, soon after publicly fired him for “conduct incompatible with the values and standards expected of employees” and for using hospital resources for personal reasons. Outrageously, the Ministry of Health then intervened to publicly support the hospital’s decision, even though the ministry was not involved in the matter. Neither the hospital nor the ministry is party to the defamation lawsuit, which has yet to go to court. 

In Singapore, free speech is apparently only free depending on who you are and who you are talking about. As Roy Ngerng is learning, even implying criticism of the government is risky in a country where government leaders are quick to bring a lawsuit in response to public comments that are pretty ordinary in rights-respecting democracies. 

Lee’s current defamation suit, though the first time he has sued a private citizen, is part of a long tradition that has proven useful to Singapore’s leaders for muzzling meddlesome foreign media, harassing opposition political figures and prompting self-censorship among the general populace that helps shut down possibly embarrassing revelations. If this defamation suit conforms to type, it will further demonstrate the government’s unwillingness to let citizens have their say.  

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