SG academic at Oxford: Major “fake news” spreader is Govt – need to educate SGs to be more critical in thinking

by Vincent Low

Dr Thum Ping Tjin, a Rhodes Scholar and an academic at Oxford University, recently submitted his own views to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods. He is also a renowned historian of Malaya.

The select committee was appointed by the government in Jan this year to "study deliberate online falsehoods". Their job is to make recommendations so that appropriate laws may be enacted to combat online "fake news".

The chairman of this select committee is none other Punggol East MP Charles Chong, who famously spread the news on the eve of 2015 GE alleging that the opposition party WP had somehow "lost" $22.5 million of town council funds when subsequent audits by KPMG and others showed the money was intact all along.

Dr Thum organizes independent dialogue sessions

Dr Thum said, "My submission to the Select Committee is based on my experience as an academic and member of civil society, as well as my involvement in facilitating dialogue sessions on the issue of 'fake news' and 'deliberate online falsehoods' in Singapore over the past two months."

On his own, he has co-facilitated three dialogue sessions with about 15 to 20 participants per session. These were carried out independently without the usual participation from PAP MPs, grassroots, union leaders and so on.

"If required, I am willing to give evidence before the Committee," he added.

On his Facebook page, he also urged fellow Singaporeans to make similar submissions to the Select Committee. "If we want democracy in Singapore, we must take advantage of the rare opportunities we have to practice it!" he said.

Laws dealing with "fake news" already in place in Singapore

Through his research and dialogue sessions, Dr Thum found that there are already laws dealing with the spread of falsehoods in Singapore for malicious purposes. He noted that where online falsehoods have arisen in Singapore, with clear provenance, impact, and intent, they have been swiftly dealt with using existing laws. These include:

  • The Telecommunications Act 1999 — Clause 45: “Any person who transmits or causes to be transmitted a message which he knows to be false or fabricated shall be guilty of an offence…”
  • Section 298 of the Penal Code criminalises the “deliberate intention of wounding the religious or racial feelings of any person”, and was amended in 2007 specifically to include any electronic medium. This was used to prosecute Amos Yee.
  • The Sedition Act 1948, which was used to prosecute The Real Singapore.
  • The Protection from Harassment Act 2014, which was designed specifically to make acts of cyberbullying and online harassment a criminal offence.

"Given the speed and severity with which online falsehoods in Singapore have been dealt with, further legislation is not required," he opined.

"Fake news" not a problem in Singapore

He also noted that social media has proven adept at rapidly debunking untruths and hoaxes, with "fake news" often not merely debunked but also then mocked and ridiculed online.

"As perpetrators of racism and discrimination have discovered, Singaporeans have been very quick and efficient at policing online communities," he said.

"It has been suggested that the speed at which social media operates allows 'fake news' to spread faster and wider than before; however, there is also clear evidence that the same speed of social media allows 'fake news' to be rapidly debunked and ridiculed."

Hence, generally speaking, "fake news" is not a problem in Singapore given the more than adequate laws we have as well as the swift online community policing by netizens themselves.

PAP government spreading "fake news" for political gain

However, even though "fake news" is generally not a problem in Singapore, Dr Thum took issue with the PAP government for spreading "fake news" themselves, especially for political gains.

Dr Thum said, "'Fake news' is not a problem in Singapore — with one major exception: the People’s Action Party government has, historically, spread 'fake news' for narrow party-political gain."

He gave examples of the numerous detentions sanctioned by the PAP government under the Internal Security Act.

"Beginning with Operation Coldstore in 1963, (PAP) politicians have told Singaporeans that people were being detained without trial on national security grounds due to involvement with radical communist conspiracies to subvert the state," he noted.

"Declassified documents have proven this to be a lie. Operation Coldstore was conducted for political purposes, and there was no evidence that the detainees of Operation Coldstore were involved in any conspiracy to subvert the government," he added. Note that Dr Thum himself has done numerous research in Malaya history with the help of declassified British archive.

"On the contrary, then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew tacitly admitted to the British Commissioner in private meetings that the purpose of Operation Coldstore was political gain," Dr Thum continued.

"None of the approximately 2,500 people detained under the various clauses of the Internal Security Act between 1963 and 1987 was ever put on trial for the charges they were detained under. The Internal Security Department has never produced any evidence that any of its detainees were involved in any illegal conspiracy. The numerous detainees who continue to try to clear their names have been met either with denials or silence."

And commenting on Operation Spectrum sanctioned by the PAP government in 1987, Dr Thum noted that the PAP politicians have abused their power by using the ISA to detain political opponents and cripple opposing political movements. One of those "crippled" was Francis Seow from WP, who contested and nearly won Eunos GRC in the 80s.

Dr Thum concluded, "The official statements that these were national security detentions designed to stop communist conspiracies is 'fake news': a major falsehood, for major political gain, which has destroyed the lives of many honest Singaporeans. Yet no (PAP) politician has ever faced sanction for any of these falsehoods."

Hence, Dr Thum feels that any solution to the problem of 'Fake News' must therefore start with the education of Singaporeans. He would like to see Singaporeans to be "more skeptical of all information, regardless of source".

He also wants to see more diversification of responsible news sources in Singapore as well as greater transparency in government and accountability for those in official positions.

Recommendations

Accordingly, he made the following recommendations to the committee:

  • The focusing of media literacy education on teaching Singaporeans to understand how the information industry works, to be politically aware, and to be skeptical of all information, regardless of news sources
  • The repeal of the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act 1974 to have more news sources in Singapore
  • A Freedom of Information Act which automatically declassifies all government documents after 25 years unless they are specifically retained
  • The establishment of an independent government watchdog (Ombudsman) with the authority to investigate complaints against the government and censure government officials who mislead the public, given the track record of government spreading "fake news"

Do you agree with Dr Thum?