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Roy Ngerng was just a blogger writing on Singapore using publicly available information when, in 2015, he was sued by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for defamation. The court found him guilty and he was ordered to pay SG$215,000 in damages and costs. His life destroyed, he eventually left Singapore for Taiwan. He talks to PJ Thum about the sheer injustice his case, which is covered in the new book “Ridiculous: Untold Tales of Singapore“. In the first half, they discuss the political situation in Singapore, and the impact of decades of harsh oppression on Singaporeans’ mental health and society. In the second half (39:44), they talk about his five years in Taiwan, its economic and social policies, and how they compare to Singapore.

Buy “Ridiculous: Untold Tales of Singapore”.

Transcript

PJ Thum (00:00)
Hello and welcome to another episode of Political Agenda brought to you by New Naratif with me, your host, PJ Thum. I am wearing a black and white Batik shirt and sitting in front of a big bookcase full of books. And today we have with us the famous Singaporean dissident writer and researcher Roy Ngerng. But before we get to him, this podcast is brought to you by New Naratif, a movement for democracy in Southeast Asia. And if you’d like to join our movement, go to newnaratif.com/join. Or if you’d like to donate, go to newnaratif.com/donate. We need your help to keep our movement sustainable. Okay. So joining us today, Roy Ngerng, the famous Singaporean dissident. How are you, Roy?
 
Roy Ngerng (00:39)
I’m good. I’m in Taiwan right now. It’s actually quite cold today. I’m happy to be able to speak to you again and to be connected to Singapore. I have been away for five years after what has happened to me, and it’s actually nice to be able to speak to you and to keep updated about what’s happening and to maybe share a bit about what’s happening with me. Yeah.
 
PJ Thum (01:08)
Okay. So what is happening with you, Roy? What’s going on in your life now?
 
Roy Ngerng (01:16)
The interesting thing about coming to Taiwan is that I managed to get a researcher job. I’ve always been interested in doing research work. And I think part of writing on my blog in Singapore about the social issues was about using that interest in research to dig out things and to try to put things together into a picture, a different sort of analysis that is not being discussed at that time. And I think it was difficult being a researcher there because of the controversy I faced. And then when I came to Taiwan, I managed to find a job doing research. So I was doing medical education research and then doing research on sustainability. It’s nice to have this opportunity to do something that aligned my interest. And I’m also doing some bit of freelance writing now. So I’m continuing to talk about social issues. I did write about Singapore, but then I’m also writing a lot more about Taiwan and the minimum wage issue here now. So otherwise it’s been pretty the same.
 
PJ Thum (02:28)
But I guess we should get to what we actually set this up to do, which is to promote this book, which I’m holding up here on screen, “Ridiculous: Untold Tales of Singapore”, which is a collection of really ridiculous legal cases involving the Singapore government and activists. Both of us have written for this. Both of us have a chapter in here. I talked about the government coming after New Naratif with this nonsense about election advertising just because we had some posts on Facebook. But that is nothing compared to what you went through. So if you’re willing to do so, would you be willing for our audience who might not have heard some of the details to summarise your case and what you went through with the Singapore government?
 
Roy Ngerng (03:15)
Okay. Well, I was sued by the Prime Minister and then charged by the government and then harassed by the police, in short, fired from my job. But I just want to add the caveat that I have left Singapore for five years, and I think part of me has been able to leave that political persecution behind. I think even though I got sued and it felt like it was really harsh, I think what’s also difficult is the very few activists that are left in Singapore and also including what you have to go through after I left, I think the kind of harassment that people are facing, the kind of persecution that the government trains on, the very few activists that are left, not using explicit charges but just harassing. I think that it’s another level of threat or discomfort, for lack of a better word. And I don’t think that’s any lesser. I think that’s difficult. It causes the same psychological trauma that it had to me. That to me is at least what I think what I went through for audiences who might not know what happened. I think I started writing a blog in 2012, The Heart Truths, and I had been writing at that time on the social issues, on Singapore, on the wage issue, social protection issues. Those are my main concerns because I always felt that it is necessary for society to have the basic protection of citizens in order for them to be able to function adequately so that they can then be happy.
 
PJ Thum (05:07)
And you were working for Tan Tock Seng Hospital at the time?
 
Roy Ngerng (05:11)
Yes.
 
PJ Thum (05:12)
As a researcher or…
 
Roy Ngerng (05:16)
I was mainly doing follow up for patients there, as well as helping to do… At the time, I ran a social marketing campaign at the hospital as well, promoting acceptance and understanding towards people living with HIV.
 
PJ Thum (05:35)
Right.
 
Roy Ngerng (05:37)
Eventually, I wrote an article where I discussed about the pension funds and how they are used by the government investment firms and how… so I did an inappropriate comparison (laughs), which led to the Prime Minister suing me for defamation. After I got sued, I was told to apologise and I was told to remove my articles, which I did. But I wanted to keep writing because I thought that this was a good opportunity to allow my articles to continue to be read and be seen. So I continued writing on the pension issue, and I also continued to protest. So eventually the government decided to charge me for protesting, and the defamation suit also went ahead and the Prime Minister decided to sue me after that. And I was also told to leave my job. To me, that is political as well, because when the Ministry of Health released the press statement, they also said that they also alluded to inappropriate behaviour as part of the defamation suit. But all the while, up until the 2015 election, continued writing and continued protesting because I felt that if people only knew that they could have better policies in terms of wage policies, social protection policies, similar to other advanced countries, if they could have the facts, that they would vote a government or a party that would do that for them, that would enact protection policies that would be adequate. So I kept going. So there was that rush there to keep writing. But then eventually when the election happened – and I ran for it and I failed terribly against the Prime Minister’s constituency, and then I only got 20%, I think the lowest margin at that point, that loss of hope came. And that was when that disempowerment, that feeling that I wasn’t… what have I been doing all this while? I think to some activists, they actually said, you ran into that political persecution so quickly, and then it does cause you to suddenly face everything head on. So they felt that when I had to suddenly exit and go to Taiwan, they still felt that it was understandable. I’m not sure, but that was the process to me, being really excited with all that and then feeling the loss of hope, collapsing on that loss of hope, becoming depressed and then having to leave to Taiwan to come to terms with what’s going on.
 
