Academics Against Disinformation: Singapore’s proposed online falsehoods law may deter scholarship and set precedents harmful to global academia

Academics based in various universities have issued a joint statement to express their concerns over the proposed online falsehoods law on how it will have unintended detrimental consequences for scholars and research in Singapore, compromising its efforts to develop itself into an internationally-recognised hub for excellence in higher education and possible negative precedents, with knock-on effects on the global academy.

Attached below the signed statement is the letter sent by the academic to Ministry of Education, expressing their concerns to Minister Ong Ye Kung which MOE replied through state media and no public statement is available on MOE’s website.

Statement as full below

The Singapore government has tabled sweeping legislation against online disinformation. The proposed Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act 2019 (POFMA) is currently being scrutinised by legislators and concerned citizens, ahead of the Bill’s Second Reading in Parliament.

As academics with expertise, experience or interest in Singapore and Asia generally, we are concerned that the proposed legislation will have unintended detrimental consequences for scholars and research in Singapore, compromising Singapore’s notable efforts to develop itself into an internationally-recognised hub for excellence in higher education. The legislation may also set negative precedents, with knock-on effects on the global academy.

We have written to Singapore’s Education Minister to express our concerns. As at noon on Saturday 13 April, the letter carries 83 signatures, solicited by invitation only. They include the current and four past Presidents of the Association for Asian Studies, the world’s largest and premier scholarly association for academics who study Asia; the Secretary-General of the Association of Pacific Rim Universities; and a former President of the International Communication Association.

Most of the signatories are not based in Singapore. Several Singapore-based academics privately expressed agreement with our letter but declined to sign for fear of compromising their career prospects. Our concern about the proposed legislation cannot be divorced from larger issues around academic freedom in the Republic.

The Education Ministry responded through Singapore media on 12 April 2019. We note its assurances that the proposed law will not affect academic work. But we cannot accept this as a categorical guarantee until it is reflected in the language of the Bill.

The disinformation dilemma that has prompted the Singapore government to act is a real one, resulting in the corruption of democratic processes and the spread of hate propaganda against defenceless communities. Many of our colleagues are directly engaged in researching this urgent problem and have contributed to emerging best practices for dealing with it.

We are concerned about Singapore’s proposed legislation certainly not because we are oblivious to the seriousness of the global assault on reason. On the contrary, academics are at the frontlines of this battle. But no country’s response should undermine the very capacities it requires to deal with this crisis.

Signatories to Letter from Academics on POFMA

Click to see list of signatories, listed alphabetically by last name as of April 13, 11 am SGT, *Singaporean

Click to see list of signatories, listed alphabetically by last name as of April 13, 11 am SGT, *Singaporean

  1. Barbara Watson Andaya, University of Hawaii
  2. Leonard Andaya, University of Hawaii
  3. Ang Peng Hwa, Nanyang Technological University*
  4. Shannon Ang, University of Michigan/Nanyang Technological University (PhD student)*
  5. Alice Ba, University of Delaware
  6. Michael Barr, Flinders University
  7. Rachel Bok, University of British Columbia (PhD student)*
  8. Michael Buehler, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
  9. Toby Carroll, City University of Hong Kong
  10. Pheng Cheah, University of California-Berkeley
  11. Roland Cheo, Shandong University*
  12. Angelina Chin, Pomona College
  13. Ja Ian Chong, National University of Singapore*
  14. Winston Chow, National University of Singapore*
  15. Ping-Tzu Chu, National Tsinghua University
  16. Charmaine Chua, University of California-Santa Barbara (as of July 1, 2019)*
  17. Nicole Constable, University of Pittsburgh
  18. John DiMoia, Seoul National University
  19. Richard Doner, Emory University
  20. Prasenjit Duara, Duke University
  21. Benjamin Elman, Princeton University
  22. Anne Feldhaus, Arizona State University
  23. Cherian George, Hong Kong Baptist University*
  24. Thomas Gold, University of California-Berkeley
  25. Terence Gomez, University of Malaya
  26. Eva Hansson, Stockholm University
  27. Kevin Hewison, University of North Carolina
  28. Allen Hicken, University of Michigan
  29. Hal Hill, Australia National University
  30. Victoria Hui, University of Notre Dame
  31. William Hurst, Northwestern University
  32. Paul Hutchcroft, Australia National University
  33. Darryl Jarvis, Education University of Hong Kong
  34. Gavin Jones, Australia National University
  35. Walid Jumblatt, Nanyang Technological University*
  36. Yuko Kasuya, Keio University
  37. Kwok Kian Woon, Nanyang Technological University*
  38. Terence Lee, Murdoch University*
  39. Terence Lee, National University of Singapore*
  40. Joanne Leow, University of Saskatchewan*
  41. Liew Kai Khuin, Nanyang Technological University*
  42. Francis Lim Khek Gee, Nanyang Technological University*
  43. Linda Lim, University of Michigan*
  44. Lim Wah Guan, University of New South Wales*
  45. Bernard Loo Fok Weng, Nanyang Technological University*
  46. Donald Low, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology*
  47. Justin McDaniel, University of Pennsylvania
  48. Neo Yu Wei, National University of Singapore*
  49. Irene Ng Yue Hoong, National University of Singapore*
  50. Ng Kok Hoe, National University of Singapore*
  51. Kristopher Olds, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  52. Lynette Ong, University of Toronto
  53. Stephan Ortmann, City University of Hong Kong
  54. Pang Eng Fong, Singapore Management University*
  55. T.J. Pempel, University of California-Berkeley
  56. Thomas Pepinsky, Cornell University
  57. Elizabeth Perry, Harvard University
  58. Lily Rahim, University of Sydney*
  59. Geoffrey Robinson, University of California-Los Angeles
  60. Garry Rodan, Murdoch University
  61. James Scott, Yale University
  62. Sarita Echavez See, University of California-Riverside*
  63. Ken Setiawan, University of Melbourne
  64. Gerald Sim, Florida Atlantic University*
  65. Vineeta Sinha, National University of Singapore*
  66. Daniel Slater, University of Michigan
  67. Patricia Sloane-White, University of Delaware
  68. Netina Tan, McMaster University*
  69. Tan Ying Jia, Wesleyan College*
  70. Kay-Key Teo, National University of Singapore (PhD student)*
  71. Teo You Yenn, Nanyang Technological University*
  72. Mark Thompson, City University of Hong Kong
  73. Toh Puay Khoon, University of Texas-Austin*
  74. Christopher Tremewan, University of Auckland
  75. Chin-Shou Wang, National Cheng Kung University
  76. Yuan-Kang Wang, Western Michigan University
  77. Meredith Weiss, State University of New York-Albany
  78. Bridget Welsh, John Cabot University
  79. Lynn White, Princeton University
  80. Thongchai Winichakul, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  81. Jieh-Min Wu, Academia Sinica
  82. Anand Yang, University of Washington-Seattle
  83. Dominic Yeo, Hong Kong Baptist University*

