(Photo by Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images)

Protection for us or for them?

by Teo Soh Lung

The longer the People’s Action Party (PAP) remains in power, the more oppressive the laws and regulations will be.

The Public Order Act (2009) and the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act (2016) are two examples where the laws are not meant to protect the people or the judiciary but to shield the government from criticisms.

Sadly, the Singapore courts have given their blessings to absurd definitions provided by the law. One person can be deemed to participate in an “assembly” and “procession”. An artist performing his art is adjudged as participating in an “unlawful procession”. Temporary display of posters and banners without causing any damage to properties have been ruled as acts of vandalism and “offenders” have been sent to jail or made to pay heavy fines.

There is no space for free speech and expression, not even for an individual. How bad can laws be?

On 1 April 2019, the Minister for Home Affairs and Law tabled the 81-page Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill before Parliament. It was not an April Fool’s joke.

For the first time, and I believe it will not be the last time, all ministers (not just one minister as in the past) and their subordinates, the civil servants, grandly called the “Competent Authority” are empowered to issue all sorts of directions and orders to individuals, corporations, internet providers etc without due process.

As long as they or any of them deem a particular message, essay, picture, post etc is against “public interest” they can order it to be taken down, blocked, disabled, declared as online locations etc within a specified time, usually within a very short time.

“Public interest” is deliberately defined so broadly as to include doing anything “to prevent a diminution of public confidence in the performance of any duty or function of, or in the exercise of any power by, the Government, an Organ of State, a statutory board, or a part of the Government, an Organ of State or a statutory board”.

There is no requirement for these ministers and civil servants to listen to the person or corporation’s explanations before an order is made. The “offender” just have to obey the direction or face the severe consequences of being charged and fined hefty sums or sent to jail. These ministers and civil servants are not answerable for any wrong doing or negligence that may be committed by them in the execution of their work.

The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill states that if the person is unhappy with the order, an appeal to the minister can be made. Would anyone in his or her right mind believe that the minister who made the order will ever admit that he has made a mistake?

The Minister for Home Affairs and Law claims that the courts will be the final arbiter. Why did he make the courts the final arbiter and not the first or even the second arbiter?

Why should an appeal go through the Minister before going to the courts? Much time and money would have been wasted while the order has to be complied with in the meantime. I doubt any sensible person would think it appropriate to appeal to the courts. So the intent of the law is to exhaust the person by making him comply with the order even if he appeals to the minister who will probably take his time to look into the matter.

What makes the Bill even more disturbing is that compliance with the order does not mean that the person is freed from subsequent law suits and criminal prosecutions if the minister and civil servants deem it fit to pursue.

While persons or corporations who are convicted have to bear the full brunt of the law which stipulates maximum fines of between $20,000 to $1 million and daily rates of fines at $20,000 if orders are not complied with as well as jail terms of 12 months to 10 years and confiscation of all revenues, the Bill affords the ministers and civil servant full immunity from prosecution and civil claims should they commit mistakes or are negligent.

The law is that skewed. These ministers and civil servants have truly become our masters.

The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill seeks to gag individuals and corporations, Singaporeans and foreigners alike. Our ministers want the world to note that even though Singapore is a tiny island, they are extremely powerful and capable of controlling the world. Needless to say, Singaporeans have been reduced to digits.

The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill will definitely pass into law without major amendments at the next sitting of parliament. It will not go through a select committee hearing because several days have already been wasted by such a committee last year. It will become law very soon and definitely before the General Election. It will be so useful to snuff out everything that can diminish public confidence in the government which the law deems to be of “public interest”.

Singaporeans will have to find creative ways of circumventing the law or suffer the consequences. The choice is ours. If we choose the latter course, we can be sure that more and more oppressive laws will be coming our way. Having tasted blood so easily, their appetite will grow.

What about the big corporations? Will they be able to withstand this onslaught by the men and women in white?