Singaporean blogger and premier in David-and-Goliath legal battle


A post criticizing the Singaporean government’s management of the Central Provident Fund (CPF) for retirees got blogger Roy Ngerng into deep trouble with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who is not only suing him but also seeking a summary judgement, in which the court would rule without examining the substance of the case.

Posted on 15 May, Ngerng’s blog entry was headlined “Where your CPF Money is going: Learning from the City Harvest Trial.” It made a simple observation, namely, that despite being the world’s eighth largest pension fund, it has one of the lowest yields in Southeast Asia.

Lee’s lawyer wrote to Ngerng on 18 May accusing him of making a “false and baseless allegation” that constituted “a very serious libel against our client, disparages him and impugns his character, credit and integrity.” The letter demanded deletion of the blog post, a public apology and payment of damages by 21 May.

Censorship, apology and support

Ngerng removed the offending post on 20 May but launched an online petition (with 3,356 signatures by 24 July) and a Facebook call for a demonstration on 7 June to press the government to return the CPF’s money to Singapore’s citizens. On 21 May, he decided to run for parliament. The deadline for complying with Lee’s demands was extended to 23 May. Maruah, a Singaporean human rights group, called on Lee to withdraw his suit.

On 23 May, Ngerng issued a public apology in a letter to Lee’s lawyer, which he posted on his blog. “I unreservedly apologise to Mr Lee Hsien Loong for the distress and the embarrassment caused to him.” He also called on the prime minister to withdraw the request for damages, arguing that he earned a “modest living as a health care worker.”

He subsequently told Reporters Without Borders why he and his lawyer decided to apologize. “We thought that this was the easiest way out of the situation, knowing that if we had proceeded to fight, it would result in certain bankruptcy, which has happened.

Lee’s lawyer responded the same day to the online newspaper TODAY that Ngerng had made a “very grave and malicious allegation” in his blog post and that the prime minister therefore was “fully entitled to damages.” The prime minister would sue if Ngerng did make a satisfactory offer within three more days.

Fired for “incompatible” behaviour

On 26 May, Lee’s lawyer sent Ngerng a letter saying his previous week’s apology “was not and never meant to be genuine” and demanding that he take down four more blog posts referring to the CPF and a video he had posted on YouTube on 23 May. Ngerng’s lawyer wrote back saying he agreed to remove the new posts and would make a damages proposal by 28 May.

Ngerng sent an email to local and international media on 27 May with a link to the YouTube video he was supposed to have taken down. He offered $5,000 in damages in a letter to Lee’s lawyer, who rejected the offer as derisory” given the gravity of Ngerng’s behaviour.

On 7 June, Singaporean novelist Catherine Lim wrote an open letter to Lee condemning the lawsuit. According to media reports, more than 3,000 people took part in the demonstration in Hong Lim Park that Ngerng organized via social networks to call for the CPF’s money to be returned to Singaporeans. At the same time, Ngerng raised $110,299 (the amount announced on 22 June) with the appeal for donations to help pay the damages that he launched a week after the first letter from Lee’s lawyer.

The hospital where Ngerng worked as a patient coordinator fired him on 10 June on the grounds of “conduct incompatible with the values and standards expected of employees.” The health ministry quickly issued a statement to TODAY approving of his dismissal while Lee’s press secretary wrote to The Economist the same day condemning his actions. These reactions triggered a debate in Singapore about the involvement of government officials in a private matter.

If a judge approves Lee’s request for a summary judgment, it would mean that Ngerng’s apology, extracted under threat of legal action, would be taken as sufficient evidence that defamation took place. The court would therefore not examine the substance of what he wrote in his blog post and would only be required to decide the size of the damages award.

Reporters Without Borders appealed on 17 July for support for Ngerng and we are now posting a link to the original blog entry expressing doubts about the CPF’s management, which he posted on 15 May and removed a few days later under threat.

The complete blog post is available here: http://therealsingapore.com/content/where-your-cpf-money-going-learning-city-harvest-trial

WHERE YOUR CPF MONEY IS GOING: LEARNING FROM THE CITY HARVEST TRIAL

Last week, Channel NewsAsia reported about how, “The founder of City Harvest Church Kong Hee and his five deputies (are) accused of misusing millions of church building funds.”

According to Channel NewsAsia, “The court accepted that there is evidence to show that the monies were moved from the church to the various firms to generate a false appearance that the church’s investments were redeemed. The judge said the six had been dishonest in the use of the money.”

It was also reported that, “Judge See said the auditors’ opinions were “only as good as the information they were given”.”

Below is the chart that Channel NewsAsia had created to show the relations of Kong Hee and his five deputies, and the funds that they have misappropriated.

Source: Channel NewsAsia

Meanwhile, something bears an uncanny resemblance to how the money is being misappropriated.

Channel NewsAsia had reported that, “The court accepted that there is evidence to show that the monies were moved from the church to the various firms to generate a false appearance that the church’s investments were redeemed. The judge said the six had been dishonest in the use of the money.”

“Judge See said the auditors’ opinions were “only as good as the information they were given”.”

