Pritam Singh: Allowing Government to open itself up to scrutiny on peddling falsehoods can strengthen trust

Workers’ Party Chief and Member of Parliament Pritam Singh spoke in Parliament on Tuesday (7 May) about the decision to create an exemption for the Government such that it cannot be sued for perpetuating a falsehood, in regards to the Protection against Harassment Act (POHA), is a glaring omission and a lost opportunity at winning the trust of the public.

“More fundamentally, it does not conform to the principle that the rule of law applies equally to all,” Mr Singh added.

Mr Singh made these statements in reference to Clause 3 of the Bill which “defined the word ‘entity’ to exclude any public agency and public agency is in turn defined in the Bill by Section 128A(6) of the Evidence Act”.

“What this effectively means is that an individual or company cannot apply to the Harassment Courts in case the Government makes misleading or false statements against them. As a matter of principle, why ought this to be the case?” he argued.

There are enough examples of governments around the world through the course of history who have communicated falsehoods or misleading information, Mr Singh continued.

“Why shouldn’t the public receive protection provided by this Bill – against a prospective Government or Minister that uses his or her powers not just unwisely but maliciously – with a view to seek a remedy from a neutral body like the courts – the same remedies which the Government can direct against individuals and companies under POFMA?” he enquired.

Mr Singh went on to illustrate his point with the series of exchange between the former Singapore High Commissioner to Australia Burhan Gafoor in response to a commentary published on the Australian National University’s New Mandala website by former ISA detainee Dr Poh Soo Kai.

Mr Singh then highlighted one aspect of the exchange which involved “the alleged assistance given by Dr Poh to an injured communist party of Malaysia bomber who escaped the premature detonation of an explosive device in a car along Still Road in 1974.”

He elaborated on the video titled Fake news: Who is the culprit which was posted by local civil society organisation on Facebook, in which Dr Poh attest that he never went across to Masai, Malaysia – as can be proven through immigration records – to render assistance to the injured bomber, which was a false statement or fact wrongfully alleged by the Government.

“Would the public interest not be better served in allowing a person to apply for the appropriate order from the Harassment Courts and in doing so, make their case? I would argue that the prospects of such recourse and the availability of a neutral forum like the Courts, combined with a simple process would in itself act as a deterrent against individuals who seek to retrospectively burnish their reputations or embarrass the Government,” Mr Singh stated.

“To this end, in the event (that) an individual can apply for a stop publication or correction order under the new section 15 but does not do so, and instead continues accusing the Government, an obvious adverse inference can be drawn about what the truth really is,” he added.

Mr Singh finalised with the statement that the example he gave was not “a view about the veracity of facts as presented by Dr Poh or the government because all the relevant information is not publicly accessible.”

He added that “the Workers’ Party has made its position known on matters involving the opening of the archives and the freedom of information regimes in Parliament before” yet these are not within the boundaries of this Bill. However, an asymmetry in information and power between the Government and its citizens exists, he said.

“It is my view that allowing a government to open itself up to scrutiny on matters where it is accused of peddling falsehoods can paradoxically operate to strengthen trust in the Government,” he concluded.

Meanwhile, Senior Minister of State for Law and Health Edwin Tong responded to Mr Singh’s speech by saying that “the general position in law is that the Government is not bound by legislation unless it expressly provides for that to be so”.

In the case of POHA, that is the case, and the Government has taken a view that it will not avail itself of remedies under POHA and likewise, it will not be subjected to the provisions under POHA,” he said.

Mr Tong added that “officers in Government can be held accountable” through the usual case of a forum in Parliament.