Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran speaking in an interview with Bloomberg Television on Monday (15 Apr 2019). Source: Bloomberg

Singapore’s anti-“fake news” Bill expected to come into force in second half of 2019

Singapore’s Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, which was introduced in Parliament for its First Reading earlier this month, is expected to come into effect within the second half of 2019, according to Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran.

Speaking in an interview with Bloomberg Television on Monday (15 Apr), Mr Iswaran said: “We expect to have a Second Reading and Third Reading in May, and if we follow the normal course of these sorts of legislative processes, we expect the Bill to come into force some time in the second half of this year”.

Responding to the slew of objections against the impending Act, Mr Iswaran reiterated that the Bill does not aim to “impinge on criticism, opinions … even satire or parody”.

“What it really tries to do is ensure that when we have that engagement, that contest of ideas, it is truly based on facts … We want to ensure that way, all citizens in Singapore are well-informed and can engage constructively,” he said.

He added that the Government wants “to find a path that works best for us in Singapore”, which he suggests is “the middle path”.

“We want to ensure free speech continues – unfettered – on the internet, and in general in discourse,” said Mr Iswaran.

“What we are looking at is really … that there is what we call ‘falsehoods’ – or ‘false statements of fact’, as the lawyers would call them – and how they impact on the public interest.

“It is when the two come together … then we would issue corrective orders,” he said.

Correction orders meant to “give greater access to facts”, not to “suppress information”; criminal sanctions primarily focus on “malicious actors” spreading “falsehoods” related to “public interest”

Touching on correction orders via Part 3 Directions in the upcoming Act, Mr Iswaran said that the orders will serve “to ensure that the access to facts is available to the readers”.

“In other words, not to suppress information, but to give greater access to facts,” he said, adding: “And then the readers can decide for themselves.”

When asked as to how the new legislation will be enforced, Mr Iswaran said: “Well, I think in general if you look at the legislation that has been introduced around the world, there are some stiff penalties … And in fact, ours – we have calibrated it”.

“The criminal punishments”, he illustrated, “are really [centred] around malicious actors, who go about deliberately propagating falsehoods on the internet, knowing that it is going to cause public harm”.

“So that is a significantly higher threshold from a legal point of view, and I think essentially what we are trying to establish here is a regime of governance for the internet, which has hitherto not been governed in a manner that ensures the speech and the discourse on social media and the Internet is informed by factual statements,” highlighted Mr Iswaran.

Responding to concerns from certain quarters of Singapore society regarding the degree of powers granted upon Ministers under the Bill, Mr Iswaran said: “I think this is where we have a series of checks and balances in the process … Even though the ministers can issue the directions, we have got established legal principles about what is fact and what is opinion … and this is laid down by the courts”.

“So it’s not something that the executive arm of the government can arbitrarily decide upon,” he emphasised.

Governments, not just tech companies, must “also take the initiative” to combat the spread of deliberate online falsehoods

Mr Iswaran noted that “whilst there’s a global recognition of the need for action, and the tech companies have been moving on this”, the Singapore government thinks “it’s important that governments also take the initiative”.

“And in fact, tech companies have told us as well, and I think we know their position publicly as well,” he added.

When asked if the new legislation will affect Singapore’s reputation as a rising fintech hub, Mr Iswaran said: “We have always been very clear that when it comes to discourse and media and so on, we welcome open debates as long as they are anchored on facts and truths.

“I think that is something that we have held consistently, whether it is mainstream media or [independent] online media, et cetera,” he stressed.

In terms of the Singapore government’s engagement with tech companies, Mr Iswaran said that Singapore’s “value proposition is a much broader one”.

“It’s also about Singapore’s role as a business hub, Singapore’s involvement in various kinds of research and development and artificial intelligence,” he added.

“We engage with tech companies on a broad range of issues. and even on this matter, I think we have an alignment, in the sense that all of us are seeking to ensure that online discourse is informed by the facts,” said Mr Iswaran.