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Singapore MPs vote overwhelmingly in favour of fake news law despite dissent, debate

Kok Xinghui
Kok Xinghui • 8 min read
Singapore MPs vote overwhelmingly in favour of fake news law despite dissent, debate
SINGAPORE (May 13): On May 8, at 10.20pm, after the longest Parliament sitting in Singa­pore to debate legislation, the city state passed a law that gives portfolio ministers — part of the group of political office holders in Singapore — the power to
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SINGAPORE (May 13): On May 8, at 10.20pm, after the longest Parliament sitting in Singa­pore to debate legislation, the city state passed a law that gives portfolio ministers — part of the group of political office holders in Singapore — the power to decide what amounts to news that is false and against the public interest, and order that it be either corrected or taken down.

The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, widely referred to by its acronym Pofma, carries penalties for those who refuse to comply with the minister’s order — of up to $1 million for companies and up to $20,000 for individuals, with the possibility of a maximum of a year’s jail. Those who disagree with the minister’s decision can appeal to him or her and, if the appeal is rejected, can ask for the case to be heard by a High Court judge.

The law had generated vigorous debate inside and outside the House. Over two days, Members of Parliament raised concerns over what constituted a falsehood, versus an opinion; whether having the judiciary as the final arbiter was a good enough check on the executive; and what would happen if there was a “rogue” government in the future.

Still, the Bill was passed after two rounds of voting. Seventy-two members, including Nominated MPs, who are appointed to Parliament to provide non-partisan views, voted in favour of the legislation. The opposition Workers’ Party’s (WP) nine MPs voted against the legislation. Three Nominated MPs abstained in the second round of voting, despite voting for it in the first round. They are economist Walter Theseira, pharmacist Irene Quay and social entrepreneur Anthea Ong, who had tabled amendments to the Bill that were subsequently rejected by the House.

The WP had strongly objected to the proposed Bill. Its MPs wanted the courts to be the arbiter of falsehoods instead of ministers, and accused the majority People’s Action Party (PAP) of power grabbing with a self-serving law that could be abused to quash critics. The WP’s Low Thia Khiang, the opposition’s chief until a handover of power to lawyer Pritam Singh last year, had declared: “This is a bill with a hidden agenda.”

Low pointed out that the same words uttered by different people could be interpreted differently. In Mandarin, he said: “If a minister or PAP supporter were to say that older Singaporeans will not accept a non-Chinese prime minister, it can be dismissed as a personal opinion. But if it was uttered by a political opponent, a minister could say it creates racial conflict, endangers social cohesion and affects national security.”

‘Not a political tool’

Law Minister K Shanmugam, who spoke for two hours at the Bill’s second reading, has maintained that Pofma is not a political tool, but rather one that would shape the kind of society that Singapore should be. He argued that the proposed law in fact narrows the government’s powers, as existing laws allow for a wider ambit. The government is already able to take down content that goes against the public interest — whether it is true or false — and the spread of false messages can be criminalised. “The Bill is narrower in essential respects because it only applies to false statements of facts and, in addition, it must be shown that the falsehoods are against the public interest, which is set out in some detail in the Bill,” Shanmugam said.

He also said the arguments today were similar to those raised in 2013 when the government introduced a new licensing regime for news websites. “They also have no connection to reality,” he noted, observing that people “don’t even know of the Broadcasting Act”. The Act was amended in 2013 to require online news sites to remove content in breach of standards within 24 hours, and to post a performance bond of $50,000.

The law minister also took the opportunity to remind members of the various times when the spread of false news had led to violence. He stressed that, given the speed at which such false news can spread, having the courts as the first arbiters of what counts as fake news would take too much time. He explained that it would not be possible to have a judge always available, and even if one was, the court process would not be as immediate as having a portfolio minister decide on a case.

Government communications

Before the debate in Parliament, there was already considerable discussion in the public sphere on the proposed legislation. After the first reading of the Bill on April 1, academics and media practitioners signed public statements saying that while they agreed with the need for a law against fake news, they were uncomfortable with the approach that Pofma took.

In response, the government made significant efforts to convince Singaporeans of Pofma’s merits. There was even a video that featured local personality Michelle Chong interviewing Shanmugam. There were interviews and written commentaries in the national news media, including an opinion piece by Senior Minister of State for Law and Health Edwin Tong. He wrote that the Bill’s detractors were a small group of people crying wolf and that most Singaporeans wanted strong laws. The small group’s attempt to mislead gains no traction and they “speak in a shrinking echo chamber, with increasing shrillness”, he wrote.

Some political observers agree with Pofma’s premise of being able to deal with the spread of fake news with the utmost expediency. Singapore Management University (SMU) law don Eugene Tan says: “My sense is that people are convinced that Pofma is a strong response to the threat of harmful online falsehoods and would rather the government not tackle it with one hand tied behind its back.”

Terence Lee of Murdoch University says most people are apathetic. “A greater majority buy into the oft-cited argument that those who do not intend to transgress have nothing to fear, so the conclusion for them is that ‘the law does not affect me at all’.”

Tan says the most vocal detractors of the law are tech companies, which are the same group that the government has expected to be most likely to challenge any ministerial directive.

“It is primarily something that might be used against tech companies and platforms, right? It doesn’t make sense to use it against individuals,” says Shanmugam. And because these companies have the resources to mount court challenges, Shanmugam says ministers will act only after careful consideration.

Trust issues

There have also been concerns about how the enactment of Pofma will affect the people’s trust and confidence in the government. But the political analysts say that while there is a risk that any law can be misused, it is unlikely to happen. They do not see Pofma negatively affecting the people’s view of the government.

Tan says the answer is to have checks and balances that are properly calibrated. Furthermore, Pofma allows for appeals, judicial review and no ouster of judicial oversight, which means the authorities’ powers are not unfettered.

SMU law academic Benjamin Joshua Ong notes: “More important determinants of trust in the government will include (a) in the short run, the course of the debates in Parliament and how the government participates in them; and (b) in the long run, the way in which the Act eventually operates.”

Minister for Communications and Information S Iswaran also sought to reassure the business community that ministers will act judiciously. Speaking in Parliament, he said the flow of data and information is vital to Singapore’s economy and the country has a vibrant news and media network, with more than 60 accredited media organisations, including many large ones with regional headquarters in the Lion City. “Why would any minister want to put in jeopardy jobs for Singaporeans and opportunities for our businesses? That does not make good economics or good politics. Moreover, it would also be subject to intense scrutiny and called out by a highly connected citizenry, as well as the tech and media organisations [that] have a substantial presence in Singapore.”

Ultimately, Pofma is not a political exercise, according to Shanmugam. “It is an exercise to maintain our society and the values, and have a set of honest debates on what should be the way forward. Honest debates on social policy, honest debates on economic policy, honest debates on how we should structure society,” he said in his closing speech in Parliament. “But it should be based on a foundation of truth, a foundation of honour and a foundation where we keep out the lies — that’s what this is about. This is not about the WP or the PAP or today; it is about Singapore.”

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