Historian Dr Thum Ping Tjin told Yahoo News Singapore in an email interview on Tuesday (9 April) that the impending fake news law is part of the same legislative strategy that the People’s Action Party (PAP) government had used in the past to “selectively and arbitrarily prosecute their critics while pretending to uphold the rule of law”.
Having attended the Select Committee hearing on Deliberate Online Falsehoods on 29 March 2018, Dr Thum cited previous changes in laws such as the Protection from Harassment Act and the Public Order Act. He also underlined two “outrageous” sections in the bill that are of great concern to him.
Under the bill, which went through a first reading in Parliament on 1 April 2019, “a statement is false if it is false or misleading, whether wholly or in part, and whether on its own or in the context in which it appears.”
Dr Thum objected to this definition, saying: “Given that it is virtually impossible to include every single fact about any issue, especially if you are writing to a word limit, this guarantees that virtually anything can be deemed ‘misleading’. In such a way, the Bill, if passed into law, would allow the PAP (government) to arbitrarily and selectively take down virtually any statement.”
Dr Thum also found clause 61 of the bill — stating that “The Minister may, by order in the Gazette, exempt any person or class or persons from any provision of this Act — to be “shocking” as the government could potentially use it “to exempt people from this law and that these people would be authorised to spread falsehoods”.
The proposed sanctions in the bill include fines of between $30,000 and up to $1 million, and/or jail time of up to 10 years. The penalties could be doubled if the falsehood will or is likely to impact public interest as defined in the law.
Dr Thum also mentioned his written submission to the Select Committee which was ignored and the Operation Coldstore dispute he had with Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam for almost six hours at a hearing last year.
The operation was carried out by the police and Special Branch officers in the wee hours of 2 February 1963, leading to the arrests of more than 100 people including top leaders of opposition party Barisan Sosialis. Some historians have argued that Coldstore was politically motivated.
In his interview with Yahoo News Singapore, Dr Thum said the fake news law could adversely affect historians, whose works could be taken down and be declared “falsehoods” if found at variance with the official narratives.
In spite of the courts’ role as the final arbiter of “the truth”, Dr Thum added that the underpaid academics would be unable to afford legal recourse if their works are challenged by the government.
“I can’t say if the PAP (government) would be foolish enough to take such an extreme step, of course, but then again I didn’t think they would be foolish enough to challenge my research in the Select Committee either, thereby blowing up the legitimacy of their own Select Committee,” he said.
According to Dr Thum, the Select Committee hearings were “an exercise in political theatre” and a waste of public funds to legitimise the law. Testimonies from other key witnesses including himself, media professor Cherian George, freelance journalist Kirsten Han, The Online Citizen’s editor Terry Xu, and more, were ignored and treated with disdain, he added.
In response to a query about the potential impact of the law on the operations of regional news website New Naratif, in which Dr Thum heads as Managing Director, he said that New Naratif has no legal, financial, or physical presence in Singapore.
In April last year, the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (Acra) rejected the application by Dr Thum and Han to set up OSEA Pte Ltd and provide editorial services to the website, on the grounds that New Naratif’s purposes are “clearly political in nature” since it had received a grant from a Swiss charitable institute, which was linked to an organisation with a history of political involvement in other countries.
As a UK-registered non-profit company with regional offices in Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta that emphasises on its open and transparent platform for Southeast Asian journalism, New Naratif refuted this by stating that: “Any notion that we are, as Acra alleges, ‘being used by foreigners to pursue a political activity in Singapore’ is unfounded.”
However, Dr Thum remarked that the new law could apply beyond Singapore’s borders.
He said, “All media outlets must be alarmed by this unjust and Orwellian attempt to monopolise the ‘truth’ and to arbitrarily declare what is ‘factual’ and not, and should resist the passage of this law.”