PJ Thum (08:54)
Okay. Thank you for that. And I think there’s some interesting things there that I want to pick up on. The first is the court case because you weren’t actually allowed to defend yourself, right? If I remember correctly, you submitted a reasoned argument and it was just dismissed. Something like that.
 
Roy Ngerng (09:19)
Oh, yes, sorry. Please ask me about the details because I don’t fully… So I had to submit an affidavit at one point to try to argue my case before the judgment was made. The article that I was suitable for, the basis of the argument was that the pension funds in Singapore were being invested in the government investment funds, and at that time, based on the information available on the government website before they were changed, the Singapore Central Provision Funds CPF pension funds are invested in the GIC and the market holdings. They have since said that the CPF is not invested in the market holdings, and they’ve always repeated that it is not directly invested in the GIC, that the CPF funds are invested in the bonds and then the reserves and then the GIC, so that there’s no connection. Well, of course you could make that argument, but it is a bit unethical, I would say, to make that kind of argument when the pension funds are inadequate, when they’re making only 2.5% basic interest and up to 6% only on a small amount of the funds. And there are still a proportion of Singaporeans who are not able to retire. Based on the latest data provided by the government, the CPF only pays out, I think a median payout of if I’m not wrong, about SG$5-600, and that is still a median payout for those who take them.
 
PJ Thum (11:03)
Per month?
 
Roy Ngerng (11:04)
Yeah, per month. Should I check the exact amount?
 
PJ Thum (11:10)
No, it’s okay. We will just assume we don’t have the exact numbers. We’re more interested in your case. And the government changes these numbers all the time. As an academic, we see this a lot where you do research. The government doesn’t like it. They will then take down the numbers from their website. They will amend, or put up a new set of numbers that alters the meaning of the first set of numbers, and then tell you, “Oh, sorry, clearly your research is wrong and actually everything’s fine. So access to information is a huge problem in Singapore, access to accurate numbers. I’ve made the point in one of my videos that we simply do not have independently verifiable numbers about a lot of things that Singapore does. We can only use government numbers. And the government, we have to accept those numbers on faith. Right. And then the government will give those numbers to the World Bank or the UN or IMF or whatever, and then cite those other authorities. And actually, those numbers come from the Singapore government. So it’s very difficult to do any sort of research on Singapore without independently verifiable numbers. But I think what I’m asking is the case. It feels like that there was a miscarriage of justice because you submitted this affidavit, but you weren’t given the chance to defend yourself. The case was just – the justice just ruled in favour of the Prime Minister.
 
Roy Ngerng (12:41)
Yeah. So I put the same information into that article, I think, to justify that my article was focused on that in court. After that, I repeatedly said that I have no intention of defaming the Prime Minister and that I was always focused on the comparison. I think part of the reason why I included the affidavit, because I wanted people to know that that was the main issue that was making about how the pension funds invested. And I think the definition of law in Singapore is very specific, though. And if you look at the parts where I was sued for, they were not in relation to the rest of the article that touched on the pension fund issue. It was very much in relation to the comparison that I did outside of this that they felt was the issue, and that was what eventually had to be challenged and caught. So to the judge, the rest of the article that is more focused on this issue, therefore becomes irrelevant. Right.
 
PJ Thum (13:53)
I see.
 
Roy Ngerng (13:54)
Yeah.
 
PJ Thum (13:54)
I think that it’s also well understood that defamation laws in Singapore are written and interpreted in a way which allows any sort of even potential harm to be regarded as harm. And that’s my layman – I’m not a lawyer, but I think that given how defamation laws in Singapore have been used over the decades to silence and intimidate activists and people who disagree with the government, I don’t think anyone would be very surprised. And I don’t think it’ll be inaccurate to say that in general, laws written by the PAP tend to favor the PAP. They’re the ones who write the laws. The courts don’t have the ability to decide whether laws are ethical or moral. They simply enforce the laws. And that’s a big part of the problem: the set up in Singapore. Can I then ask, okay, so you submit this affidavit which lays out your argument showing that actually your argument is about these facts and they dismiss it because it’s irrelevant, because strictly under the law, it’s actually the way the law is written, it’s irrelevant. So then we go to the hearing for the damages and you get to cross examin Lee Hsien Loong for 6 hours.
 
Roy Ngerng (15:16)
Yup.
 
PJ Thum (15:17)
Right. And you actually listed out all the facts that you put in your article and asked them whether they were inaccurate. And he actually said, no, they’re not inaccurate. They’re factually correct.
 
