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Dr Paul Tambyah: Chilling effect of ‘Fake News’ bill is bad for democracy in Singapore

TOC recently interviewed Dr Paul Ananth Tambyah, chairperson of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) to get his opinion on the proposed “Protection against Online Falsehoods and Manipulation” bill, its impact on freedom of speech, whistle-blowing, and the need for the bill in the first place.

Dr Paul’s viewpoint on the fake news legislation is that it is detrimental for several reasons. One of them is the chilling effect on free speech that would discourage the diversity of views found in today’s era of a democratic Singapore.

“You cannot afford to have everybody thinking along one path, and that’s going to happen if people are afraid that if they report something or they are whistleblowers, that they are going to be labelled as fake news unless they have our court-worthy evidence to back themselves up,” he said.

The second reason Dr Paul cited is that the reassurances provided by the government are “not real”. Although the government pronounced the court as the final arbiter, getting access to the courts are not as straightforward as one think. He mentioned the Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC by-election case as an example, in which they were required to deposit S$20,000 dollars and fortunately, only managed to do so through the public’s contribution to the legal defence fund.

“(But) in reality, that’s going to be a challenge and the government said, ‘Oh, there’s legal aid available’ and people are very sceptical because the test that makes (those) entitled to legal aid are quite significant and as far as I know, they’ve never provided legal aid for somebody who’s trying to challenge the government on any kind of legislation. If they are really sincere about this legal aid case, then they should actually provide legal aid to Jolovan (Wham) and to John (Tan) because they are appealing the penalty for sharing that Facebook post,” he expounded.

When further asked of whether the bill would affect whistleblowing in Singapore, Dr Paul said there is definitely a risk of whistleblowers being charged under the OSA (Official Secret Act) in spite of the whistleblower protections in place for government officials.

“The trouble is that as we’ve seen from some of the forum letters talking about the SAF (Singapore Armed Forces), there’s a concern on the ground whether these whistleblower protections are really put into force because people are still very afraid they’re going to be marked for actually spilling the beans or something like that,” he said.

Dr Paul also highlighted the Bukit Batok by-election whereby Chinese mainstream media Wanbao published a fabricated quote from Dr Chee Soon Juan, in response to the Select Committee that “the government is actually not guilt-free when it comes to fake news”. Despite the file correction by Wanbao, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong cited the quote in his comments about Dr Chee.

Another example was made by Dr Paul on this issue regarding the Marxist conspiracy in 1987 which was queried by two PAP ministers yet the government continues to insist on the existence of the conspiracy where 22 individuals were arrested and detained without trial. Till today, no evidence has been presented in court to prove their alleged involvement other than the government’s narrative being presented to the public.

Therefore, Dr Paul thinks that “the idea that the government could somehow decide what is fake news doesn’t make sense at all”. The government made it seem that they were following France and Germany in their footsteps by establishing this fake news bill. Dr Paul elucidated that the government of these countries rely on the courts’ decision regarding whether fake news was being spread with malicious intent.

However, it appears that the Singaporean government is going through it the other way round by making the decision first and then getting the courts to review their decision.

On whether there is a need for the proposed bill, Dr Paul said he doesn’t think it is necessary at the moment what with plenty of other laws such as the Sedition Act, Internal Security Act, and so on. He went on to illustrate his reason, stating that the bulk of the population would be able to differentiate between facts and fake news, by giving the example of treating diseases with suitable medication or through drinking fruit juices.

“There are plenty of laws in which we can lock up this person without saying that just because you put a post that drinking fruit juice is going to cure your diabetes, therefore, we have to lock you up under the fake news bill”, he said.

Dr Pail believes the bill will be passed by the Parliament but he hopes that a division will be called by the Worker’s Party and all their MPs to vote against the bill. He ended by saying that there should be more alternative parties in the Parliament to “stop such legislation, which is harmful to Singapore and to Singapore’s future, from being passed so easily in the future”.

The main points of the proposed Singapore fake news bill are:
– Any Ministers of any of the ministries can use the law and say a claim is a fake statement of fact.
– Appeal to court can only happen after appeal to Minister.
– It is an offence with jail term and fines if one does not comply with the order to correct or take down of post/article.
– Online platforms of outlets or individuals where three falsehoods have been deemed to be published within six months, will be classified as a declared online location and the Minister have the power to restrict access to the site/service.
– Anyone who funds the declared online location will be guilty of an offence.
– Anyone which deals with the declared online location for advertising or any benefit will be also guilty of an offence.
– The minister can appoint a person to take over the power when election is ongoing.
– Allows Ministers and the appointed person(s) to exempt individual or body, meaning they can not be held accountable under this act.