(Image from Donald Low / Facebook)

POFMA will change the nature of public discourse and debate in Singapore, says academician

The debate around the new fake news bill continues, this time with Senior Lecturer and Professor of Practice at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Donald Low chiming in to discuss how POFMA might complicate discussions of fact and opinions in the field of science.

Prof Low said in a Facebook post that one of the unintended consequences of the proposed fake news bill is that it “may change norms and expectations over how public discourse and debate should be conducted in Singapore”.

In his post, Prof Low also shared an article by Rice Media which argues that self-censorship could be the “new normal” under POFMA.

In his own post, Prof Low then gave an example of how the proposed legislation would have an impact, from an academic’s perspective. In the field of both hard sciences and social sciences, advances are made when scholars and researchers challenge commonly accepted facts rather than by simply discovering new and undisputed facts, says Prof Low.

He said, “Complexity defies simple binary categories of truth and falsehood. Facts are also often contested and contestable.”

For example, Prof Low presented a hypothetical scenario of the debate around reduced-risk tobacco products such as e-cigarettes. Some experts say these produces normalise smoking and act as a gateway for users to go on to smoke while others contend that it’s a much less harmless alternative to consuming nicotine and tobacco which could help smokers kick the habit.

Prof Low proposed that if he wrote an online piece arguing for the legalisation of these products, presenting his claims that they are less harmful than cigarettes, can help smokers quit, and that the claims of the gateway effect are grossly exaggerated, those statements are meant to be read as fact.

The thing is, who is to say that those statements are false? After all, many experts regard those statements as facts as well while just as many would regard those are merely opinions. While Singapore may have repeated it’s stance that e-cigarettes are just as harmful as conventional tobacco products – which is why the government has banned e-cigarettes on the island – other health agencies in countries like Japan have argued that e-cigarettes are in fact less harmful than smoking. UK’s Public Health England has also come out in support of alternatives such as vaping which they say is 95% less harmful than cigarettes.

So in Prof Low’s hypothethical situation, his opinions, presented as facts, would be going against the government’s stance on the matter.

He said, “It’s not good enough to say that the proposed law would only apply to “false statements of fact”, and “not criticism, opinion, satire, or parody.” This of course was referring to the comment made by Minister of Law K Shanmugam who was reassuring the public that the new fake news law would not infringe freedom of speech.

Prof Low then proposes then that even if a minister chose not to use POFMA to take down that article, said minister might be pressured by other – those who disagree with those statements – to do so.

Explaining that the law would alter the nature of discourse in Singapore, he writes that the changes are “not just for the better in the sense of getting people to think twice before they post something offensive or untrue, but also for the worse in that it my give the self-appointed thought guards (or censors) of the conservative establishment something they could use to pressure Ministers.”

While Singapore’s ministers are ‘relatively autonomous’ says Prof Low, they aren’t free from the weight of public opinion. He contends that there will be times when ministers may feel it is ‘politically expedient, even advantageous’ to pander to the party’s hard liners by occasionally using this law.

Over time, these individual decisions – though justifiable – may end up creating a self-censoring majority that is ‘closed-minded’ and ‘sanctimonious’.

Even so, Prof Low clarifies that he doesn’t disagree that online falsehoods should be regulated. It’s just that “the current Bill gives too much discretion to ministers, and defines too broadly (or loosely) what constitutes online falsehoods and what hurts the public interest.”

He continues, “It also seems to me that there is a well-established and accepted tradition for circumscribing free speech: when the exercise of free speech poses a “clear and present danger” to our peace and security.”

On this point, he questions why the bill doesn’t use more specific descriptors such as “clearly intended to incite violence” or “clearly intended to create hatred and animosity against others”, saying that it seems to him as if “the drafters of this Bill wanted to give maximum discretion and latitude to ministers.”