Roy Ngerng (15:31)
Yeah. Let me try to remember. Yes. I think some of the questions I asked at that point was, are you the Prime Minister and are you the head of the GIC? So is that a fact? Because I had to – that specific portion where I was sued for, there was some information about this. So I had to clarify that all that I mentioned, how the CPF is invested in the GIC, that’s a fact, by way of that routing, that his position in the GIC. So, yeah. All that, aside from – just a particular two word phrase was actually the key issue. And the rest of the statements were factual. Yes, I did take him through that. How do you know that?
 
PJ Thum (16:19)
It’s in the book!
 
Roy Ngerng (16:21)
Oh, okay!
 
PJ Thum (16:22)
You wrote the article! It’s right here.
 
Roy Ngerng (16:25)
I forgot I wrote about that. Actually, it was very interesting because a lawyer who attended the court case said that when he heard the argument I made in court, if he was a judge, he would have dismissed the case because he thought that I made quite a strong case. I think you’re right, because at least I was able to point out that, the facts of how the CPF works are the facts, that are the facts. And to me, that’s fine, because if I have to personally face the defamation suit. But one thing was right after I was sued – before I was sued, the government had never publicly said that the CPF is invested in the GIC, even by any way of routing. I think even Lee Kuan Kew had tried to play with his words when he said that the CPF is not invested in the GIC, that there is no direct relationship. That’s what he said. But right after I was sued, a month later, the Ministry of Manpower decided to release an article in the Business Times, that was carried in the Business Times, that put out this link. And that was the first time it was available for many years. And to me, that was at least a vindication for me at that point, that the information that I have been trying to put out has finally been released. I feel, though, that because there is a lack of discussion nowadays on the issue. I think the government is trying to reshape the conversation and the narrative. Again, for me, I think that’s a blurring of the lines. Again, that makes it very difficult. So they keep emphasising about how there’s no connection between the GIC [and the CPF]. I think if you keep making that connection, people might lose that awareness that the CPF has funds going in and that the GIC, to some extent, a responsible government or an ethical government should make the GIC accountable for the funds to the CPF. And I think that conversation is starting to get missing.
 
PJ Thum (18:34)
Yeah. I mean, it’s typical PAP, right? Because they will say things which are technically correct but not necessarily ethically, morally, substantively correct. It’s always about the letter of the law rather than the spirit of it. And that’s always been their approach, this very legalistic way of looking at things. But then it’s coming to also bite them in the ass, because then they wonder why Singaporeans behave in ways where we don’t have a sort of coherent community spirit, where we have become so legalistic, where we have become so paranoid, where it becomes so exploitative. Well, it’s because the government does that to us. It sets the example that the behaviour that allows you to succeed in Singapore is one where you’re constantly looking for loopholes about how to screw over other people. The Prime Minister says if I don’t eat someone else’s lunch, he’s going to eat my lunch. And then they lament, oh, why Singaporeans got no kampung spirit, no esprit de corps. Right. Why we’re always so exploitative. We’re also focused on money, on numbers. The government does that!
 
PJ Thum (19:55)
So…what happened to you afterwards? This actually isn’t in your book, but you paid a very significant social emotional mental cost for all this. Would you be willing to tell us about what happened afterwards?
 
Roy Ngerng (20:13)
I think the main thing, like I said just now, was after the 2015 election, it’s so long ago. Prior to that, I think part of me was – I’m never a legal person. So when I saw the legal suit for the first time, when I received the legal suit, it was at work, on my work email. I was eating breakfast. So when I saw the email, I was like, this name looks very familiar. Is it from the government? So I had to finish my breakfast first because I bought my breakfast. So I decided to open the email after that. And then I saw that email. Anyway, throughout that period, I think part of me was naive so… Early on because of naivety and understanding what was happening to me, there was a bit of protection there. I didn’t take the legal suit as seriously. I left it to the lawyers to deal with. I was only focused on trying to talk about the CPF, trying to get the information out. I was thinking that, okay, now that it’s out, people are aware. You can see that there’s a segment of the people who are angry about the issue because they’re willing to donate, they’re willing to come out to protest. And then I think a part of me had that hope that if I kept speaking out there, we could try to maybe change things. So when they decided to charge me at a protest, that changed the dynamic a bit. I think that was maybe the first realisation that I realised that people are willing to find certain reasons to withdraw their support if they can. I don’t blame people for doing that, but I understand how that works because in an authoritarian regime, wanting to support someone who speaks up, even just supporting, takes a lot of courage because of the fear that it has on you, that just supporting an opposition and activists can put risk to your job and that might then risk your pension, might risk your housing, being able to pay for housing, for example. I think there’s a lot of conflation on that attitude. So then when I was charged for that protest, I saw the sudden withdrawal of support and that gave me a loss of hope for that. But I continued because part of it was exciting. If we can change things, we might be able to succeed in having new policies. And that was the drive there.
 
So that happened all the way up to the election in 2015, and that was part of that hope that pushed me to run for election. Knowing that there’s a very little chance… That part of that hope there and part of that reality balancing itself out. I think the reality will be hit when we were counting the votes and the places that we went, we only had 20%, 30% at most, at all the places. And it quickly sank in that we’re not going to win. And that’s fine. We’re not going to win. I was actually fine for a bit and I decided to move on. But then I started applying for jobs because now that the whole fight is over, at least at that point, now that you have to move on to look for a job because you need to sustain yourself. Now you have to confront reality because There’s not going to be a change. I realised that it’s actually very difficult because people don’t respond to my resumes.
 
