For the first time since launching a defamation suit against local blogger Roy Ngerng, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke up on Tuesday about freedom of speech online.
In a post on his Facebook page on Tuesday evening, Lee shared an article from the Financial Times about a European Court of Human Rights ruling that a website must anticipate insulting or defamatory comments and be prepared to either moderate or remove them promptly.
“It is not the last word on the matter. But it reflects how societies are still finding the right balance between freedom of speech and responsible online behaviour,” the prime minister wrote in text accompanying the link.
“This is a tough problem to solve, but we need to develop our own ways to keep online conduct civil and constructive,” he added.
His comments come amid criticism against him for pursuing a defamation case against healthcare worker Ngerng, author of the The Heart Truths blog, for allegedly accusing the prime minister of “criminal misappropriation” of public funds in a post on May 15.
The defamation suit was filed in the High Court, where the typical minimum value of claims for damages is S$250,000.
Ngerng, the first online critic sued by a Singapore leader, said he has raised more than $80,000 for his legal defence from more than 1,000 people in just five days through crowdfunding.
The FT article highlighted by Lee was previously shared by Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim on his Facebook page, where he reiterated his previously-voiced stance that “the right to speak freely and responsibly must go together”.
Lee’s post triggered a flurry of comments about the defamation suit. Some users agreed with the prime minister’s decision while others criticized the suit against Ngerng, who is represented by human rights lawyer M Ravi.
Wrote one Facebook user Nervin Pillai, “As a Prime Minister, do you think it is morally correct to sue your own citizen?… Prime Minister, always bear in mind that you work for Singapore, not the other way around.”
Responding to him, another user, Danial Lim, said, “No one is saying citizens can’t criticize the CPF system or any other govt policies. But to allege that a govt official is misappropriating public funds is ground for a lawsuit. It is more than a disagreement; it is malicious slander. The challenge to a discussion is not sincere, more like an attempt by Roy Ngerng to claw back what little credibility he had.”
Yet another commenter, Amirul Adli, said, “Now I’m not supporting (Ngerng) but if the PM were to just issue a direct reply instead of pursuing a libel case he would’ve gained the respect of much of the Internet community.”
“If the bases are sound and the points are valid, why cower and why sidestep the issue by appealing to ‘no freedom of speech’?” asked another commenter named Jennifer Lim Choon Yeoh. “Let’s support and demand responsible speech,” she added.
Here are some reactions to the prime minister’s tweet linking to his post: