I’m acquainted with Mr H, a very dedicated school teacher. Regrettably, he had recently left the profession for something more lucrative. Even more recently, I saw him share an article on Facebook. The article claimed that the callous staff at a community centre drove tissue sellers away from their premises. He questioned whether it was fake news and postulated that that’s why we need Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act 2019. I’ll get back to Mr H in a moment.
POFMA, was tabled in the Singaporean parliament on 1 April 2019. The bill proposes up to 10 years imprisonment for individuals and large fines of $1M for firms that spread falsehoods online with “malicious intent” to harm public interest.
According to the draft, however, opinions, criticisms, satire or parody are not covered and officials insist that people will not be charged if they criticize the government without making false claims. Such exclusions, however, are not mentioned in draft of the bill itself. They are merely “assurances”.
Activists, opposition politicians and those who criticise and challenge the views of the government from time to time are all vulnerable. But what about the government? Who monitors them? Channel News Asia attempted to clarify this point with the Minister for Law:
CNA: We’ve seen examples of this everywhere; it’s not just individuals who proffer falsehoods. Certain governments, if I may say so, also quite liberally use falsehoods …
Minister: “And those governments will face the consequences at the elections.” (You want your covered walkway? You want your lifts upgraded or not?)
CNA: Is that something that you think can be looked at within the legislation? That there are in-built checks to preclude such abuses?
Minister: “First of all, there are checks. If there is a declaration that something is false and asking for clarification, the courts have oversight of it. So there is a clear oversight mechanism and checks.”
Minister: “Second, you are talking about future governments, whether they will abuse. The Singapore Government, in terms of other legislation, has also been accused of having too much power. We’ve always said: “OK what works for us, we’ve put it in place and we exercise those powers honestly.” And we allow ourselves to be judged and, periodically, the people judge us at the elections and they look at the results of what we have done. The pluses, minuses, bottom line, how does it work? So that’s the way a transparent government has got to work. I cannot vouch for how a future government will act.”
It would be nice if we could all accept the minister’s assurances, but frankly, I’m not sure if he’s bothered even if we don’t. Of course, nobody likes to be cheated. We don’t like to be misled by fiction disguised as news. But the wiser and more mature among us also accept that the real world cannot be devoid of lies and scams. How much protection do we need before we get turned into imbeciles without the ability to discern?
To be fair, are present laws sufficient in dealing with those who spread misleading information online? In other words, do you think that someone who has lied about tissue sellers being driven away from a community centre should be given up to 10 years imprisonment? What if it’s true but the average citizen lacks the time and resources to prove it or get it 100% correct?
Some may argue that France and Germany also have their own versions of POFMA. The devil is really in the details. You can find the differences point by point over here. More devils in the details which Mr H is probably not aware of. Towards the end of the bill, you’ll find something like this:
61. The Minister may, by order in the Gazette, exempt any person or class of persons from any provision of this Act.Regulations
62. The Minister may make regulations necessary or convenient to be prescribed for carrying out or giving effect to this Act.
So who do you think will get the exemption? Why should the bill come with any exemptions at all if the law applies equally to everyone? Heads I win, tails you lose. The one who decides whether you win or lose is your opponent. Yes, it looks and sounds like a joke, except that it’s not funny.
In December 1994, the Jakarta Post published an essay by NUS Political Science Lecturer Dr Bilveer Singh titled “Singapore Faces Challenges of Success”. In his article, Dr Bilveer Singh wrote:
“Many, including the Government, were profiteering as a result of the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax in April. What is now emerging in Singapore is a society that is faced with growing impoverishment even though a fortunate minority is still reaping profits and the queue for a Mercedes 320 is still very long.
What the statistics hide through the law of averages and generalisation, is that the majority of Singaporeans are basically living hand-to-mouth and it is these Singaporeans, who constitute the majority, that have become increasingly alienated with the Government.”
As people in touch with the masses and many of us are in fact living hand-to-mouth, we know anecdotally that what Dr Bilveer Singh said is probably true. Cost of living taken into consideration, our working class folks are not better off than the average Indonesian. Nevertheless, the Singapore Government rebuked Dr Bilveer Singh in a letter to the Jakarta Post through Simon De Cruz, the Charge d’Affaires at the Singapore Embassy in Indonesia.
Simon challenged Dr Bilveer Singh to either substantiate his allegations or withdraw them, particularly on the claims that the government is profiteering from the introduction of GST, that Singapore is a society that is faced with growing impoverishment and that “a majority of Singaporeans are basically living hand-to-mouth”. De Cruz also said that as an academic, Dr Bilver Singh could not “merely assert the conclusion to be proven and ignore facts to the contrary”. Naturally, Dr Bilveer Singh, as an individual whose employment hangs from a thread, was not about to go on sabbatical to do some research to prove his point. He withdrew his allegations. One can only wonder if Dr Bilveer Singh would have been forced to withdraw his statements if he had written something flattering but untrue. There’s more.
In July 2003, the Minister of Manpower Ng Eng Heng rebuked NTU economists Professor Lim Chong Yah, Dr Chen Kang and Dr Tan Ghee Khiap for contradicting the labour statistics released by the Ministry of Manpower. In particular, Professor Lim Chong Yah had said, “Out of four jobs created, only one job went to a Singapore resident, three jobs went to the intake of foreign workers”. Dr Tan Gee Giap also added, “The number of non-resident workforce is very large, runs over 700,000… the unemployment is only less than 90,000, then something is very wrong.” In response, Minister Ng said the academics were “way off the mark” and they should had consulted the Ministry of Manpower or Department of Statistics. Does that mean the information in the public domain was untrue? Again, the professors were not about to take time off to embark on a study of the figures to be provided by the MOM Department of Statistics. What do you do when a hammer is held over your rice bowl? You say that the earth is flat if you need to. They published a public apology to the Minister of Manpower.
So what are the actual figures? Why are they not in the public domain? Who decides what compromises national security? The same people who decide what the truth is? Given these two examples, how assured can we be that POFMA will not be used against anyone simply expressing an opinion or making a remark based on information in the public domain?
Take note that all this has been happening long before POFMA was tabled. When this bill gets passed (as it certainly will), it won’t be just the jokers who make things up who will think twice before crying wolf. Our academics and online whistle-blowers, even those who spot something unusual and wish to share it are going to hold back, not just for fear of their jobs but their freedom and financial health as well.
By that time, maybe I too must adhere to the “truth” that Mr Ong Teng Cheong is not our first Elected President, an Indian Muslim is a Malay and the purpose of POFMA is to protect the public from being misled by sources other than the government approved and exempted ones.