I actually managed to sneak in an interview because there was a retail company that allows you to apply for interviews by SMS. So I sent an SMS. They didn’t know it was me. So when I went, I think they were like, what? They have no choice, right? So I didn’t get it, obviously. But that was just part of that string of interviews that I couldn’t get. And that was when another layer of reality hit. I’m not going to move for a job. If I keep speaking out, what am I going to do? There was still that reluctance to move overseas because of my family, my parents. Part of me was thinking should I apply for asylum? I was not ready to apply for asylum. I wanted to also prove that I’m able to find a job, to move out. I think that was part of that proving to myself. But it was increasingly difficult because not speaking out, because I wanted to look for a job to fit back in. I think it created a bit of fear in me and I started realising, I started understanding the fear that many people have when it comes to speaking up because of the opportunities you might have lost.
 
I started self censoring myself. I started acknowledging that process happening in me. It was very interesting. I see that. And then I’m also observing myself and being intrigued by that process. But at the same time going through that process of depression where I know I can’t look for a job where I’m slowly feeling so disempowered, so hopeless, that I also see myself fall into a sense of helplessness, of not knowing how to respond. It also even became a challenge to write cover letters to look for jobs because how do you frame yourself in a positive way? And I had an interview for Australia at the time finally and I felt that pressure to speak proper English, to try to frame myself in such a proper way because I was so desperate to get a job, to be able to move out. So that was a few months. That was, I think about maybe May or June after the election. So there was more than half a year. So it was a whole process of accepting that loss, going into that process of acceptance that maybe I should tone down then I think going to that depression, learning to eventually realise that I should pick myself up, but still having that difficulty. And eventually it was really…
 
Thankfully I found a job in Taiwan and I was able to move away. I don’t think if I had stayed in Singapore that I would be able to relieve myself of all that pressure that was building up. I think it was because I was in Taiwan that I was able to finally go through that process of letting go of all that fear, letting go of that depression, and then trying to work my way back up towards being healthier again. It was so bad that before I left Taiwan, before I left for Taiwan, I was so afraid I’ll lose my job that somehow the company will cancel my visa. I was so afraid that I will not perform well. Then my first month and I will be fired. There was all that happening because of that fear of what happened to me. I even consulted an activist who was overseas at the time and I was telling him about all these fears I had. I wanted to know if they were normal. Thankfully, he experienced the same things. He experienced the same thing where he felt that you want to protect that job, you want to protect that stability. And it took really a year or two. So even when I was in Taiwan, there was that fear that someone might be following me, even going online.
 
There was that difficulty. I don’t think I was writing a lot until maybe a year or two in after Taiwan that I began to be more comfortable writing. There’s always that struggle there, that fear. Also, an activist came from Singapore, and then she wanted to speak to me, and then she said that she could see some semblance of PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder. I didn’t recognise it because I think I was – part of me was trying to cope and tell myself that I’m normal, not normal in the sense that I’m able to function adequately while trying to readjust to the environment. I don’t think I’m always aware of that whole process of what’s happening. And I think it’s important for people to know this because just because you’re an activist, just because you look like you are brave enough to go out to speak, I think people attach the idea that they are brave because they are the only ones willing to speak up. But there’s a lot of trauma that goes through what you have to face. And I do not know how it feels like for people who actually have to go to jail.

Recently, there was a Taiwanese who just got released from jail after five years, from China because they said that he was trying to spread something like spread democracy in China, and he was still able to say that he was doing the right thing, and that was what kept him upbeat. And I’m thinking to myself, the kind of persecution that we are facing in Singapore, it already creates that kind of traumatic stress. And what is it like for people who have to go to jail, who have to be tortured in jail, for people in the 1980s, the kind of torture that they have to go through under – Soh Lung, et cetera, what was it like? And then you understand that if there are traumatic experiences, that creates long lasting psychological difficulties, it is normal. And then that’s part of the society we create, where there are Singaporeans who either speak out or who don’t, who keep quiet, who keep silent, who self censor, you are creating layers on different layers of psychological coping mechanisms. And people are interacting with one another in society, coming up with decisions, debating issues. There’s the anger, fear. And we are not functioning in an optimal way because of all the underlying psychological and emotional temperaments that we have.
 
PJ Thum (31:04)
I think that’s a really interesting point you’re making, that somehow, like emotionally, because of all this fear, the oppression that we experience, that we also see other activists experience, that collectively that Singaporeans experience, that we’re all damaged and unable to function properly as human beings and that it deeply distorts our society, right. It means that we can’t live normal, happy, healthy lives, but also we can’t make good decisions, we can’t properly care for each other. And then what does that mean for us collectively as a nation, as a country, as a society, where with all this damage, it just feeds on itself and just makes things worse? I think that’s actually a very insightful point that collectively, Singaporeans, there’s a lot of trauma that we need to process, that we aren’t allowed to process.
 
Roy Ngerng (32:14)
As you’re talking and then I’m thinking too that there are, I also see a lot more young people speaking up and then I see some of my peers in the past who are a bit quiet, who are also speaking up. So it’s always that I think you might see that it’s a bit of a struggle. I think some people are willing to speak up because they might not know the historical baggage like I did when I was in before I was sued. And there might be a part of it might be naive. A part of it is regardless of what happened, we are in the modern society where there’s free speech and globally and where there’s this democratic movement towards a more progressive kind of ideology that some people are trying to bring in and that propels them. But then there are some people who are trying to speak up and then what if one day you find out that speaking up doesn’t make change and then how does that affect you cognitively?
 
