SINGAPORE: A Singaporean activist found guilty of defaming the prime minister in a high profile case broke down under intense questioning Friday as he told the court he just wanted to speak up for the people of the city-state.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sued Roy Ngerng in May 2014 over a blog post that accused the 63-year-old leader of misusing money from the state pension scheme, the Central Provident Fund (CPF), a sensitive issue for officials in the city-state known to have the least corrupt government in Asia.
The defamation suit is the first ever brought by a Singapore leader against an online critic, but international human rights groups have repeatedly accused Singapore’s leaders of using financially ruinous libel actions to silence opponents.
“Let us be honest, we all know that I am being persecuted. We all know that just because I spoke against the CPF I am being persecuted,” Ngerng, 34, said as he broke down for a second time during the final day of hearings to determine the amount of damages to be awarded to Lee.
“I do not hate the prime minister and I sincerely apologise to him but we need to speak up for the people,” he said, after which the judge called for a break.
He repeatedly apologised for defaming Lee but the premier’s lawyer portrayed his apologies as insincere and tore through Ngerng’s affidavit seeking minimal or no damages.
Ngerng has already admitted that he defamed Lee and offered Sg$5,000 (US$3,700) in compensation.
Lee has not asked for a specific amount but the typical minimum value of damage claims for defamation in the High Court is Sg$250,000.
The judge gave both parties until August 31 to give their written submissions before he sets the amount of damages.
Davinder Singh, a top trial lawyer representing Lee, highlighted the defendant’s actions which he said repeated the libel.
“You have shown no remorse, contrition or sincerity,” Singh told the activist, who was representing himself at the hearing.
Under questioning, Ngerng said the London-based Media Legal Defence Initiative, which helps journalists, bloggers and independent media outlets around the world, had given him £5,000 (US$7,800) for his legal defence.
Ngerng said he had already spent Sg$110,000 he raised last year from a crowdfunding effort to cover his legal fees and other related costs.
The local media in Singapore is tightly controlled, leaving amateur bloggers as the strongest critics of the long-ruling People’s Action Party.
International media outlets including Bloomberg, The Economist and the Financial Times have previously paid damages and apologised to Singaporean leaders including Lee and his father, the late former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, for publishing articles found to be defamatory.
The Lees and other ruling-party leaders have maintained that the lawsuits are necessary to protect their reputations from unfounded attacks.