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Photo from Edwin Tong's Facebook page

Singaporeans might underestimate the consequences of deliberate online falsehoods despite not being “naive” about them: SMOS Edwin Tong

While Singaporeans are not gullible about online falsehoods, there appears to be a tendency to underestimate the repercussions of unbridled dissemination of such falsehoods, cautioned Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong.

Mr Tong, who is also Senior Minister of State for Health, warned: “Once it is out there, and you have no ability to stop it either by legislation or, over time, building up trust and discernment and education, then I think there’s going to be serious trouble.”

In an hour-long interview with TODAY, Mr Tong, one out of 10 members of the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods said: “I’ll be very candid to say that, even for myself, prior to the hearings, I wasn’t so exposed to the extent to which (online falsehoods) have been used around the world.”

The Select Committee released its 273-page report at the end of last month, detailing 22 wide-ranging proposals to the Government, including taking social media giants -- Facebook, Twitter, et al. -- to task in the event of their failure to act on the spread of online falsehoods on such platforms.

Veteran diplomat Bilahari Kausikan made a statement -- a day after the report was released -- that many Singaporeans are "naive" about the degree of the threat posed by fake news, adding that Beijing's alleged effort to spread Chinese propaganda and disinformation through social media will invite disharmony amongst Singaporeans.

Chinese influence operations seek to impose a Chinese identity on multiracial Singapore and thus threatens the city state's core social compact of multiracial meritocracy, he said.

Mr Kausikan recalled how the backlash he received after writing about Chinese influence operations in Singapore "was often angry and often echoed the line taken by the Chinese Embassy, in effect 'everyone does it'".

He added: "They appeal to ethnic pride which is all too often only a tiny step away from ethnic chauvinism. This can strain social cohesion in a way western influence operations do not."

Mr Kausikan argued that the Select Committee's report made a subtle reference to potential Chinese hegemony when it said that Singapore's 'societal conditions' expose its citizens to 'slow drip' falsehoods.

"Of course, we must be alert to western influence operations as well. But we should also understand the main threat," he warned.

Mr Tong, in response to Mr Kausikan's statement, said during the interview with TODAY: “I won’t say Singaporeans are naive about (online falsehoods), but perhaps I might say that there’s a degree of complacency and lack of awareness of the extent to which this can proliferate.”

“We are a potential target. We are possibly a valuable target as well,” he said, adding that this susceptibility is due to Singapore's open-door policy as a trading hub, as well as being well-connected via the Internet.

Select Committee recommendations aren't necessarily foolproof due to evolving nature of online technology: Mr Tong

Touching on the recommendations made in the Select Committee report, Mr Tong said: “I can’t imagine that it will be fool-proof because you are dealing with a dynamic creature, one that is advancing technologically each time.”

The evolving nature of the Internet landscape in particular has driven the Select Committee towards focusing primarily on the outcome rather than fixating on the solutions in themselves, said Mr Tong, who was previously the head of restructuring and insolvency practices at law firm Allen & Gledhill and a Senior Counsel.

“We have set out what we want to target,” he added, noting that there is a need to find a consensus on how to deal with it and implement the measures quickly given the threats posed by online falsehoods.

“If we can’t find consensus, then ultimately, we as a Government has the responsibility to ensure that our society is protected from certain types of influences,” he said.

“And I don’t just mean legislation, I mean the spectrum of measures the committee has (proposed).

“All across the board, I think we should start that now,” he said. “The quicker the better.”

However, he emphasised the importance of seeking public feedback on such measures.

“We don’t want to move in a way which is so quick that people don’t have the chance to give their views.

“I think, we as a Government and we as a society, should look at our own social mores, norms (and) attitudes, and we should have the right to decide what we want,” concluded Mr Tong.