I think also there’s a lot of issues about how there’s foreign interference and disinformation and people falling for conspiracy theories and I don’t completely blame them for doing it because when you have psychological traumas and you have different coping mechanisms, you have different ways of looking at things, using fear, using anger, you are going to fall for this information and conspiracies. You are going to not trust the government and the government has to accept that process. If the country becomes unstable, you are part of the process that creates instability, the long term psychological trauma, the long term inability to cognitively find dissonance in society. And for me at least it took about two years or so, or three years. One day in Taiwan, I was able to tell myself I think I’m finally able to think straight. It feels like I’m finally able to not allow even when I was failing to speak up, I think part of me was encumbered by that idea that there’s fear. I think part of me was also influenced by that, especially after the election. And only when I finally came to Taiwan was I able to tell myself maybe I’m able to think straight now and that affects society. And I don’t think we have a study, to be able to do that, because of the complexities.
 
PJ Thum (34:38)
Well, we know that Singapore has a very high rate of mental health issues. But again, this information is very hard to come by and very hard to verify. So we don’t know exactly, but we have heard and anecdotally during the pandemic, we saw a lot of strange cases earlier this year. There’s been so many random knife and parang attacks and things like that. And it’s very scary how everyone just seems at the end of their tether, whether it’s on the verge of anger, on the verge of despair, but collectively we all feel so exhausted and angry and helpless. It is very worrying. But I am so glad that you are better, that you’re doing well, that you found a place for yourself, not just physically, but that you have found meaning and that you found connection in Taiwan. So I guess last question. Do you ever think you’ll come home and whether or not you do? What are your hopes and dreams for Singapore?
 
Roy Ngerng (35:50)
I’m not sure if I’m going to come back. I’ve got no plans. I’ve actually not been back to Singapore for more than five years. I’ve also gotten my permanent residency here. I think part of it is because there’s the realisation that it’s always going to be difficult to look for a job for some time to come, especially when the government doesn’t change this… I do miss my family.
 
PJ Thum (36:22)
Have they visited you in Taiwan?
 
Roy Ngerng (36:24)
They have, but the pandemic has made it difficult. So Taiwan hasn’t allowed foreigners until recently where you can apply for family members to come. I do hope to be able to make a trip, at least a short trip. Yeah. Well, I think in the end, Singapore has so much potential. It’s a relatively wealthy country. Many people are relatively wealthy. There are a lot of low income [people] as well. But it’s just that Singapore has much potential because of the infrastructure that is already there. If only – I understand the difficulty because when a country or society is really unequal, it makes it difficult for people to empathise with one another because it’s just the way people are. They become more selfish, they become more protective of themselves, and that’s all normal. So it takes the leadership, or at least enlightened as part of society to understand that if we decide to adopt different policies, Singapore has the infrastructure capacity to ensure that likelihoods can be uplifted and people can start to go into a mode where they can feel more satisfied, more happy, more balanced, and Singapore can develop towards a different kind of society. And Singapore can be an example of that in Asia and for the region. And we do not have to be in a competitive state with the region. We can work with the more democratic countries in Southeast Asia to try to build up more a hopeful state where – ASEAN can be a positive example. And there’s all this potential, and then it’s just very sad that the government doesn’t want to do this out of fear, out of protection, for their own power or other interests. I think that with each leadership power, it increases their burden, but it also reduces part of the burden that they are attached to the previous leadership. Yes and no. I think you would have better insights into this, and it’s a possibility for change. I mean, I want to believe that that’s possible only because you want to believe that the potential can be achieved. And that’s why I write on my blog, because I want to be happy for myself. And I realised that if policies changed, I can be happy because everyone else is happy if the society is at ease and at peace with one another. And that is what I’ve always wanted, except that when I tell journalists, they always write this out because who talks about happiness?
 
PJ Thum (39:30)
Everyone deserves to be happy. I think we all have a right to be happy. And yes. What’s wrong with that? Ultimately, what’s wrong with a goal where everyone everywhere is happy? I think that’s great!

Part 2: Taiwan
 
PJ Thum (39:43)
…and the Taiwanese government aren’t accusing you of being a foreign influence or something like that?
 
Roy Ngerng (39:50)
No. I think the government has said before that they do want to protect Taiwanese democracy, and they would protect the freedom of speech to speak up, the rights. In fact, I think there was news today that more than 20 independent international [media] outlets have moved to Taiwan after – . So they have left Hong Kong to come to Taiwan. So it’s the testament to the free space that you have in Taiwan to be able to speak up. I think the administrative struggles of basing in Taiwan is another issue, but at least there’s that space, there’s that respect for discourse. And in some respects where there is maturity in that discussion in Taiwan, you can see quite healthy debate. Some issues, though, like the death penalty… I think it is still a struggle to be able to debate on that in Taiwan because I think the way human rights work in Taiwan is that there are some parts that are evolving a lot quicker and some parts like labor rights, migrant rights, and the death penalty, where the conversation has not evolved as fast. So it’s actually very interesting coming from Singapore where you’re told not to speak up.
 
And so when issues and debates happen, they happen within small groups that are just pushing the issue. But then you come to Taiwan and you realise that kind of democratic movement, that kind of human rights debate, they are happening on different levels. And you see the evolution. You’re part of the evolution, and you understand how Singapore could be if it starts democratising, and there are different competitive narratives to how that democracy can push different ideas.
 