 

LETTER TO EDUCATION MINISTER, 11 APRIL

Minister Ong Ye Kung

Minister of Education, Singapore

Dear Minister Ong,

We are academics who have expertise, experience or interest in Singapore and Asia generally.  We write to express our concern that the proposed Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act 2019 (POFMA) will have unintended detrimental consequences for scholars and research in Singapore, and for the global academy.

We recognize that POFMA is not aimed at the academic community, and that it does not apply to “opinion, criticisms, satire and parody”.  What concerns us as scholars is that it sanctions and potentially criminalizes “statements of fact” that are “false or misleading”.

The advance of knowledge derives from, and hence much of academic work focuses on, disputing apparently established “facts”.  These are confirmed or denied through the process of research, and continuously reappraised as new data and analysis become available over time.  Thus for many phenomena it is not possible to state definitively what is a “fact” proven for all time, and what is a conjecture or hypothesis that may turn out to be “false or misleading”. It is specifically those statements that “a reasonable person” would consider “to be a representation of fact” that are most usefully subject to rigorous academic scrutiny.

This is true in both the sciences and the sphere of human social activity, where even quantitative research deals in probabilities, not absolute certainties, and interpretations of even generally agreed upon “facts” may vary greatly, a contention that is the lifeblood of scholarly pursuit, from medicine and mechanical engineering to literary criticism and macroeconomics. In academia, scholarship is evaluated through peer review and specialist publication, but even the results of this rigorous process are subject to disagreement and critical scrutiny. A good academic must always be prepared to use evidence and logic to evaluate established “facts.”

Much scholarly discourse now takes place online, with faculty sharing preliminary research drafts and working papers on personal webpages, blogs and other social media, and the increased popularity of open access journals. Universities and funding agencies also increasingly encourage scholars to share their research and knowledge with the general public through online media commentaries on platforms such as The Conversation.

Wide dissemination of ongoing research—which may be considered “facts in dispute”—is a global public good facilitated by the borderless internet.  Our concern is that POFMA’s wide reach, both “in and outside Singapore”, its broad definition of Singapore’s “public interest” (e.g. covering matters deemed related to “Singapore’s friendly relations with other countries”), its holding “internet intermediaries” responsible for all items posted on their platforms, and its severe penalties of large fines and long prison terms for deemed violations, will discourage this for an indeterminately wide range of subjects and individuals. These provisions may have unforeseen consequences for Singapore’s ability to serve as a global hub of first-rate academic research and technological innovation.

Under these circumstances, POFMA is likely to make many academics hesitant to conduct or supervise research that might unknowingly fall afoul of POFMA, or refer colleagues or students to faculty positions in Singapore’s respected universities.  Singapore is known for its investment in education, a commitment that reflects a belief that such an investment pays dividends. This act discourages scholars from marshaling their expertise in precisely the areas where it is most needed—namely, pressing questions and challenges for which there are no clear answers or easy solutions.

We are also concerned that passage of POFMA might set an international precedent and spur emulation by other countries with weaker institutions, thus casting even wider restraints on global scholarly research and knowledge advancement, and its public dissemination.  Copycat legislation or reciprocal action could boomerang on Singapore entities, including businesses, government officials and universities with activities in other jurisdictions, just as POFMA will impact foreign entities that have interactions with Singapore, including universities.

We hope that government deliberations of the proposed law will take into account these concerns of the global academic community, clarify the law’s applications to academia, and ensure safeguards for scholarly research and its online outreach, to minimize the likely adverse effects on global as well as local innovation, knowledge production and dissemination.