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Government says fake news law won’t affect academic discourse but their past reactions prove otherwise

On 11 April, 83 academic signed a letter of concern about the proposed Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) which was sent to Singapore’s Education Minister.

Signatories 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.

The letter outlines concerns over the law, specifically noting that POFMA “will have unintended detrimental consequences for scholars and research in Singapore and for the global academy”. The letter went on to say that that the Act “discourages scholars from marshalling their expertise in precisely the areas where it is most needed – namely, pressing questions and challenges for which there are no clear answer or easy solutions”.

In a public reply via Singapore media, the Education Ministry assured academics that the proposed law with not affect academic work. The group behind the letter, Academics Against Disinformation, said that they are unable to accept that assurance from the Ministry until it is reflected in the language of the bill.

Highlighting an instance of how the government has attempted to label academic work as fake news before, activist Jolovan Wham shared a screenshot of a post by the Facebook page Gov.sg (the official Facebook page of the Singapore government) made in January 2018.

In the post, the government said that a study by Research Across Borders (RAB) which reported that 60% of foreign domestic workers (FDW) in Singapore were exploited is actually fake news. You can see the post here:

In response, the Ministry of Manpower released its own data which claimed that the survey methodology by RAB was ‘full of flaws’ and that MOM’s own figures show that 97% of FDWs have no issue with their workload and want to continue working in Singapore.

Again in January this year, another report was released  – this time by HOME and Liberty Shared – which reported several case studies showing how foreign domestic workers in Singapore are working in conditions akin to forced labour. One specific case was of a woman called Indah who worked in forced labour conditions, had her salary withheld, and wasn’t even allowed to own a phone or contact her family. Along with that case, a couple other horrific case studies were shared as well in the report.

However, the Ministry of Manpower disputed this as well. They alleged that HOME’s report is “grossly inaccurate” and that it both “misrepresented” Indah’s case and the other mentioned cases as well as the overall working conditions of FDWs in Singapore.

In a statement, MOM said “HOME’s report on forced labour has misled readers to draw erroneous conclusions that foreign domestic workers working in Singapore are subject to harsh employment conditions suggestive of forced labour.”

Now, this is exactly the kind of thing that academics are worried about. RAB and HOME both presented research results that painted a less than savoury picture of the foreign domestic work sector in Singapore. Clearly the government disagreed. But instead of simply countering with their own research, MOM attempted to discredit the reports by labelling it as ‘fake news’ and ‘misleading’.

This is exactly the sort of issue that academics are concerned with if POFMA becomes law. “The advance of knowledge derives from, and hence much of academic work focuses on, disputing apparently established “facts””, said the letter which was sent to the Education Ministry. These ‘facts’ are then confirmed or denied through the process of research and is continuously reappraised as new information and data becomes available.

The broad definitions currently in POFMA will create a rather significant grey area when it comes to academic discourse, as already pointed out by several other academics including media professor Donald Low and historian Dr PJ Thum. This is especially pertinent when it comes to research that directly relates to Singapore’s policies or that could affect Singapore’s overall ‘image’.