Singaporean blogger Roy Ngerng ushers this writer into his Housing Board home like one would welcome his kueh-bearing neighbour in for a mid-day chat.
Wearing a green T-shirt and brown plaid shorts, he is the picture of cheerfulness and casualness rather than someone who may be stressed out, being the subject of a defamation suit by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
The son of a chai tow kway (a Hokkien phrase for "carrot cake") seller and a retired factory worker in May drew an unprecedented lawsuit that previously only targeted powerful and influential opposition politicians after he wrote a blog post in mid-May titled “Where Your CPF Money is Going: Learning From The City Harvest Trial”.
The article’s allegation that Lee was guilty of “criminal misappropriation” of the monies paid by Singaporeans to the Central Provident Fund (CPF) was “false and baseless”, the prime minister’s lawyer, Davinder Singh, said in a demand letter.
The case now rests with Singapore's High Court, but if the typical minimum value of claims is a guide, Ngerng could end up having to pay at least $250,000 in damages.
Ngerng, who has hired human rights lawyer M Ravi for his defence, has been able to rely on public support to raise money for his legal fees, garnering more than $110,000 from the contributions of over a thousand people through crowd funding.
The former healthcare worker, who has also applied to be a Nominated Member of Parliament, may have also been one reason that the CPF protest at Hong Lim Park earlier this month drew as many as an estimated 3,000 people.
Over the one and a half hour interview with Yahoo Singapore around mid-June, a picture emerges of a young man who may have been catapulted into the attention of Singaporeans seemingly out of the blue but has actually held the issues he campaigns about close to his heart for many years.
The four-room HDB flat in Sembawang where Ngerng lives with his parents and younger sister is sparsely furnished. A lone three-seater sofa lined up against the wall is piled high with a motley collection of items ranging from folded clothes to gym equipment, with more chairs and items stacked opposite it.
“Yeah, no one actually sits there,” he admits with a laugh, as we move across to two foldable chairs against a table lined up against the far end of the living room. On its glass panel, Ngerng's slim black Sony Vaio laptop takes centre stage.
A black four-blade fan, perhaps purchased in the early 2000s, stands on the floor beside it, whirring loudly amid a cacophony of message beeps from WhatsApp and Facebook emanating from Ngerng’s mobile phone that is being charged.
Before moving to Sembawang in 2000, Ngerng's family had lived for many years in a two-room flat behind the now-defunct Hong Dao Primary School, where he attended the second half of his primary school years to save on the bus fare to Ang Mo Kio Primary School.
Today, with his older, married sister living with her husband and two daughters, the remaining Ngerngs, all of whom are working with the exception of Ngerng’s mother, divide the household bills among themselves.
Dealing with discrimination
A sociology major, Ngerng says his interest in people and how they interact started from primary school, where he witnessed instances of racism against his classmates and struggled to understand them.
His favourite subjects while studying at the National University of Singapore (NUS) centered on family, religion, gender and racial profiling, the latter two being borne from his personal experiences of discrimination and ostracism.
“(In primary school) I wanted to make friends with everyone regardless of race or gender or sexuality, because I just don’t think it’s fair that some people have to feel ostracised because of who they are,” he says.
His own experiences of this came in secondary school, when he had a falling-out with a close friend. The friend started telling their classmates that he was an “Ah Kua” (a Hokkien term to describe an effeminate man or a “sissy”), and soon everyone around him had branded him with the name, said Ngerng, who at that time held positions in the school's drama and library club.
“Of course it did affect me because for four years, people were calling me names,” he says, adding with a slight laugh, “I would go up on stage to receive an award or do something and then get booed off stage, on an annual basis — it was a bit horrible.”
When he was 15, he started telling his friends he was homosexual. Until about six to seven years ago, though, he struggled with the stigma from resulting discrimination he faced, alongside a series of rejections that lowered his self-esteem.
“I do appreciate the experience, though, because if I was never stigmatised or called names, I wouldn’t have had the kind of experience that made me more empathetic or to ground me in understanding other people, which I like,” he says. “It pulls me back when I might want to look at someone to judge them.”
Even as this went on, things did improve for him in Serangoon Junior College, where he pursued art as an A-level subject. There, he discovered a love for drawing and painting, and particularly enjoyed watercolour painting and portraiture. He also won an award for topping his level in geography and art in his first year.
At NUS, he joined the university’s community service club, where he volunteered with children who had autism and hyperactive needs, as well as people with mental illness. He enjoyed it so much that he took six months off after graduating to work with Autism Partnership, an organisation that provides for the needs of families with autistic children.
He later fulfilled his ambition to work with the civil service, spending about six years working on and executing campaigns with the Health Promotion Board’s Communicable Diseases department.
