PM Lee Hsien Loong at the launch of the Bicentennial Celebrations on Monday (28 Jan)

PM Lee: Online falsehoods to ‘manipulate opinions, influence elections’ will be checked

In a speech at the 29th Inter-Pacific Bar Association conference yesterday (25 Apr), Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that online falsehoods attempting to ‘manipulate opinions, influence elections’ will be tackled by the recent proposed Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, which was tabled in Parliament earlier this month.

The second reading of the Bill is expected to take place next month when Parliament sits. Critics have noticed that the Bill is being pushed through Parliament quickly ahead of the coming GE expected to be held later this year.

In his speech, PM Lee said that the proliferation of technology and social media is providing a medium for hate speech and fake news to spread quickly, and legislation is an “essential part” of the answer to tackle these issues.

He added that it has become “absurdly easy” for people to “conduct covert and subversive campaigns to manipulate opinions and influence elections” and pointed out that many countries are legislating to tackle the issue, and that Singapore is no exception.

The proposed law, he said, will hold online platforms accountable.

PAP government has history of “manipulating opinions” through mainstream media

The government itself, on the other hand, has been shown to be “manipulating opinions” through the mainstream media.

In the famous Wikileak information of SPH and the PAP government some ten years ago, then Straits Times U.S. Bureau Chief Chua Chin Hon told a US embassy official some of the inside stories of SPH. The information together with many others from the US government was eventually leaked out and published on Wikileak.

Mr Chua had told the US official that the Singapore media would tread carefully as the government has an established track record of using the press, the ST in particular, to “shape public opinion”.

He also noted that how the PAP intends to push a certain policy is often foreshadowed by extensive media coverage. This would be done before the official government policy announcements. As an example, Mr Chua pointed to the government’s decision to assist retirees who lost investments in “mini-bonds” following the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. That decision followed a spate of media coverage casting the retirees, plight in sympathetic terms.

Mr Chua of course, is no longer with ST after the publication of the Wikileak article.

Former ST Editor-in-Chief Cheong reveals direct government meddling in media

Retired ST Editor-in-Chief Cheong Yip Seng who published his memoir, “OB Markers: My Straits Times Story” in 2012 had also written about PAP government having the habit of “manipulating” public opinions through ST.

In his book, Mr Cheong talked about how PM Lee’s father, Lee Kuan Yew, systematically controlled and meddled with the press. He would routinely pressured ST editors to publish what he wanted to see.

One of the episodes was when Peter Lim, Mr Cheong’s predecessor, resisted Lee’s pressure to print the full ‘O’ level results of opposition politician Chiam See Tong during the 1984 election. Lee wanted to show to voters that Chiam did not have the academic credentials to be a capable MP. Lim resisted because he felt it would backfire on the ruling party and the newspaper.

Mr Cheong also related how his boss, Peter Lim, had tried to run the newsroom with some form of independence and paid the price for it by having to resign in 1987. Mr Cheong himself was careful to make sure that he was not going to face that kind of fate. He knew when to give in, when to remain stoic and when to argue — gently, that is – when the “notorious phone calls” came.

And among the many “notorious phone calls” Mr Cheong had to deal with, he revealed one call he got during the 1988 GE when former Solicitor General Francis Seow was contesting as an opposition candidate under Workers’ Party banner in Eunos GRC. With that one phone call, ST immediately stopped covering the election campaign of Francis Seow overnight.

In other first world countries, the newspaper editors, of course, do not have to “take orders” from their government.

Mr Cheong’s memoir also described the many interventions in Singapore’s media by the government – from appointments of editors to shaping coverage of political and foreign events and even to minor stories like stamp-collecting, carpet-buying and MSG, which the government deemed important for the citizens to know.

Mr Cheong’s memoir is a laudable effort to put on record the media-government tensions as well as the astonishing government meddling that editors like Mr Cheong had to deal with regularly.

So, the question remains, who is going to check on any “offline” falsehoods attempting to ‘manipulate opinions, influence elections’ ?