The lack of preparation by the authorities for the situation added to the sense of anxiety and anger among Singaporeans. There was an inadequate number of face masks available, and those in shops were quickly sold out.
The Government promised and soon announced that more masks would be made available.
One member of the public, who is also a blogger, then posted on his Facebook page what a friend of his told him about the masks which he (the friend) had heard – that the masks were meant only for healthcare workers, and not for the general public.
When this came to the attention of the Minister of Communications and Information (MCI), Yaacob Ibrahim, he seemed to take rather great umbrage with the suggestion.
So incensed was Dr Yaacob that he found it fit to raise it in Parliament, no less, castigating the blogger for posting such a thing, and for “causing anxiety” among the public.
The Government mouthpiece media went into a tizzy and reported that the blogger’s post “went viral”.
The Facebook post was shared 23 times, and had 27 “likes”.
How does that cause “anxiety” or “went viral” in a population of more than 5 million?
It boggles the mind.
But still, even MPs went to extremes in their panic.
“In a national crisis, to put out false rumours is as severe as a bomb hoax: it can cause public panic,” said MP Zaqy Mohamad, chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Communications and Information.
Fast forward one year to September 2014.
The tables seem to have been turned – with ministers (at least one) and MPs being the ones who spread an untruth.
Following the debacle at Hong Lim Park last Saturday, several of these public officials made allegations against the protesters, that they had “heckled” special needs children who were performing on stage.
As it has turned out, however, this does not appear to be true.
Indeed, none of the MPs have provided any shred of evidence to support their allegations.
And the rumour seems to have been started by a pro-Government website too. (Read here: “Yes, Roy should apologise but so too some MPs”.)
And just this week as well, a pro-PAP Facebook page had to apologise for publishing a deliberately misleading edited photo of an opposition politician after the politician filed a police report over it.
But notice the complete silence from the likes of Dr Yaacob on this.
It smacks of double-standards – that the government would slam others for the slightest infringements while turning a complete blind eye to shortcomings from its own side.
While the government may think this is inconsequential, it in fact is not – for over time it will drain public trust from the authorities who will increasingly be seen to be lacking integrity.
Such biased attitudes will also harm the government itself – its officers will start to think that they can get away with anything, even when they propagate falsehoods in the public domain.
Yet, the false allegations of the protesters “heckling” the children are not the first or only incident of false information from the authorities or from the government-controlled mainstream media.
There have been numerous examples of this – but all have been met with utter silence from ministers such as Dr Yaacob who, in other cases, would waste no time in jumping to condemn the perpetrator.
See these reports and judge for yourself:
The government must realise that it is impossible for anyone to be accurate or true all the time.
It is a standard which the authorities themselves are unable to fulfil.
Thus, when it sets such a standard and then fails to live up to it, while castigating others for the same, it becomes a question of hypocrisy which erodes public trust.
There are two things the government can do.
One, do not set such high and unrealistic standards.
Two, be fair to all.
These are really not that hard to do, for if one believes that falsehoods should not be propagated, then it should apply to one and all, and any failings should be treated the same way.
For example, if a blogger is arrested (literally, handcuffed) for conducting an online election poll, then the same should be done to reporters of mainstream media outlets who conducted an actual on-the-ground by-election poll as well.
If a filmmaker is brought in for questioning by the police for publishing an interview with SMRT drivers while the case was before the courts, then the same should be done for the Straits Times reporter who conducted an interview with a bus driver involved in the Little India riot while the Commission of Inquiry was ongoing in the courts.
In fact, it was the chairman of the COI himself, a former judge, who slammed the Straits Times' report for "plain contempt of court".
If netizens are arrested for posting racist content online, then the same must be done for members of the ruling party or establishment who do the same.
If a blogger is slammed (in the media and in Parliament) for spreading falsehoods, then the same should be done for ministers and MPs who do the same.
Otherwise, the authorities should explain the apparent disparity in treatment.
If this is not addressed, how would the authorities claim moral authority to govern at all?
Over time, more people will lose faith in not just the officers of the Government, but in the system of governance itself.
And indeed, have not government ministers and academics been talking about a potential loss of public trust?
The blame for this is often pointed at others, especially critics of the government, but the truth is closer to home – that it is the government’s biased and unfair attitudes toward different sides that is lowering the standings of our public officials who, unfortunately, seem to have also become the sources and propagators of misinformation themselves.
And when found out, they pretend ignorance behind a wall of silence.
Not even an apology surfaces from them.
Dr Yaacob should be asking the MPs the same question he asked "prominent members of the online community" last year: "Were they helping to clarify and reject online rumours, or were they helping to spread them or even create them?"
Read also: "Yes, Roy should apologise but so too some MPs".