Blogger Roy Ngerng ordered to pay PM Lee Hsien Loong $150,000 for defamation

Roy Ngerng (above) has been ordered to pay Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong $150,000 for defamation.
Roy Ngerng (above) has been ordered to pay Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong $150,000 for defamation.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Blogger Roy Ngerng was ordered by the High Court on Thursday to pay Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong $150,000 for defamation.

The amount comprises $100,000 in general damages and $50,000 in aggravated damages.

Justice Lee Seiu Kin, in a 73-page decision, said Mr Ngerng's conduct had been malicious, and that it was likely he "cynically defamed" Mr Lee to increase viewership of his blog, The Heart Truths.

"As is apparent from recent events in this region, an accusation that one has criminally misappropriated monies paid by citizens to a state-administered pension fund is one of the gravest that can be made against any individual, let alone a head of government," said Justice Lee.

"Such accusations, striking at the heart of one's personal integrity, can severely undermine the credibility of the target," he added.

Further, the articles and e-mails that Mr Ngerng wrote after he had apologised to Mr Lee would appear to a disinterested observer that he was not contrite, the judge said.

Also, the fact that Mr Ngerng had published on his blog the initial Letter of Demand sent by Mr Lee's lawyers was aggravating, as it served to increase the reach of defamatory material and the likelihood of its republication, the judge added.

Justice Lee said the subsequent publications on Mr Ngerng's blog seemed to suggest that PM Lee was "using the present suit not just to vindicate his reputation but to quell political dissent, or even to prevent investigation into the mismanagement (dishonest or otherwise) of the CPF monies".

Justice Lee had held in November last year that Mr Ngerng's post suggested that PM Lee had misappropriated Singaporeans' Central Provident Fund (CPF) savings, as Mr Ngerng had likened the Prime Minister to City Harvest Church leaders, who were at the time facing prosecution for alleged misuse of $50 million in church funds.

While the damages awarded to a prime minister for libel have been in excess of $300,000 in the last 20 years, Justice Lee noted that damages should also be commensurate with the standing of a defamer.

In this case, he said, "a substantial reduction" was appropriate given Mr Ngerng's relatively modest standing.

He said the popularity of Mr Ngerng's blog is "not necessarily indicative" of his credibility. Despite Mr Ngerng's portrayal of himself as "the voice of truth" and having a significant standing among Singaporeans, the judge found that there was "nothing to show" he had enjoyed such standing.

"Notwithstanding his attempts to fashion himself as an investigative journalist of sorts, the defendant has never sought to conceal the fact that he is merely an ordinary citizen writing on his personal blog," said Justice Lee. "There was no pretence that he had any information that others were not privy to that would have lent credence to his allegations."

PM Lee's press secretary Chang Li Lin said in response to media queries that PM Lee accepts the judgment and award of the court.

Mr Ngerng, who is now a freelance photographer and videographer, told The Straits Times that he will be consulting his lawyer George Hwang on his next steps, including whether to appeal the quantum of damages.

Mr Hwang had initially represented Mr Ngerng in this case, but was discharged weeks before the July hearings.

Mr Ngerng added: "At this point, I have put this case behind me and am trying to move on with my life."

waltsim@sph.com.sg