Weeks of deliberations on Deliberate Online Falsehoods left some bad aftertaste and a number of lost opportunities

by Tan Tee Seng

When the Parliament formed a Select Committee to solicit public feedback to deal with Deliberate Online Falsehood (DOF), I thought it was an important step towards the engagement of its citizenry. This is particularly significant as Singapore will be going through a transition of a new generation leadership. Are we looking at a new era of stakeholders engagement in policy development?

I followed the Select Committee enthusiastically, attended more than 15 hours of the Committee’s proceeding because I did not trust that our mainstream media would report accurately on the proceedings. I recall that in a landmarked Select Committee hearings in 1986, the initial live telecast was reduced to an edited and restricted broadcast by the second day of the proceedings.

This engagement of the citizenry and various stakeholders done publicly and transparently is a rarity. Moreover, I knew that some activists have sought meaningful ways to counter DOF without curtailing freedom of speech.

Unfortunately, the weeks of deliberations left some bad aftertaste and a number of lost opportunities:

1. Obtaining feedback was disingenuous. The Committee seemed to only want to seek confirmation and justification from the presenters to give the government more “levers”.

2. When the presentation was not in line with the agenda of the Committee, the session turned to look more like batteries of the presenters who went in good faith.

3. There was not even any faint imprint of the younger leadership and their vision of governance of Singapore. It became a Sham show and worse still, he was trying to play a dead man!

4. Conflating hate speeches and DOF made meaningful discussions confusing and difficult as those questioned were restricted in their answers and not allowed to elaborate.

5. The objectives of the engagement seemed to have departed from the stated points of references. I did not see attempts to build trust. Suspicions of the government objectives linger. The sessions only amplify the drumming of government ‘s Internet Brigade.

6. Such exercise could also be useful to frame the ambit of the application of law and regulations with regard to the subject and place safeguards to confine the power that can be abused and prevent them from using it as political expediency (ISA come to mind). But we are no wiser now even with the definition of falsehood especially in this era of Donald Trump where anything disagreeable with him is fake.

7. I sat through the whole battery session of Dr P J Thum, and it dawned on me that the “evidences” that were presented by Sham was what all Internal Security Department had! It seemed that these were a bunch of “suka suka” interpretations made in accordance to the political agenda of the day. And thousands of people were incarcerated based on such “evidences”. These would never have any place or stand tested in the rule of law.

8. The greatest fake news by the government some 60 and 30 years ago (I refer to Operation Coldstore and Operation Spectrum) have divided the country politically. This is a great opportunity to take steps of reconciliation. Instead, we saw the clutching of straws just to ensure the continuity of the “political legacy of a dead man”.

Mr Tan is a member of Function 8, a local non-government organisation and a former detainee in the Operation Spectrum for his alleged involvement in “a Marxist conspiracy to subvert the existing social and political system in Singapore, using communist united front tactics, with a view to establishing a Marxist state.”