PJ Thum (41:51)
Taiwan… I think it contradicts two important arguments of the PAP, why they clamped down. The first is that freedom of speech or democracy is not Asian somehow,  it’s not for us in the East; and the second is that freedom of speech and democracy would somehow lead to the country fracturing. It would lead to ethnic strife or religious strife or some sort of vague idea of everything falling apart with our firm authoritarian hand. So in your experience, Taiwan, how does it respond to these two arguments of the PAP?
 
Roy Ngerng (42:32)
I think that’s exactly it. I was thinking, because I’ve been writing about all these wage issues. So I do think to myself, does the Taiwanese government read my articles? I understand from someone else that the government knows of the articles. I have also briefly spoken to some of the people in government when I attend protests where the government representatives from the government and the ruling party attends as well, because they do speak up in protests as part of their right to participate in protests and knowing that protest is part of democracy. And a lot of the people from the ruling party also emerge from protests as well. So it’s part of that organic process for them. But I think the other thing is, I also realised that because I write on the minimum wage issue, it’s not something that the government in Taiwan likes to touch on too much. I think partly because of the pressure that they may face from businesses and perhaps partly due to the funding that are coming from businesses. But I’m still able to write. They’re not going to clamp down or they are not going to stop me from writing, though they do use some similar tactics.
 
In terms of when I was writing on article on civil servants’ salary, there’s no public data on the average salary, but I found the data from, I think, 2006 and 07. So after I wrote about it, the document was removed. But then I was not, I think in part because it might be an old document or in part because there might be other data that contradicts it, I’m not sure. But the government isn’t going to say they are going to clamp down on you. So at least the government allows a healthy debate. Whether they respond to what you write, that’s another matter. And then to me, the Taiwan economic development is not that different from Singapore’s economic development. So when you look at how Taiwan invested, you think to yourself that the Singapore government can allow free speech as well, right? Whether they want to acknowledge it, what you write, they can do the same thing as Taiwan. Taiwan’s government is, how should I say…the articles that I’m writing, a lot of it tries to push for greater labour rights, more income equality. And Taiwan also faces similar challenges where it is actually very unequal compared to advanced countries.
 
It is one of the more unequal countries. Of course, there are more unequal countries like the US, UK, Singapore. So there are challenges. And that when you’re writing all this, the government does not want to tackle these issues yet because it is difficult to tackle them. So you see that the government has the same agendas, in that sense, where they are influenced by businesses, where they are resistant to us changing some policies. But in terms of how they allow you to speak up or how they respond to it, it’s different. So just looking at Taiwan, you realise that Singapore can do the same. It’s just a matter of changing that perspective and not being scared that such conversations will make it unstable. Of course, it might put you out of power because if you are not responsive, a more sophisticated population might want to push you out. But then how do you then evolve with that? I mean, I’m sure the current administration and government, they are not part of the older generation or might not be connected to… explicitly connected to certain entities. And there might be some space there to understand that one thing, to preserve your power requires you to also move towards some progressivity. So how do you evolve with the understanding, knowing that there are countries like Japan, Korea, Taiwan that have similar histories, to some extent, and culture, are able to do it, how do you try to match that? That’s at least what I’m seeing from Taiwan and how I think Singapore can replicate part of it, but they’re not doing it. And I think it’s just such a massive pity because I see the potential that Singapore has.
 
PJ Thum (47:19)
Right. Let me give one or two obvious… Well, okay, so one thing that you might say as well, Singapore needs to be authoritarian because we’re surrounded by enemies. But of course, Taiwan is surrounded by maybe the most dangerous country – I mean, it’s not surrounded, it’s next to. And China has quite openly stated its desire to reconquer Taiwan, reunify, and yet Taiwan can be a free democracy with freedom of speech and expression. But another counter argument might be, oh, hey, Taiwan is all Chinese, so it doesn’t have this religious or ethnic issue. So what is that like? Because I know there is a significant, sort of… what’s the right word… native population in Taiwan, and there’s tensions with the Han Chinese. So does that freedom of expression impact both sides? Does it enhance that dialogue? Does it make it more difficult to resolve issues? What’s your experience?
 
Roy Ngerng (48:29)
Hmmm…. I think it might be easier coming from my perspective as a foreigner, rather than… I think what’s interesting for me over the last few years is when I first came to Taiwan, there was just a transition of the government with current DPP ruling party. And they are more willing to accept foreigners in part because they realise that they need more foreigners to help fill certain positions. So their policies are somewhat more liberal in that extent when it comes to foreigners. But you also see a similar reaction from the population where they are trying to negotiate with understanding that there are more foreigners coming. And then at the same time, due to the pressure from China. You are also seeing how people are becoming a bit more defensive out of that fear. I think it’s a bit complicated. At least the way I understand it is, the Taiwan government is being more assertive. At the same time, the Chinese government is being more assertive. And Taiwanese realise that they no longer need to be feel disempowered or feel marginalised. They can feel empowered because the government is taking the lead. But how do you work towards that empowerment while… the basis of where the empowerment is rising from is a history of feeling that you are attacked from China, a feeling of that vulnerability, and then from that layer you have to have the empowerment. And I think it’s a struggle. A lot of people are trying to make sense of feeling disempowered and then trying to regain that control at the same time. And then you see how that affects how they respond to people, because then that sense of nationality, that sense of me being a Taiwanese and asserting that identity becomes stronger. And yet at the same time you have to negotiate with foreigners to come in and you have to assert that identity.
 
