A second day of a Supreme Court hearing to assess the damages that Roy Ngerng has to pay to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for defamation saw the blogger being grilled by Mr Lee’s lawyer.
Taking the witness stand on Thursday (Jul 2), Mr Ngerng, who was unrepresented after discharging his lawyer last week, maintained that he had no intent to defame the Prime Minister. However, Mr Lee’s lawyer Davinder Singh said that replicating a Channel NewsAsia chart on the City Harvest Church trial, and replacing founder Kong Hee’s photo with that of PM Lee, was evidence of his intent.
“You were so consumed by your desire to promote yourself that you were prepared to make an untrue accusation,” Mr Singh said, after putting it to Mr Ngerng that his lack of understanding of the term ‘misappropriation’ used in the offending blogpost meant he did not understand the implication of using the term.
Mr Singh also questioned the sincerity of the blogger’s repeated apologies over the defamation. “You never believed that the Prime Minister had the basis to sue. You made (the apologies) only so that you could get away with not paying damages,” said Singh.
The blogger countered by saying Mr Singh had made a “whole host of accusations” against him. The “mismanagement of CPF funds” was the Government’s fault and not solely PM Lee’s, he said, adding that the onus was on the Government to find out who had mismanaged the funds.
At one point, Mr Ngerng said the Government – not just Prime Minister Lee – should sue him.
Mr Ngerng also said that his blog’s reach was too low to hurt the Prime Minister’s reputation. “People didn’t care about the article I was sued for. People cared about the demand letter your client sent me,” he told Mr Singh. He added that he was “scared and angry” after receiving a letter of demand from Mr Lee’s lawyers, threatening to sue.
He also felt aggrieved by PM Lee’s actions to sue an “ordinary citizen”. “He’s the Prime Minister and I’m just a blogger. Why did he have to go to that extent?” asked Mr Ngerng.
The 34-year-old said he did not know that reposting the letter meant that he was republishing the offending blogpost as the letter had cited statements in the post that PM Lee felt were defamatory. “If you had asked me, I would have taken it down,” said Mr Ngerng to Mr Singh.
According to him, his blog had two million views since its inception, but the offending post had a low view count.
Thus, PM Lee did not suffer a lower standing in the eyes of the public as a result of the defamation, Mr Ngerng said. As proof, he tendered documents showing instances where users showered compliments on Mr Lee on the Prime Minister’s Facebook page.
Mr Singh said that two emails that Ngerng sent out to local and international journalists with information on the location of two blogposts he had been asked to take down, were seen as aggravating. “Far from feeling oppressed, you were taking the fight not only to Singaporeans but internationally,” he said.
The blogger also broke a promise to remove a YouTube video related to the defamatory allegations, Mr Singh said, although Mr Ngerng claimed that making the video setting private meant it was “as good as gone”.
Mr Singh questioned his move to grant four other people access to the YouTube video in question, including bloggers Leong Sze Hian and Han Hui Hui who were assisting Mr Ngerng on the case. Mr Ngerng said that he allowed people access before the video was uploaded to help him check that the video was not defamatory.
He also insisted that his subsequent actions to remove material after demands were sent by PM Lee’s lawyers were to be seen as a mitigating factor in the assessment for damages. “I did it beyond what was required,” he stated.
Mr Ngerng said on the stand that his character was assassinated due to the suit because others had called him a “liar” and said that he published false information, although he maintained that he had posted factual information.
When Mr Singh asked the blogger if he did not regret what he had done, Mr Ngerng retorted, “I do not regret talking about the CPF”.
During Wednesday’s hearing, which saw the Prime Minister take the stand for about six hours for cross-examination by Mr Ngerng, Mr Lee’s lawyers called for “a very high award of damages” on account of Mr Ngerng’s “malice and continuing attacks”.
“The court has consistently awarded substantial damages in cases where false allegations of criminal conduct were made in the office of Prime Minister,” said the lawyers said in their opening statement. “The plaintiff respectfully asks that the court expresses, in the strongest terms, its indignation at the defendant’s conduct. The case for a very high award of damages, including aggravated damages, is compelling.”
Mr Ngerng, a former healthcare programme coordinator at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, had written a blogpost last May comparing the Prime Minister’s usage of CPF monies to the City Harvest Church leaders’ alleged misuse of church funds. In his blog, he charged that Mr Lee did so via the Government’s investment arms, Temasek Holdings and GIC.
He 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.
The blogger later wrote in a blogpost that although the injunction was in place, he would continue to speak up for CPF and other issues.
His application for a Queen’s Counsel to take on his case was also rejected by the High Court on Jun 11, after Justice Steven Chong said that the appointed QC had no expertise in Singapore-specific defamation issues. Mr Ngerng was ordered to pay costs of S$6,000 for the dismissed application.