Member of Parliament (MP) for Aljunied GRC Low Thia Khiang in his speech in Parliament on Tuesday (8 May) said that the Worker’s Party agrees that regulation is needed to combat online falsehoods which can undermine the Singapore political system and multiracial society, and that it can even interfere with the outcome of elections.
However, Mr Low said that he was “surprised and disappointed” at the government’s proposal of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) because WP believes it not only tackles online falsehoods but it could also be used against critics on social media.
Mr Low notes that social media has empowered citizens to express their opinions online, some of which may be critical of the government. Discussions are no longer limited to coffee shops, said Mr Law. People are also no longer afraid of being detained without trial under the Internal Security Act (ISA) like they were back in the old days. “This is a big step for Singapore to move towards openness and democracy”, he added.
In his speech, Mr Low suggested that the government could get instant feedback of their policies and interact with the grassroots via social media to better understand the people’s needs and improve their lives.
However, the underlying motive of introducing the bill is to deter critics on social media, says Mr Low. POFMA would allow the government to selectively punish a few offenders to make them out as examples for the rest of the country, resulting in a chilling effect of citizen self-censoring as a means of protecting themselves.
Ministers become both player and referee
Mr Low goes on to say that the bill gives the minister absolute power to judge what is false and to decide on what action to take. He likens it to playing a game in which the minister is both the player and the referee.
“The real aim of the Government through this Bill is to protect the ruling party and achieve political monopoly,” Mr Low said.
“To introduce such a Bill is not what a government which claims to defend democracy and public interest should do. It is more like the unscrupulous actions of a dictatorial government that will resort to any means to hold onto absolute power,” he added.
He also raised concerns that ministers from the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) might use the bill to manipulate and spread falsehoods through online platforms to win elections.
Even though the Government has been trying to assure the public that the Bill targets only fake news and not individuals’ opinions , Mr Low said that he “does not have the confidence in the Government” to stick to its word.
“For example, if I say that the Merdeka and Pioneer generation package created “to buy votes”, is this information or opinion?”
He adds, “I believe that the Minister can also use the broad and vague definition on falsehood to selectively interpret the relevant text as information or opinions as needed”.
He gives an example, of a statement: “the older generation of Singaporeans cannot accept a non-Chinese prime minister.” Mr Low says, “If the minister himself or his supporters say it, the minister can explain that it is personal opinion; but if it is said on social media or opposition, it could be accused as false info and causing racial conflict.”
Mr Low adds that ordinary citizens do not have the same volume of resources that the government has if they want to appeal against any correction or takedown orders, describing a legal tussle with the government as amounting to ‘hitting the stone with an egg’.
Make Courts the first step and clarify definitions
Mr Low suggest that the Minister should first take his complaint to the court and prove to the judge that the information which has been published online is indeed fake new or false information. This, he says, is a more acceptable process.
His next suggestion is to address the broad and ambiguous definition of ‘false information’. For example, Article 2 says that the government has the power to deal with misleading statements but doesn’t stipulate a boundary between misleading and false. Mr Low adds that in fact, the government isn’t interested in having an in-depth discussion on this issue, wanting only for the people to hand over to them the power to make decisions.
Finally, instead of calling for laws to fight fake news, Mr Low suggested that civic education be enhanced in order to cultivate in Singapore citizens a habit of fact checking when reading news articles.
“The Internet is an open platform. Netizens can rebut irrational, extreme and unfair online remarks. Relevant government agencies and ministers can also clarify and state their stance. By doing so, the true nature of online rumours, fake news and misleading remarks will be known, netizens can also be educated and their ability to judge enhanced”, he added.