I think it’s a different case for Singaporeans. For Singaporeans, when there was an influx of migrants, I think people feel that it took away the economic opportunities. Of course, the main issue here is that the government has not enacted proper policies to ensure proper wage protection and labour protection for both citizens and migrants. But because there was no equal protection for everyone, it created that feeling that Singaporeans have not been protected. It created that sense of nationalism. It created that sense of Singaporeans have to oppose the foreigner as a reaction to protecting themselves. You see something like that happening in Taiwan for different reasons because of that attack from – the threat from China.
 
I think what therefore I sense here is that conversation is going. The media does respond to that. So if foreigners on Twitter, for example, they speak up about how they are misrepresented, it does get reported. So this goes up. That conversation can be had. It’s not something that is controlled or something that’s limited. But what’s interesting, too, is how then do we talk about the underlying issues that cause people to react? I think that’s something that is not being discussed, not understood, not acknowledged, because it’s such a new issue. I think for me that could be the similarities I see when I was in Singapore and when I’m here now, how do we see an issue arising, acknowledge it as fast as we can, and then look at what the underlying drivers are to try to address them and resolve them. As someone who looks at society, this is what I like to look at. And when I see that it’s not being responded to, then it means that the conversation that goes on will be a bit more on the surface level before it’s finally addressed. And that means that sometimes discriminatory discussions or defensive rhetoric can be pushed before it’s managed.
 
PJ Thum (53:13)
Yeah. In Singapore, it feels so brittle, that everything is so defensive, the government is so defensive, everything is somehow dangerous. Any sort of discussion that disagrees with them is a threat. And it’s just very refreshing to hear you describe Taiwan and your experience there. I guess, to be fair, though, is there anything now that you’ve been in Taiwan that you think Singapore actually does better, or that we should be really proud of? From your perspective.
 
Roy Ngerng (53:53)
I said just now that Singapore and Taiwan operates on a very similar economic model. So before I came to Taiwan, I actually did some research. So I saw that Taiwan has the national health insurance, Taiwan has unemployment benefits. Taiwan has a pension scheme. And the coverage of the unemployment benefits was 60% off the previous employment income. So before I came, I was thinking to myself, look, everyone has good social protection. Singapore doesn’t. So I was a lot more happy about Taiwan having such a system. Coming to Taiwan allows me to have a more nuanced perspective on such comparisons. Just because the country has social protection benefits doesn’t mean that the labour protections are good. Coming here, I realised that there are similarly poor labour protections when it comes to wages, when it comes to the number of annual leave or holidays that workers have access to. So both Singapore and Taiwan actually have one of the poorest lowest number of annual leave and holidays among the advanced countries. And even though Taiwan has unemployment benefits of 60% of the previous wage, only about ~10% of the unemployed have access to the unemployment benefits. So that’s a huge proportion.
 
PJ Thum (55:28)
Why’s that? Why can’t they access unemployment benefits?
 
Roy Ngerng (55:32)
If I’m not wrong… I spoke to someone who had experience accessing unemployment benefits. Her point of view is that it’s difficult to assess because when you let go of from your job, you need to be able to – I don’t have the exact terminology and the exact -, but you need to be let go of. You cannot resign, for example. I’m not sure of the complexities, so I might be a bit wrong here.
 
PJ Thum (56:00)
I can also imagine scenarios where you have to prove your salary through how much tax you pay, and things like that. And then in Taiwan, I imagine there’s probably a significant informal economy, so people who work in a cash economy are probably unable to access benefits. I think those are common problems around the world.
 
Roy Ngerng (56:24)
It’s also tricky because you have to… So the technique that the person told me was that you cannot apply for unemployment benefits at the end of six months. You have to make sure that it doesn’t lapse, and then you’re able to extend it, because once it lapses, it becomes a bit more complicated. So I think it’s something with the legalities of the systems that I actually have not explored. But then it helps me understand that Taiwan and Singapore has actually very similar economic systems. The only difference is one is a democracy, the other is not. And you’re able to speak up and you’re not persecuted. The government might ignore you, but there’s a space there. It allows that conversation to grow up. Some people might hear it, some people might allow that discussion to be taken on. So that’s the difference, just comparing the two economies being, I think, because if you look at other advanced countries, most of the advanced countries, including South Korea, they take a wage-led model, especially if you just compare Taiwan with other emerging economies in Europe, their wage increases are one of the fastest. So Taiwan and Singapore are unique and together with the United States, and I think perhaps Israel, they tend to depress their wages as a way to… thinking that this will help grow profits.
 
I think the problem, though, when Taiwan adopts such a model is – at least from my perspective – Singapore pursues the financial industry, which allows wages at a certain extreme to be pulled up. Therefore, it distorts the whole model where there are a huge pool of low wage workers and a huge pool of high wage workers, and it pulls up wages in between. For Taiwan, I think the problem is because it relies on being a manufacturing hub and it’s therefore low cost, there is no high wage sector pressure that pulls up the wages, and wages therefore are sustained at a low wage manner. So even as Taiwan tries to adopt a model that the US and Singapore are doing, it has not been able to uplift the economy. It has not been able to use inequality to pull up the economy. It’s a bad thing to do to use inequality to pull up the economy but it has stayed at a stagnant mode. So this is not to say that Singapore is a good model to follow. What I at least think that, so Taiwan has some problems in terms of the low wage situation that’s very similar to Singapore, and Taiwan’s housing prices, together with Korea, Japan, are one of the highest in the world. And paying for housing is something that’s actually quite… It’s also a habit that is very similar to Singapore, where you feel that you have to buy a home in order to be able to get married and move out.
 
