Missed opportunity: Select Committee on Deliberate Falsehoods

by Teo Soh Lung

The People’s Action Party (PAP) is truly out of touch. It is so full of itself and yet so insecure. It distrusts anyone and everyone outside the party and its grassroots organisations. It sees nothing but ill intent of anyone who offers an opinion that is different from what it holds.

The recent Select Committee hearing on Deliberate Online Falsehoods is one example of its arrogance and lack of confidence, sincerity and trust in others.

The Committee was formed in January this year. It called on the public to submit written representations. Receiving just 22 submissions in February, its chairman, Mr Charles Chong told the press that “it was hoping to garner more suggestions – including some from foreign experts – so it will have a broad range of ideas to work with.”

I didn’t take his words seriously as I belong to the community of sceptics. I had concluded that the purpose of the select committee calling for written submissions was simply a propaganda exercise – to show the world that the government does consult the people when it wants to make new laws. Indeed, this trick pulls off with some people and I will elaborate on this later.

While I had no intention to submit any representation, the young activists were full of excitement and hope. They all wanted to submit written representations to the committee. They encouraged each other to complete their submissions before the deadline. P J Thum and Kirsten Han even conducted “democracy workshops” to encourage people to think about fake news and to make written submissions to the Committee.

Kirsten Han in her written submission said: “Over the past two months, I have been involved in facilitating dialogue sessions on this issue of “deliberate online falsehoods” and “fake news” in Singapore, with the goal of encouraging Singaporeans to discuss the issue and make their own submissions to the Select Committee.”

I doubt if any PAP grassroots organisation had worked as hard as Kirsten Han and P J Thum. They, as well as other young activists, were sincere in wanting to contribute their views to the Committee. They didn’t want more new legislation to curb the limited freedoms in Singapore and they honestly believed that their views will be listened to and taken into consideration by the Committee.

While the young activists were enthusiastic and worked very hard at their submissions, I was sceptical. The enthusiasm and energy of youth must have some rejuvenation effect on the old! Just a few days before the closing date, members of Function 8 finally put forward a representation of fake news which we were most familiar with – the 1987 Marxist Conspiracy.  We were not invited to give evidence even though we were willing to be questioned.

I was in Malaysia when the young activists, all neatly attired (out of respect for the Committee), gave evidence. Whenever I had access to wifi, I would check my mobile phone to see what was happening in Singapore. What took place before the Committee alarmed me. The conduct of some members of the Committee was far from cordial. Mr Edwin Tong and Minister Shanmugam, both senior members of the Singapore Bar cross examined the young activists at length. They appeared to be intent on tripping them and undermining their written submissions.

The proceedings before the Select Committee reminded me of my own presence before another select committee three decades ago. Most of the subpoenaed witnesses then were harassed with irrelevant questions by the former prime minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Mr Lee’s cross-examination skill however well surpassed both Mr Edwin Tong and Minister Shanmugam. While Mr Lee took perhaps 2 to 2.5 hours to complete his cross examination of two main witnesses, Mr Francis Seow and me, Mr Tong took 5 hours to finish his cross-examination of Kirsten Han and 3 others while Minister Shanmugam took 6 hours to complete his cross examination of P J Thum. The atmosphere in both proceedings in 1986 and 2018 was hostile. The witnesses were treated like accused persons in a criminal trial and committee members were prosecutors whose sole occupation was to gain convictions.

While the proceedings alarmed me, several people in Malaysia appreciated the fact that the government had formed a select committee to look into the necessity of making new laws for fake news. A couple of Malaysian activists informed me that they were impressed that Singapore called for written submissions and spent eight days examining witnesses before they present new fake news laws to parliament. They complained that PM Najib rammed through the fake news laws without consultation in anticipation of this coming general election!

The PAP cannot however take any consolation from a few Malaysian activists who spoke favourably of its Select Committee. The 200 academics from all over the world (including Singapore) who signed a petition demanding an apology from the committee and the letter from the Board of Trustees of Oxford Project Southeast Asia which similarly condemned the committee and demanded an apology for P J Thum are most damaging to the Singapore government.

The Select Committee for Deliberate Online Falsehoods have lost the opportunity to win the hearts and minds of young activists when its members resorted to unreasonable tactics that sought to undermine their evidence. The young activists had wholeheartedly participated in the proceedings. PJ Thum and Kirsten Han have gone out of their way to conduct democracy workshops and encourage people to submit their views to the committee. The Committee’s bullying tactics will be remembered for a very long time. It will be exceedingly difficult for any future select committee to receive 170 written submissions.