Singapore blogger Roy Ngerng files defence in defamation suit initiated by PM Lee

Blogger Roy Ngerng stands outside Singapore's Parliament building with his NMP proposal in hand. (Photo courtesy of Roy Ngerng)

[UPDATE on Tuesday, 17 June at 6:30pm: Adding details from Ngerng's defence filed in court]

Singapore blogger Roy Ngerng on Tuesday filed his defence in court through his lawyer M Ravi, saying that there is no basis for an award of aggravated damages to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who is suing him for defamation.

In defence papers published on his blog, The Heart Truths, and also shared with the media, Ngerng's papers said he "never intended to accuse (PM Lee) of criminal misappropriation of CPF funds", and that "to pursue a claim against (Ngerng) for damages (including aggravated damages) and legal costs, is unnecessary and unwarranted".

"It appeared to (Ngerng) that (PM Lee) was seeking... to prevent him from expressing his views on the CPF and to impose an unwarranted and unnecessary restriction upon his constitutional right, as a citizen of Singapore, to freedom of speech and expression," his defence wrote. "In publishing the article, (Ngerng) was seeking to exercise that right on a matter of considerable public interest to the citizens of Singapore."

Ngerng's offer of $5,000 in damages to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was previously rejected for being "derisory", according to media reports.

Davinder Singh, the premier's lawyer, said in a letter to Ngerng's lawyer M Ravi that the offer  “completely disregards the gravity of your client’s conduct, the disputed fact that the libel is false and malicious, and your client’s calculated and systematic aggravation of the injury and distress to our client”.

Earlier, lawyers acting for Lee said that Ngerng's refusal to remove a contentious YouTube video as well as two emails he sent out in which his contentious blogposts were republished amounted to "very grave aggravation".

"The fact that your client misled everyone about his promise to remove the YouTube video amounts to very grave aggravation. If the two emails were sent by your client, then that would be further aggravation," Senior Counsel Davinder Singh wrote.

According to Singh's letter, Ngerng had set the YouTube video setting to "private" instead of taking it offline completely, once again misleading his client and the public.

In his response through his own lawyer M Ravi on Tuesday at 12:30pm, Ngerng said his video and other posts "were not intended to imply that there is any truth in the criminal misappropriation allegation". He also proposed an offer of S$5,000 in damages to PM Lee.

This follows Ngerng's claim on Monday that he would delete another four blogposts and a fresh video he uploaded last Friday, according to letters exchanged between lawyers of the two parties.

But even so, Ngerng sent out an email to media stating that he had "sacrificed" himself to raise awareness of the government's use of CPF funds and that he has been "politically persecuted" for it.

That response came after Singh said Ngerng's apology posted "was not and never meant to be genuine" and demanded further posts to be taken down.

"It is now clear from (Mr Ngerng's) latest posts that his apology... was not and never meant to be genuine, and that it has always been your client's lawful and legitimate demand to raise his public profile, garner support and sympathy, and renew his attack against our client," Singh of Drew & Napier was quoted as saying by Channel NewsAsia.

The posts expected to be taken down by Monday include Ngerng's latest two blogposts published after the original letter of demand, another two dating back to July 2012 and May 2013, as well as a video blog, "Roy Ngerng's Message: Defamation Suit From Singapore Prime Minister", posted on YouTube last Friday, the same day he "unreservedly apologised" for his original blog post which accused Lee of misappropriating CPF funds.

Lee might claim damages over the four blogposts if Ngerng fails to delete them, said Singh.

Ngerng is also expected to agree in writing that he will not publish anything to "further aggravate the injury and distress", and make the offer of damages for his original blogpost, he added.

Ngerng apologised for his blog post but also appealed for PM Lee -- which was subsequently rejected -- not to seek damages and legal costs.

Ngerng had earlier explained that he earned a “modest living” and sought PM Lee’s “kind understanding" in ensuring he "remains afloat and continues in his work”.  It was also added that Ngerng would welcome the opportunity to have “open dialogue” on  CPF issues with PM Lee.

Ngerng said he had penned the article which accused Singapore's Prime Minister of misappopriating CPF funds in an attempt to call for greater transparency on how the CPF is invested by the government through its two sovereign wealth firms.

He took down the article and links to it on his Facebook pages on Tuesday in compliance with the prime minister's demand.

Ngerng “admits and acknowledges that this allegation is false and completely without foundation," said Ravi.

The offending article and the links posted on the associated Facebook pages, had already been removed.

The original lawyer’s letter served by Singh on behalf of PM Lee said the allegations by Ngerng in his May 15 blog post were "false and baseless”.

"The article means and is understood to mean that Mr Lee Hsien Loong, the Prime Minister of Singapore and the chairman of GIC, is guilty of criminal misappropriation of the monies paid by Singaporeans to the CPF (Central Provident Fund)," Singh wrote in the letter.

GIC is a sovereign wealth fund that manages more than $100 billion of the city-state's foreign reserves. CPF is the state pension fund.

Singh said the post constituted a serious libel against Lee, "disparages him, and impugns his character, credit and integrity".

Healthcare programme co-ordinator Ngerng, 33, regularly posts commentaries critical of the long-ruling People's Action Party (PAP) in his blog The Heart Truths. Recent posts have called for greater transparency on how CPF funds are invested by the government through GIC and state investment firm Temasek Holdings.

Earlier in the week, Ngerng had also announced a surprise bid for a Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) position on Wednesday morning.

Taking to his Facebook page, Ngerng posted a picture of himself holding his proposal outside Parliament House, saying, "Looking forward to representing the voices of Singaporeans in Parliament. If I get selected!"

The proposal, he said, was submitted by fellow blogger and activist Han Hui Hui, who previously took on Singapore's Council for Private Education over issues relating to private schools she attended.

Speaking to Yahoo Singapore on Wednesday morning, he shared that the NMP bid is not a spur-of-the-moment move triggered by the letter of demand sent by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong over the weekend, but that it was in fact more than three weeks in the making.

"Hui Hui suggested (the idea) to me," he said, responding that he did not mind going into Parliament to advocate issues that he has spent time writing about at length on his blog, “The Heart Truths”. "I was in reservist over the past two weeks and only got wind of the (potential) law suit when I came out."

Ngerng said that the issues he plans to focus on, should he be nominated as an MP, are healthcare, education and retirement, things he refers to as "basic necessities" of Singaporeans.

"An NMP position is an opportunity I will value," he said. "Regardless of how the case proceeds, I would still like to have the opportunity to speak up on behalf of Singaporeans for their rights."

With additional reporting by Nurul Azliah Aripin and Michelle Kwara