The Law Ministry has been trying to allay our fears over POFMA, alleging that it narrows rather than widen the government’s powers. Even though there are existing laws which allow the Government to block access to sites and to take down certain content, the Bill gives power to ministers to take such actions “only” against false statements of fact.
Can you see why the word “only” is inappropriate? If you can, then you probably don’t qualify to work for any ministry. Let’s take a look at the Sedition Act which is a Singaporean statute law which prohibits seditious acts and speech; and the printing, publication, sale, distribution, reproduction and importation of seditious publications. This law can be and has been used against a number of individuals who disseminated fake news that could have a negative impact on racial harmony.
Next, we have Singapore’s defamation laws which protect individuals and their reputations from harm due to written or spoken speech; this type of speech is also known as libel or slander. Again, we have individuals who have made some inappropriate insinuations against our leaders and ended up having to pay hundreds of thousands in damage claim.
But fake news of a commercial nature can also be misleading and against public interest. What about merchants who mislead consumers with fake information? Well, the Singapore Code of Advertising Practice (SCAP) is the guiding principle of ASAS. This Code seeks to promote a high standard of ethics in advertising through industry self-regulation. The basic premise of the SCAP is that all advertisements should be legal, decent, honest and truthful. The SCAP was formulated against the background of national law, international law and practice, including the International Code of Advertising Practice published by the International Chamber of Commerce.
What about doctors who mislead their patients and get them to have unnecessary proceduress? Cardiologists who place stents in patients with less than 70% coronary blockage can get sued. In Singapore, anti-vaxx doctors like Toni Bark would have been taken to task long before they can make an impact. The Health Ministry lays down the ground rules and doctors follow or else.
There are even ways to deal with seemingly innocent folks like Terry Xu and Daniel De Costa. Defamation and even the Computer Misuse Act have been used against them. Jolovan Wham faced charges for organising public assemblies without permits and refusing to sign police statements, along with one count of “vandalism”. He also faced a charge of contempt of court over a Facebook post he put up alleging that Singapore’s courts are not as independent as Malaysia’s on cases with political implications. If so many charges can be brought against someone who is seemingly non-destructive, can we say that there are not enough laws to deal with those who are truly destructive?
So how sharp a knife is POFMA? You can say that it’s very sharp (specific). You can also say that it is very blunt (non-specific). What do I mean? To get into trouble for sedition, you need to make a seditious remark. To get into trouble with defamation, you need to say something that defames someone (usually a politician from the ruling party). To me, that’s pretty narrow. But we as mere mortals and we get some things wrong or omit certain things all the time. Common sense tells us that it’s much easier to call out something as fake or wrong than to prove that it’s seditious or defamatory. Why is the word “only” being used? Isn’t it like saying you “only” need to consume alcohol to get into trouble and don’t need to exceed the limit? Claiming that something is false and placing the burden of solid proof on the individual is a suffocating blanket and not a knife.
Fake news and fake claims are everywhere and some are even tolerated when they are perceived simply as exaggerations. So is exaggeration acceptable? What about playing with words? When is it not acceptable? We can argue till the cows come home, stopped only by a minister’s decision. Or if the minister decides to stop you before the cows can even leave home, that’s usually the end of the debate unless you want to quit your job and sell your house to fight the case in court. The definition of fake and misleading can be very wide and actually, we’re “entertained” by such things on a daily basis. If POFMA applies to advertisers of good and services, will we see a crisis in the industry?
To “clarify” matters, the Law Minister gave us a few examples of what is covered and not covered under the law.
A professor of law states that the death penalty in Singapore does not deter crime and substantiates his claim with several studies citing real data.
This is a statement of opinion as it is a conclusion that is drawn from studies, and is not covered by the Bill. But if the studies are found to be non-existent or based on non-existent data, then it is a false statement of fact.
A person states that the Government is practising “double standards” by having two different permit regimes to govern public activist events on political issues and a public meet-up by an influencer.
This is a statement of opinion, and is not covered by the Bill.
But if the person says or implies that the same permit rules govern both kinds of events and double standards were applied for the granting of permits under the same rules, then it is a false statement of fact, and can be covered by the Bill.
An economist states that home ownership in Singapore is only 9 per cent and explains that the definition used of home ownership excludes any lease regardless of length of lease.
This is a statement of opinion as it is a conclusion drawn from a certain methodology and is not covered by the Bill.
But if the economist misrepresents the actual number of persons who own freehold property in Singapore, then it is a false statement of fact, and can be covered by the Bill.
A writer publishes an article online stating that the social welfare system in Singapore has gaps. This article draws from interviews with government officials and social workers.
This is not covered by the Bill and the Government can disagree with the conclusion drawn by the writer.
But if the person quotes a social worker who said that welfare assistance had been denied to a needy elder and that information was found to be untrue or manufactured, then it is a false statement of fact. If the public interest is affected, it may come under the Bill.
Notice the fine lines between what is covered and what is not covered. What effect does such clarification have on the average Singaporean? They shut up. Yes, that’s my opinion and this can’t be fake news because you can see for yourself that there are significantly fewer shares on social media. Citizen reporting is virtually gone. Some bloggers have gone into hibernation. This blog, once my most popular, is also rapidly declining in page views. Will this affect Singapore in a way that worries Singaporeans? Of course not. It’s business as usual.
Most businesses probably have no reason to be worried about POFMA as the examples above show that it obviously does not target them. However, what is unsaid is more telling than what is said. We know who are the ones in the aiming sights of POFMA. If you’re not one of them, you can pretty much carry on misleading the public with your super foods, miracle supplements, amazing treatments etc.
But if you’re one of “them”, then you have reason to worry. The Bill gives powers to ministers to take such actions “only” against “false statements of fact” which can include a lot of things – not just seditious statements, defamatory statements and statements which scandalise the judiciary, but practically anything under the sun that can be proven “false” under one condition or another. There are probably some other “only”s not mentioned. Either way, politically apathetic Singaporeans just need to stay apathetic or be even more apathetic. We can all feel safe until we’re sorry.
My mind and my heart have already voted with their feet. As I approach retirement, my physical self will soon follow. Singapore will only lose a writer who doesn’t contribute much to its GDP. You guys can happy GDPing.
© Chan Joon Yee