The Supreme Court on Thursday (Dec 17) ordered blogger Roy Ngerng to pay S$150,000 in damages to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for defamation. This comprises S$100,000 in general damages and S$50,000 in aggravated damages.
"While the cases indicate that the damages awarded to Prime Ministers who have been defamed have been substantial, some in excess of S$300,000, none of them involved a defendant of modest standing. The comparatively low standing of the defendant warranted a substantial reduction," a judgement from Justice Lee Seiu Kin stated.
The 34-year-old Ngerng, a former healthcare programme coordinator at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, had written a blogpost in May 2014 allegedly comparing the Government's usage of CPF monies to the City Harvest Church leaders' alleged misuse of church funds. In his blog, he charged that the Government did so via the Government’s investment arms, Temasek Holdings and GIC.
The blogger was ordered by the court to no longer publish any assertions that Mr Lee was misappropriating CPF monies. He was also ordered to pay Mr Lee S$29,000 for legal fees and related expenses that were borne leading up to the application for the summary judgment.
ALLEGATIONS "SEVERELY UNDERMINED CREDIBILITY OF TARGET"
The judge held that allegations of corrupt and criminal conduct could have severe repercussions, especially if levelled against the leader of a country. "In the present case, the allegations that the plaintiff had criminally misappropriated monies paid by citizens to a state-administered pension fund was one of the gravest that could be made against any individual, let alone a head of Government. It struck at the heart of one’s personal integrity and severely undermined the credibility of the target, and was a grave defamation that a fair-minded person would react with indignation," the judgement read.
"Public leaders in Singapore hold positions of trust and confidence and their reputations are vital to their ability to lead and to be given the mandate to govern", Justice Lee added.
Justice Lee noted that while Ngerng had apologised to Prime Minister Lee, it could be concluded from articles and emails he wrote after that he was "not contrite". For instance, he sent emails regarding the takedown of his blogpost to journalists. He also published a Letter of Demand sent to him - a move that was "aggravating" in serving to increase the reach of his defamatory material and the likelihood of its publication.
NGERNG "NOT CONTRITE" AFTER APOLOGY
The judge also concluded that the defendant's conduct was "malicious" as Ngerng knew his blogpost claims were false and injurious to Mr Lee, but still published it. "It was likely that the defendant had cynically defamed the plaintiff in order to increase viewership of the blog," the judgement read. Blog statistics show the article was seen by at least 37,223 individuals.
However the popularity of Ngerng's blog and his "portrayal of himself as the voice of truth were not indicative of his standing amongst Singaporeans". There was "no evidence of his perceived credibility or the influence he actually wielded," hence his standing warranted a lower award of damages, said the judge.
Justice Lee illustrated this point by drawing this comparison: "The words of a dishevelled tramp in a street corner would be far less capable of causing damage than that of the CEO of a multi-national company."
In July, Prime Minister Lee himself took the stand for about six hours for the hearing. His lawyers asked for "a very high award of damages", citing "malice and continuing attacks" by the blogger on Mr Lee. The court also heard that Mr Ngerng had offered to settle the damages for a sum of S$10,000 but this was rejected by PM Lee as "derisory".
Ngerng had previously argued that the award of “extravagant damages” sends the signal to other Singaporeans that they will “have to ‘self-censor and keep their thoughts to themselves’”. But this is not true, Justice Lee said.
The blogger “has not been prevented from speaking on the purported mismanagement of the CPF monies, nor has he been prevented from criticising (Prime Minister Lee) or any other politician”. In fact, Ngerng has published multiple articles critical of Government policies, Justice Lee noted.
In response to media queries, the press secretary to Prime Minister Lee said he accepts the judgement and award of the court.
Ngerng wrote in a Facebook post that he is discussing next steps with his lawyer, but added: "I have put the case behind me and am trying to move on with my life."