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Conjuring Falsehoods – local publisher Ethos Books weigh in on their concerns about POFMA

Independent literary publisher Ethos Books released a statement recently addressing the recent proposal of the bill of Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act which it says ‘will undeniably change the way you and I interact with our shared online spaces’.

In the statement signed by the people behind Ethos Books, the publishers say that while they appreciate and agree with the need to tackle malicious online communication of false facts and the need to differentiate those from opinions, criticism, satire and parody, they have “reservations with the proposed bill in its entirety”.

The statement continues, “As publishers, we work within and with the fluid nature of arts and culture. Under the proposed bill, any Ministry and its Minister will have the sole responsibility of determining what is harmful and false.”

Ethos said, “There are multiple truths that we each hold, in varying gravities. This will impose rigid structures that may be antithetical to the practices of art- and culture-making.”

They noted that the community needs to examine these structures as one, adding that delegating this role to a single person, regardless of their designation, is “potentially demoralising and casts a censorial effect on works of art”, sometimes even before these works can be materialised.

The statement continues, “As we know, many discussions happen online. If this censorial effect bleeds into our discursive spaces, how can we effectively, realistically, interrogate and speak with each other about topics close to our hearts?”

They then say that they fervently believe in the books that they publish, including titles like  as This Is What Inequality Looks Like by Teo You Yenn, and They Told Us To Move: Dakota—Cassia edited by Ng Kok Hoe and the Cassia Resettlement Team. Constructive discussions of these books, says Ethos, may not take place is online platforms are weighed down by fear of being polices. Essentially, it breeds self-censorship.

Ethos goes on to that, “In line with what we believe a community can be, a bill that genuinely tackles falsehoods should involve everyone who is invested in the respective industries, to formulate mechanisms to define and identify these “falsehoods”.”

“This should not fall onto the shoulders of any single person. We need to become better readers in order to genuinely tackle the problem of the circulation of false facts. This is not a problem that can be solved with a blanket solution.”

Ethos then notes that they’ve written a letter addressed to the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth about their concerns. You can read it here or below in full:

Dear Minister Grace Fu,

I am Kah Gay of Ethos Books, an independent Singapore publisher. I write to express our concern with the proposed Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA). Specifically, its possible impact on the work of your Ministry and the maturation of arts and culture in Singapore.

We appreciate and agree with:

(a) the need to prevent and tackle the online communication of false statements of facts; and (b) the intent to differentiate such statements of facts from “criticism, opinions, satire and parody” – this intent has been communicated by the Ministry of Law and Minister Shanmugam.

Our concern is with the operating principle behind the proposed measures: “The domain minister, advised by his [her] officials, is in the best position to decide whether something is a falsehood and assess its impact on public interest.”

Creating a trust deficit

Solely placing the responsibility on the Minister and her Ministry to assess the truth-value of artistic/cultural works that are circulated online creates a trust deficit. The Ministry would have to establish guidelines that apply to multiple domains of practice, as well as deploy existing resources to monitor and enforce these guidelines. Considering the fluid nature of artistic and cultural production, it would be difficult having to defend the application of these guidelines. The outcome is likely to be demoralising to both Ministry and industry, erodes mutual trust, and does not benefit any party.

Taking the Singapore out of our arts and culture

Your Ministry may adopt a light-touch approach and not issue explicit guidelines on the types of online content that are acceptable and/or prohibited. Regardless of the good intent, under the Minister’s direct supervision and assigned role to police falsehoods, the absence (or presence) of guidelines would incline professionals towards second-guessing the tenability of their work. Such uncertainty inhibits the maturation of artistic/cultural expression as well as community engagement via online channels.

This censorial effect will have even more of an impact on artistic/cultural works that engage with real-life issues, especially matters to do with Singapore society. It is implicitly understood that content pertaining to Singapore would face closer scrutiny. The restrictive effect runs contrary to the community participation promoted by recent government initiatives to nurture civic culture and national identity from the ground-up, including SG50 and the Singapore Bicentennial.

As the Ministry’s supervision covers the online marketing of offline content, the current version of POFMA is likely to impact on offline work in similar ways.

For POFMA to not negatively impact the relationship between the Ministry and her constituencies as well as the growth of artistic/cultural production in Singapore, the proposed mechanisms to define and identify “falsehoods” need to be reviewed.

Our collective responsibility

If the Minister is the sole arbiter of what counts as “falsehoods”, she is formally separate from the arts/culture communities, their diverse expertise as well as resources. This is inconsistent with the National Arts Council’s operational wisdom in working with external professionals to evaluate content for grant submissions. POFMA would be more effective if it can inspire and enable collective responsibility in dealing with online falsehoods and “fake news” in general.

Minister, I hope you can surface our concern with the assignment of sole responsibility to the Ministers, for the Parliament to consider. An alternative would be to involve stakeholders from the respective industries in formulating mechanisms to define and identify “falsehoods”.

For MCCY, involving the arts/culture communities would allow them to internalise a shared sense of social responsibility, and further their professional ethos.

Thank you for your attention and I look forward to your reply.

With regard

NG Kah Gray, Ethos Books