It’s easy to slip into praise of a persecuted writer’s moral bravery and talents when the main issue at stake is the principle of free speech. The quality of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses or Ai Weiwei’s art are beside the point for committed critics of government suppression of speech. After all, the purpose of free speech protections is to defend the rights of those holding controversial and unpopular opinions. The principles of free speech apply for mediocre artists and the morally compromised, too.
No careful separation between principle and person is required for the Singaporean writer in exile, Roy Ngerng. On May 15, 2014, he posted an image on his blog The Heart Truths of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his wife Ho Ching, along with central banker Tharman Shanmugaratnam. The graphic showed the concentration of government financial resources under their oversight through the country’s two sovereign wealth funds, Temasek and GIC, the country’s retirement scheme, the Central Provident Fund (CPF), the central bank, and other government corporations.
Ngerng was sued by the Prime Minister for defamation about two weeks later. He was found guilty by Singapore’s Supreme Court, and ordered to pay the prime minister S$150,000 (US$111,755) in damages. The result cost Ngerng his job, and rendered him virtually unemployable as a public enemy of the prime minister. After an unsuccessful run for parliament in 2015 as a Reform Party candidate, he left Singapore for Taiwan. He currently works as an NGO worker and is a prolific for The News Lens.
The payment schedule assigned for the damages S$100 (US$75) per month for five years, which Ngerng had been paying out of his personal funds. But beginning this month, his payments are to rise to S$1,000 (US$745), a bill accounting for almost half his monthly salary. Recently, another Singaporean blogger sued by the prime minister for defamation, Leong Sze Hian, crowdfunded his entire court-ordered payment of S$133,000 (US$99,093) in 11 days. The impending weight of the increased payments, along with the success of Leong’s campaign in galvanizing Singaporeans in defense of free speech, inspired Ngerng to .
How Ngerng ended up in the prime minister’s crosshairs is a story that has much in common with that of dissident intellectuals throughout world history. His father a carrot cake street hawker and his mother a cleaner, Ngerng had precocious talent and Stakhanovite work ethic — he can write several thousand word research reports in a day — that enabled a swift rise from Singapore’s working class to studying sociology at city-state’s flagship National University of Singapore. Following stints as a film actor and teaching children with autism, he became enmeshed in Singapore’s government service, eventually working in HIV health promotion and public health programs.
When he started blogging in 2012, someone from the government-backed National Trades Union Congress came to meet with him. Ngerng suspects that the government dispatched the union official to try to induct him into the system. A lucrative, socially rewarding position potentially awaited at the highest levels of the Singaporean government and society if he continued to play by the rules.
This would not come to pass. The first outward signs of Ngerng standing apart from the crowd emerged when he came out to his friends as a teenager. But more than this, he credits his travels abroad in Australia and Europe through his work with the government that kindled his sociological imagination.
His blogging at first discussed gay issues in Singapore’s society alongside social and economic inequality. The later concern came to predominate over time. Ngerng describes his blog in its early days as attempting to appeal to the government. At that point, he still believed that the system worked and would respond to his advocacy for increased worker’s rights and better management of retirement funds.
Ngerng initially didn’t believe rumors that the retirement monies in the CPF were taken for investment in the city-state’s sovereign wealth funds, GIC and Temasek. But he investigated, and his discovery that the pension funds were invested, indirectly, in the GIC and Temasek became the focus of his writing, writing almost 400 posts on the subject at the time of the lawsuit. The way the investments were managed, he argued, was opaque to the public. But the true outrage was that the government is enriching itself off of workers through their forced retirement contributions. While the CPF arrangement remains intact, Ngerng says that the government has made some modest reforms and is more transparent about how CPF is invested after he was sued.
Like other exiled dissidents, Ngerng has not only continued to write on Singapore, but has become a thoughtful critic addressing injustices in his adopted home, Taiwan. He brings vast amounts of data to bear on problems like Taiwan’s low wages and bureaucratic stasis. During his time in Taiwan, too, he has expanded his vision to a pan-Asian approach to free speech, democracy, and labor rights, issuing widely shared displays of solidarity with and Hong Kong protesters.
In the United States, the free speech debates with the most media buzz revolve around the rights — to employment, to a public platform — of people with perceived antisocial and regressive worldviews. Should Substack have offered x an advance? Should the New York Times have fired y? Debate in the U.S. now is a long way off from what David Bromwich the “heroic picture of the individual heretic standing against the church, the dissenter against the state, the artist against the mass culture.”
Ngerng’s case recalls, at least from an American perspective, the traditional battle lines in the struggle for free speech, a heroic picture of a dissenter against the state. His cause is grounded in a vision of a just society (as opposed to, say, fighters for the freedom to misgender trans people). There are many active cases of free speech violations that merit our attention. Few also offer Ngerng’s model of moral courage.
TNL Editor: Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)
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