Independent council proposed by three NMPs may lead to ‘unnecessary bureaucratic bloat’: K Shanmugam

Mr K Shanmugam, Minister of Home Affairs and Law.

Setting up an independent body or council to review corrective or take-down orders issued by Ministers under the Protection From Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill may lead to “unnecessary bureaucratic bloat”, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam in Parliament on Tue (May 7).

Mr Shanmugam told the House during the Second Reading of the Bill that the current structure of Government, which comprises legislative and executive bodies, already serves as an adequate mechanism in reviewing the actions of Ministers and their relevant Competent Authority in dealing with what is deemed to be “deliberate online falsehoods”.

“Parliament is a representative body, it’s meant to work in a democracy this way, where MPs hold the ministers accountable, and check and ask questions. You don’t keep creating bodies. And then who checks on (these bodies)?” He said.

“The government agrees that these conversations should continue … The question is, is establishing another council the best way? And would it lead to unnecessary bureaucratic bloat?” Mr Shanmugam added.

“The Singapore public must know this institution works, and if there is a question, it will be answered, and that’s got to be trust as well … And where the trust is not merited, that’s got to be exposed as well.

“You don’t keep creating bodies … and then who checks on them?” questioned Mr Shanmugam.

“So you have the parliament and the courts, what more do you want?”

On 30 Apr, three Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs) – namely Ms Anthea Ong, Ms Irene Quay, and Associate Professor Walter Theseira – issued a Notice of Amendment to the controversial Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill which was was introduced early last month.

Among the NMPs’ suggested amendments to the Bill, listed in a joint statement, were the following:

  • A clause that sets out key principles (“Principles of the Act”) that guide the exercise of powers under the Act, including codifying the aim that the Act is targeted at statements that are ​materially false and ​not opinions, comments, critiques, satire, parody, generalisations or statements of experiences);
  • Requirements that any Directions issued are publicly justified;
  • Requirements that the appeals process is expedited; and
  • The creation of an independent Council (“ICOF”) to monitor online falsehoods and provide routine oversight on the use of executive powers under the Act, and whose members shall be appointed by a Select Committee of Parliament.

Ms Quay told the House on Mon that the the council will be “pertinent if actions will be taken against individuals or small groups of people compared to large tele-media companies, whose access to resources provide greater efficacy for recourse in court”.

“It will clearly add much needed integrity to our entire political system,” she added.

Ms Quay also highlighted a “characteristic dilemma of ‘who watches the watchers” when Ministers are given unfettered discretion to issue correction or takedown orders under POFMA.

“If fake news originates from a ministry itself, who then decides to have that ministry take it down?” She said.

Meanwhile, 83 per cent of 889 Singaporeans in a recent survey commissioned by Yahoo! News Singapore opined that having an independent review body to evaluate reported cases involving deliberate online falsehoods would be better than giving Ministers the discretion to do so.

A group of media practitioners suggested in a joint statement regarding concerns over POFMA last month that Government representatives, community leaders, media personnel and legal professionals may serve as “deciders of disinformation” under said independent body.

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