So that’s also something that’s happening. Of course, there are a lot of Taiwanese where their families have homes. So if you’re lucky enough, you are actually able to perhaps inherit the home. But if you’re not, housing prices compared to wages are one of the highest, and it’s a huge burden. Normatively as well in terms of absolute amount it’s also one of the highest. So what I think Singapore has done comparatively well, not absolutely well is that in terms of the progressive wage model, the government initially when they implemented wages for the low income, it was very low and increments all the way up until last year was very low. I think what has pushed them to think differently could be that the pandemic made them realise that they cannot rely on the excess amount of low wage workers, they have to try to look at increasing wages for the low wage workers. I think part of that… I’m assuming that part of that is that if low wage workers are too lowly paid that it will create a burden for the system, if they cannot try to meet the needs of the system, try to pay for certain necessities. I’m assuming that this could be some of the mindset that’s going on. So the government has, up until 2028 increased progressive wage model to about SG$2700. So this is good, but what is bad is that SGD$2700 is actually what is needed today. Based on some calculations done by the academics who have been studying the living wage.
 
PJ Thum (01:01:17)
Whatsenough.sg, right?
 
Roy Ngerng (01:01:19)
Yes. So if we are looking at 2028, what we might need is actually SG$3500 or SG$3800 as a minimum salary. But then when you look at Taiwan, the government doesn’t have that same push. The wages are low, but they do not have the same realisation that they need to increase wages the same way. Singapore, finally, awoken to the problem. I think part of the problem was because Taiwan managed the Covid-19 Pandemic too well at the start, it did not create a disruption that forced the business owners and the government to relook at why the economy… such a low wage and unequal economy can be a problem, the same way that it has forced the government in Singapore to look at the problem. Another thing that just comparing Taiwan and Singapore. I’m not saying Singapore is doing a good job because housing prices are high in Singapore, even when you look at HDB flats. But then when I come to Taiwan and housing prices are significantly much higher… The house I’m staying in right now, if you are to buy a house like that, it could cost you SG$800,000  or SG$1 million. And this could be something that’s considered normal, average for you to pay.
 
For Singapore, average housing, public housing prices could be about SG$400,000 to SG$500,000. That’s actually high when you compare with other advanced countries, especially when it comes to public housing, especially when it comes to a house where you only have a 99 year lease, especially when you do not own the land. All this means that the housing prices are high. But comparing two situations where they are equally bad, you realise that the government in Singapore, they try to at least control the prices every few years because they know the risk that it can do to their power and instability. The Taiwanese government has not realised that, and I expect a housing bubble to happen at some point, but then they are able to somehow manage it. So having said that, it’s not that the Singapore model is good, it just means that they know how to play with that risk or to just manage that. Keep Singaporeans at a wage that’s low enough, but pay housing prices that’s high enough that keep them at the state where they are in constant need of not speaking out too much to disrupt the system.
 
PJ Thum (01:04:04)
Right. Yeah, I think just specifically on housing prices, I understand Tokyo has managed to increase the number of houses or housing stock by a third over the last 20 years without significant increases in prices through different policies and an expansion of redevelopment and things like that. So I think there are other models out there. But I just want to say this is fascinating because this podcast was supposed to be about just catching up with you and then promoting a book and then next thing I know we’re talking about comparative economic policies of Singapore and Taiwan, social welfare models, housing models. And it’s really fascinating because I don’t know anything about Taiwan and I think a lot of Singaporeans are very interested. We compare ourselves to Hong Kong and Taiwan and Taiwan just seems to be doing so much better than we are right now. But you’ve brought a lot of nuance into that conversation, so thank you for that.
 
Okay. Well on that note, thank you so much Roy. Thank you for coming on the show. Thank you for your time. I’m so happy to know that you are well, that you’ve put this past you, that you’re doing well in Taiwan. So all the best to you. So thank you again for coming on the show.
 
Roy Ngerng (01:05:27)
Oh, thank you. By the way, I do not hate Lee Hsien Loong. Many people think I hate him. I don’t. I don’t! But does he, does the government need to go? Yes, it does. [laughs].
 
PJ Thum (01:05:42)
And the book is called “Ridiculous! Untold Tales of Singapore” and you can get it at any good bookstore. It’s published by Function8. So do go and get a copy and read it and it will be a real education about how the Singapore government uses the law to really oppress activists. So thank you very much, Roy, for coming on the show. Thank you to all of you for listening. And as always, remember if you’ve enjoyed this podcast please do join New Naratif as a member at newnaratif.com/join or you can donate at newnaratif.com/donate. We’re a movement for democracy in Southeast Asia and we need your help to stay independent and sustainable. Okay. So thank you very much everyone and see you next time. Bye!
 

Thum Ping Tjin headshot

Thum Ping Tjin

Thum Ping Tjin (“PJ”) is Managing Director of New Naratif and a historian at the University of Oxford. A Rhodes Scholar, Commonwealth Scholar, Olympic athlete, and the only Singaporean to swim the English Channel, his work centres on Southeast Asian governance and politics. His most recent work is Living with Myths in Singapore (Ethos: 2017, co-edited with Loh Kah Seng and Jack Chia). Reach him at pingtjin.thum@newnaratif.com.

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