Ngerng’s work also took him to regional and international conferences where he would present Singapore’s strategies and programmes on creating raise awareness about various health issues. His efforts won him an Employee of the Year award for innovation in 2011.
Two years ago, he moved over to a newly-created position at Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) as a contract patient coordinator, a position that allowed him to run — and front — his first campaign to encourage people to understand the lives of people with HIV.
Called “The Power to Change is Within You”, Ngerng had banners and posters put up around the hospital, with a week-long exhibition and a two-day schedule of performances, all of which were aimed at helping hospital visitors to understand better the lives of HIV patients, as well as encouraging people living with HIV to have a more optimistic outlook in life.
This was all before he was sacked on 10 June following the defamation suit filing. Spokespersons for the hospital said Ngerng was dismissed for “conduct incompatible with the values and standards expected of employees, and for misusing working time, hospital computers and facilities for personal pursuits”.
Ngerng, however, said in a Facebook post that his dismissal was “politically motivated”.
Transition to activism
On his activism, Ngerng explains that his tussle with his self-esteem issues in his youth drove him to think about what was needed for society to be happier and for people to live in an environment that allowed them to be happy.
“Why were people so stressed out?” he asks. “I’ve always thought that policies have an effect on people — if people are forced to work long hours, they will necessarily be stressed.”
He started the “The Heart Truths” blog in July 2012 after he read an article about Lee comparing Singapore with Nordic countries. He said the story “painted a very nice picture” — one he felt “there might be other ways to look at”.
“The more I researched, the more I realised Singapore might be advancing economically, but socially and psychologically we are not moving on par,” he says. “So I wanted to then delve into the specific areas that might disadvantage the people in terms of wages, CPF, because the people were not getting adequate wages… they weren’t able to have a proper livelihood.”
What wages are adequate? From Ngerng’s previous calculations in one of his blog posts, he pits it at between $1,500 and $2,000 monthly in order to cover the cost of shelter, food, transport and health insurance.
‘The government didn’t respond’
Ngerng believes that at the root of people’s growing dissatisfaction with the government has been the lack of response to citizens’ concerns.
“It got to a stage where for me personally it felt like not only was the government not responding, but policies that were created were still piecemeal and cosmetic,” he says, raising the Fair Consideration Framework as an example. “That was when I became a bit stronger in my advocacy — if the government doesn’t want to change things, the people would have to demand change.”
That’s when he started doing more research, writing more than 400 blog posts about various issues concerning Singapore, meeting activists, as well as organising fora and later protests.
Despite his ongoing bid to become a Nominated Member of Parliament, however, Ngerng maintains that politics is “still not something (he would) fancy”, explaining that if he entered politics, it would be simply in a bid to swing more votes toward introducing more voices in Parliament.
That being said, he stresses that he is not against the ruling People’s Action Party — he lauds its numerous policies that have laid the foundation for Singapore’s economic success — yet, he aspires to a unified opposition with a common goal of increasing social welfare for Singaporeans.
He says his ambition to enter the civil service and non-governmental organisations is driven by his hope to advocate the implementation of solutions, propose his own policies and seek funding to exact change.
“I think that people should still do that, but I also realise that it’s intertwined into politics. If there is no political will, or if the political agenda is set in a way that does not allow social services or the social sector to grow, then it becomes politics; you would need to advocate (for change) or you would need to take things into your own hands,” he says.
What next for Roy?
Meanwhile, as the defamation case progresses, Ngerng plans to “keep calm and carry on” trying to increase awareness of issues such as healthcare, wages and social security.
“If the government does its job, I won’t have to write my blog,” he says. “I would be content being a cleaner, a waiter, earning a wage that is livable; I would be happy knowing that my life, people’s lives, are safe.”
Between that and looking for a job, he also says he may help his father and aunt at their chai tow kway stall, particularly on days when there is high human traffic — even though he admits he isn’t likely to take over his dad’s business.
“Some people have suggested that but I don’t think cooking is my forte,” he points out.
Ngerng, though, remains busy dealing with being in the spotlight, having been cast in a way as the “David” to the prime minister’s “Goliath”. Talking amid a stream of pings from his phone and computer, he says, “I try to do regular updates because people are concerned… I want to let them know it’s not just about me; we’re all in this together, all raising awareness.”
Ultimately, what drives him to advocate for certain things is what first prompted him to choose “The Heart Truths” as the name of his blog. “Can we have truth that comes from the heart, that is real and sincere?” he asks.
“Only when we are truthful with ourselves and honest to the people can we have transparency and accountability, and only then can the lives of Singaporeans improve, become better, and then our country will grow together as one. I think this is what Singaporeans truly want for our nation,” he asserts.