Meanwhile, the GIC claims that the “GIC manages the Government’s reserves, but as to how the funds from CPF monies flow into reserves which could then be managed by either MAS, GIC or Temasek, this is not made explicit to us.” The GIC also claims that, “The Government, which is represented by the Ministry of Finance in its dealings with GIC, neither directs nor interferes in the company’s investment decisions. It holds the board accountable for the overall portfolio performance.” However, the PAP prime minister, the two deputy prime ministers and the ministers for Trade and Industry and Education also sit on the board of directors. Lee Hsien Loong is the Chairman and Lee Kuan Yew is the Senior Advisor.

Here are some things for you consider:

Do you know that apparently the CPF is now the 8th largest pension fund in the world?

Chart: P&I/Towers Watson World 300: The largest retirement funds

And do you know that the GIC and Temasek have used our CPF to become the 8th and 9th largest sovereign wealth funds in the world?

Chart: Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute Fund Rankings

Yet why do Singaporeans have the least adequate retirement funds in the world?

Chart: Pensions at a Glance Asia/Pacific 2011

Chart: Melbourne Mercer Global Pension Index

Chart: Developing Asia’s Pension Systems and Old-Age Income Support

And why are nearly 90% of Singaporeans not able to meet the CPF Minimum Sum, are unable to take our money out and are unable to retire?

How did the government make us set aside $253 billion in the CPF to let them earn $1 trillion for the reserves?

And why is it that Singaporeans have saved a massive $253 billion in the CPF but nearly 90% of us are unable to meet the CPF Minimum Sum, are unable to take our money out and are unable to retire?

Do you see something amiss? You are not the only one.

Perhaps Prof Christoper Balding best explained this:

The financial effect is this: SMRT profit is entirely attributable to subsidies given to it by the Singaporean tax payer and not high quality management at Temasek.  Put another way, Temasek and its senior executive are only able to declare a profit for SMRT because the Singapore government gives it money.

SMRT is socializing the risk and privatizing the profits.  When losses are incurred it is the Singapore tax payer that suffers but when profits received, it is the executive of Temasek that enjoys the benefit.  SMRT is placing the risk on the tax payer but capturing the benefit for itself.  While individuals or firms taking individual or corporate risk should be allowed to keep those profits private or socialize risk and profits, it is truly objectionable to socialize the risk but privatize the profits.

Third, the true financial and economic cost of SMRT and related infrastructure is not being recognized.  As one economist noted, if something cannot go on forever it will stop.  Singapore, SMRT, and Temasek cannot maintain a loss making firm dependent on regular bail outs to report profits or eventually it will stop.  By hiding the true cost of ownership, maintenance, and investment, the government is attempting to protect its Temasek owned asset rather than the tax payer.

Mass and public transport is a notoriously difficult and generally loss making industry.  It is however, morally reprehensible to pretend that a company is making money and use tax payer money to create  profits for the investments of family members.  The people of Singapore are being defrauded by bearing the risk of investment but seeing none of the profits.

Professor Balding also said:

If the average Singaporean had earned the average Singaporean wage since 1980 and saved the amount required by law but earned the GIC long term average rather than CPF interest, the average Singaporean would have approximately $850,000 SGD in the bank. This is approximately $300,000 more than they would have earned with the same amount of savings in a CPF account. To put this number in perspective, Singaporeans pay higher fees than what the typical hedge fund would charge. The Singaporean government is directly harming everyday Singaporeans by mandating savings into a seriously underperforming asset for the governments benefit.

Third, Singapore operates a one sided model where the tax payer assumes the risk but the government gets the benefit. If the investments do well, the government keeps everything above the 2.5-4% CPF interest payment; if the investments do poorly, and let’s assume, the CPF collapses, the tax payer will guarantee the payment to CPF holders. In other words, risks are socialized while benefits are privatized.

The assets of Temasek, GIC, and the CPF are the assets of the people of Singapore. Only in certain people’s imagination are Temasek and GIC assets private and separate from the people of Singapore. The earnings in excess of 2.5-4% that the government keeps for itself that it does not return to CPF savers are directly harming Singaporeans who are on average $300,000 poorer. GIC and Temasek assets that the government insists are private despite all evidence to the contrary demonstrate the governments disdain for the blessing of the financial bounty it has received from the Singaporean taxpayer.

In view of the unreasonable increase in the CPF Minimum Sum, we will be organising an event on 7 June at 5pm to call for Singaporeans’ CPF to be returned to us.

The PAP has used government to pursue their own hidden agenda, while forcing Singaporeans to live more difficult lives. The PAP has taken our retirement for themselves to earn high interests on it, while devaluing our CPF and our ability to retire.

This is wrong. We have to stand up and speak up against this scourge. It’s time to stand up and come together to speak up against such wrongdoings.

You can join the Facebook event page here.

We have also started a petition to the Singapore government to honour our contributions to our CPF and return our CPF to Singaporeans. You can sign the petition here.

Video: How The PAP Started Cutting Down On Singaporeans From 1984

Roy Ngerng

+

Aa - Aa + Print