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In Singapore, blogger under pressure, CPF under scrutiny

Blogger Roy Ngerng, shown at a June 2013 protest against licensing regulations on news websites, has been fired from his job in health-care since being accused of defamation by the prime minister. (Reuters/Edgar Su)

A critical Singaporean blogger continues to suffer financial and legal pressure because of a blog post that allegedly accused the city-state's prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, of corruption. The episode is part of a disturbing pattern of government legal and financial pressure on critics, but it is also a lesson in how censorship can backfire.

Last month, Roy Ngerng Yi Ling wrote for CPJ about how he was served legal notice, including a demand for an apology to Lee and a "written offer of damages and costs" following his May 15 post on the Central Provident Fund (CPF), the government's compulsory pension program. Lee's lawyer alleges that Ngerng accused the prime minister of "criminal misappropriation" of money paid by Singaporeans to the CPF.

On his blog, The Heart Truths, Ngerng, who is also a health-care worker, has frequently posted critical commentary on the People's Action Party, which has ruled Singapore since 1959.

Ngerng took down the offending post (now being hosted here) and removed the links from his social media accounts. He also removed four other posts and issued a public apology on his blog. In addition, Ngerng offered 5,000 Singapore dollars (US$4,000) in damages to Lee.

Ngerng's actions were dismissed as "derisory" by Lee's lawyer, and the prime minister is pursuing a lawsuit--making Ngerng the first online critic in Singapore to be sued by a leader, according to news reports. Ngerng's lawyer has filed defense papers arguing that there was no case of defamation and no grounds for the aggravated damages, according to reports. A pretrial conference is scheduled for July 17, at which point court dates will be decided, Ngerng told CPJ.

Ngerng has also been fired from his job at a local hospital--a move that he sees as politically motivated. A press release by the hospital said Ngerng's conduct was "incompatible with the values and standards we expect of our employees. While our staff are free to pursue their personal interests outside work, they must conduct themselves properly, honorably, and with integrity. In particular, they cannot defame someone else without basis, which essentially means knowingly stating a falsehood to the public."

Ngerng told CPJ he has also been denied access to public events related to the CPF, a subject he continues to report on. However, he has garnered media attention and he says he has raised funds for legal fees using crowdsourcing.

While Singaporeans are divided on whether Ngerng's actions have been appropriate, it is clear that attention to the dispute has opened a wider conversation about the CPF. On June 7, a few thousand people attended a protest in support of Ngerng and against the way the CPF is managed. The government has also begun to explain the CPF through local media and other outlets, according to a local journalist who spoke to CPJ on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions. "It's [a] story written out of distrust in the government. But the truth is, the CPF system is [way] too complicated, even staff who work for the agency managing the funds don't understand how it works...The issue is also borne out of a serious asymmetry of information--you cannot blame people for making conspiracy theories when the government refuses to be fully transparent about the system," the journalist told CPJ by email.

Bloggers play a crucial role in Singapore, where there is little independent journalism, and that which does exist knows to curtail criticism of the government lest reporters or publications be sued for defamation. Most of the country's media are directly or indirectly controlled by the government, and self-censorship is prevalent.

Thus, the concerted effort to pressure Ngerng may have a chilling effect on the already-narrow space for critical and independent reporting. But it may also wedge open the door to more debate.

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Comments

The CPF is taking care of the Singaporeans' retirement funds. The government has been using the GIC and the Temasek Holdings as channels to invest the Singaporeans’ hard earned money. However, the GIC's governance is shocking. According to last week management structure; the GIC’s audit committee's chairman CHEW Choon Seng and audit committee members also members of the board of directors. They are auditing their own actions; it is a serious breach of public trust. And also Investments strategies Committee Chairman, Investment Board Chairman, Risk Committee Chairman, Human Resources & Organization Committee Chairman, and International advisory board Chairman also members of the board of directors. This week the GIC has re-arranged its management structure, but its accountability and reporting openly to the public remain to be seen. What we want see is GIC becoming a public company. I have asked for an appointment with the GIC representative to verify few things, but no reply. I have also asked the GIC and Temasek to forward their recent financial reports to me for a review, but no reply. I am waiting for more information on Temasek Holdings.
The GIC is a private company; it has been set up this way to minimize the public scrutiny. It is a huge advantage for the directors; literally they can do whatever they want. The GIC is not compelled to do the auditing by an external auditing firm. The GIC's Chairman is Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and the board of directors are government ministers. Every company in Singapore must appoint an auditor. But public company's accounts have to be audited by an external auditing firm. Appointing an auditor by the board of directors, and paying lots of money to the auditor to turn a blind eye, in order to accomplish their selfish motives will not work with the public company. Because the public accounts are get audited by the 3rd party auditors. Eventually, the wrong doers of the public company will get caught, but the wrong doers of the private company won’t get caught that easily. I never thought the company which take-cares of the Singaporeans’ retirement funds registered as a private company, instead of public company. In fact, I was shocked when I found-out that the GIC is a private company. Please read the details below to find out the reporting and accountability difference between the private company and public company.
Exempt Private Company: An “exempt private company” means:
(i) a private company in the shares of which no beneficial interest is held directly or indirectly by any corporation and which has not more than 20 members; or
(ii) any private company, being a private company that is wholly owned by the Government, which the Minister, in the national interest, declares by notification in the Gazette to be an exempt private company.
An exempt private company is exempt from audit requirements in respect of a financial year if its revenue in that year does not exceed S$5 million.

Requirement to Lodge Annual Return
(i) Every company must lodge an annual return with the Registrar within a month of its annual general meeting which, in turn, must be held no later than 18 months from the date of incorporation (in respect of the company’s first annual general meeting), or 15 months from the date of the last annual general meeting. The accounts laid at the annual general meeting must further be not more than six months old.
(ii) The Registrar may, upon application, extend the 18 months, 15 months and/or six months referred to above.
(iii) A dormant or exempt private company may lodge:
(1) its unaudited profit and loss accounts and balance-sheet, or consolidated accounts and balance-sheet: and
(2) a statement by the directors:
(aa) that the company is a company that is referred to in Section 205B as at the end of the financial year;
(bb) that no notice has been received under section 205B(6) of the Act requiring the company to obtain an audit of its accounts for that year; and
(cc) as to whether the accounting and other records required by the Act to be kept by the company have been kept in accordance with section 199 of the Act.

Obligations of a public company

Earnings expectations
- Increased pressure to improve growth pattern and maintain profitability
- Shareholders’ expectations can create pressure on management to perform
External commitments
- Disclosure of information and additional compliance requirements (External Auditing)
- Highly distracting and time consuming due to need for periodic reporting and investor relations
- Corporate governance requirements include business process improvements and non-executive directors’ oversight
Dilution of controls
- Limits on management’s freedom to act, including need for approval of board of directors or shareholders on major decisions
- Potential loss of control and privacy since there is a need to reveal highly sensitive information in public reports.
About the author: Antany Peter has a business degree major in accounting from RMIT Australia, and has been working as an accountant/financial controller for more than ten years. Financial reporting, taxation, auditing and management are his specialties. He is also a part time investigative journalist/ human rights writer.
Note: Antany Peter is on a visitor pass in Singapore; therefore, he has obtained public and private company regulations under the Singapore laws from the Deloitte and KC Partnership in Singapore.

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