For the last four years, blogger Roy Ngerng has been paying Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, $75 USD (SGD100) a month. 

In May 2014, Ngerng, who is also an activist and healthcare worker, wrote an article on his blog, The Heart Truths, which alleged, in a roundabout way, that state funds were being misused and perhaps misappropriated by Lee. 

Ngerng’s article did not contain factual proof of malfeasance, and Lee’s lawyers demanded Ngerng take it down, which he did, and apologize, which he did, albeit belatedly. The Prime Minister’s representatives responded by questioning the sincerity of that apology. After two weeks of public back-and-forth, Lee filed a defamation suit against Ngerng. The court ruled that Ngerng was liable for having damaged Lee’s reputation, and ordered the blogger to pay around $75,000 in damages and another $37,000 in costs. They agreed to let him pay in monthly installments of $75, which, starting this month, will rise to $750. He is expected to finally pay off his debt in 2033.

For years he has struggled with the debt. But in early April, just as his new payment schedule was due to begin, Ngerng was granted a reprieve. A new defamation case in Singapore revived interest in Ngerng’s plight, leading to a successful crowdfunding campaign. These kinds of fundraisers, activists say, have become a form of protest against a perceived overreach by the government in its attempts to shut down criticism.

The 2014 ruling imploded Ngerng’s life. He was fired from his job and struggled to find another one. “Pretty much no one would hire me,” he said. “In the end I had to leave Singapore in order to survive.” In 2016, he settled in Taiwan.

On March 24 this year, the politician Leong Sze Hian was also ordered to pay Lee $100,000 in damages after sharing — without comment — a link to a Malaysian news site that falsely alleged that the prime minister had been implicated in a major corruption scandal. Leong launched a crowdfunding campaign, and by April 5, he had raised enough to cover the costs. Ngerng decided to do the same, and had soon brought in more than $9,000 in donations — enough to pay Lee for another year. 

Singapore’s leaders often use criminal defamation laws against their critics, and are quick to sue international media and opposition figures over inaccuracies in their stories. Ngerng was the first local blogger to be hit with a defamation suit, but others, including Leong and Terry Xu, the editor of independent news site the Online Citizen, have also been prosecuted in recent years. High-profile litigants like Lee are typically awarded enormous settlements, which human rights groups say are disproportionate to the harm actually caused, and which have a chilling effect on free expression. But by crowdfunding to pay the fines and fees that their online speech incurred, Leong and Ngerng may have found a way to neutralize one of the government’s most powerful ways of silencing its critics. 

“When Leong Sze Hian decided to crowdfund, it was an extension of using the online space to protest in a relatively safe way,” Ngerng said. “This becomes a huge source of protest, a huge means of expression against the government.”

Singaporean authorities maintain tight control of public discourse. Mainstream outlets rarely stray from the official narrative: none of the main newspapers covered Leong’s crowdfunding campaign. Protest is heavily restricted, and activists have been jailed or fined for seemingly innocuous acts.

In 2019, the government passed a law allowing officials to demand corrections or order takedowns of “falsehoods” published online. The law has been used around 70 times, and cases spiked around national elections in July 2020. Critics say that the law gives leaders too much power to interpret what constitutes a damaging falsehood, and that the orders are disproportionately used on opposition figures and independent media. In 2020, the country fell to 158th in the world in Reporters sans Frontières’ press freedom ranking. This was seven places lower than the year prior, and put Singapore below Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, and one spot above Sudan.

Despite these restrictions, there have been signs that Singaporeans are increasingly willing to speak out against the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), which has been in power since independence. The party’s control of the media and the levers of the economy has enabled it to keep the formal political opposition small and fragmented. However, the 2020 election was marked by a surge in online support for opposition candidates, several of whom became breakout stars on social media. PAP candidates, including the deputy prime minister and Lee’s anointed successor, Heng Swee Keat, were openly mocked for missteps on the campaign trail. The government won the election, but with a reduced margin.

“You began to see Singaporeans who you could describe as middle of the road, or Singaporeans that didn’t seem to be very strongly partisan be willing to come out more openly, not cloaked by anonymity, saying very matter of factly that they don’t believe the government on this, or they side with an opposition politician on that,” said Cherian George, a Singaporean political analyst and journalism professor at Hong Kong Baptist University. 

George said the crowdfunding campaigns could be seen as a continuing expression of this newfound confidence. “What’s new here is the opportunity for Singaporeans to literally put their money where their mouth is,” he said. “It will contribute to a growing sense among Singaporeans that a certain amount of contention in politics is perfectly normal.”

When he spoke to Rest of World on the evening of April 8, Leong was in triumphal mood. Less than two hours earlier, Heng, the deputy prime minister, had announced his resignation, a fact Leong jokingly ascribed to the success of his crowdfunding campaign. “What a coincidence,” he said. “There’s something strange going on.”

Leong said that the fact that ordinary people — around 2,000 of them — helped pay his legal fees puts the prime minister in a difficult position. The court has yet to decide on how much it will award Lee in costs, and Leong said the prime minister will have to decide on whether it is proper for him to collect the money from Singaporean citizens, many of whom are struggling with rising living costs and unemployment.

“Whatever the legal costs… they will also be paid by ordinary people,” he said. “So why does the prime minister want to continue with this saga?”