Blogger Roy Ngerng was ordered by the High Court yesterday 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 found Mr Ngerng's conduct had been malicious, and it was likely he "cynically defamed" PM Lee to increase the viewership of his blog, The Heart Truths.
Mr Ngerng, 34, has published almost 400 articles criticising the Central Provident Fund (CPF) system, but crossed the line when he "called the plaintiff a thief" without any basis, the judge said in a 73-page decision.
He added that Mr Ngerng knew the May 15 article last year would be defamatory, and yet went ahead to publish it. "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," Justice Lee said. "Such accusations, striking at the heart of one's personal integrity, can severely undermine the credibility of the target."
About the case
Blogger Roy Ngerng was sued for defamation by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong over a blog post that alleged Mr Lee had criminally misappropriated Singaporeans' Central Provident Fund savings .
In the May 15 post last year, he had likened PM Lee to City Harvest Church leaders who were facing prosecution then for alleged misuse of $50 million in church funds.
Mr Ngerng, 34, was asked in a lawyer's letter to remove the post immediately, apologise and give a written offer of damages and costs. He took down the post and put up an apology on his blog, admitting that he had defamed Mr Lee. He also appealed for the payment of damages to be dropped.
But he repeated the same allegations in a video and other online posts, and also sent these to local and international media. He then offered to pay $5,000 in damages, but the sum was deemed "derisory" by Mr Lee's lawyers, given his actions.
Mr Lee eventually sued Mr Ngerng for defamation and applied to the High Court for a summary judgment, as Mr Ngerng had admitted to the defamation and had no defence against the claim.
In November last year , Justice Lee Seiu Kin ruled that Mr Ngerng had defamed Mr Lee. In May this year, Mr Ngerng made an offer to pay $10,000 in damages to settle the matter out of court, but this was rejected in the light of his actions. In July, after discharging his lawyer, he cross-examined Mr Lee for six hours at a hearing to assess damages.
The publication of the initial Letter of Demand sent by PM Lee's lawyers three days later increased the reach of the defamatory material and likelihood of its republication, the judge said. But, he added, he also took into account that visitors to the blog at the time could have "exercised a greater degree of scepticism as to its contents".
After making a public apology to PM Lee on May 23 last year, Mr Ngerng wrote several articles, uploaded a video and sent e-mails to international media to draw attention to the suit. All these would make it appear to a disinterested observer that the blogger was not contrite, Justice Lee said, and would have "done little to appease the injured feelings of the plaintiff".
Further, Mr Ngerng had seemed to suggest 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", the judge said.
PM Lee's defamation suit is the first in Singapore taken by a political leader over online remarks.
PM Lee's lawyers, led by Senior Counsel Davinder Singh, sought a "very high award" of damages, arguing that the blogger's actions stood out for the depth and intensity of his malice towards PM Lee.
Justice Lee said that while higher damages are usually awarded in libel cases involving public leaders due to their position and standing, the quantum must also be commensurate with the defamer's standing.
The reach of Mr Ngerng's blog, said Justice Lee, was "not necessarily indicative" of his credibility. And despite his portrayal of himself as the "voice of truth" and as having significant standing, there was "nothing to show" this was the case.
"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," the judge said. He also noted that the article was well-structured and grammatical and was bolstered by charts and statistics from verifiable sources. This, he said, gave it some influence above a run-of-the-mill blog, but much less than that of a newspaper.
While the damages awarded to a prime minister for libel had been more than $300,000 in the past 20 years, Justice Lee said "a substantial reduction" was appropriate given Mr Ngerng's modest standing.
PM Lee's press secretary Chang Li Lin said, in response to media queries, that the PM accepts the judgment and award of the court.
Mr Ngerng, now a freelance photographer and videographer, told The Straits Times he would consult his lawyer on his next step, including whether to appeal against the sum of damages. "At this point, I have put this case behind me and am trying to move on with my life."
He has not posted on his blog for more than three months.