After a two-day debate that lasted slightly over 14 hours, the controversial Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill (POFMA) has been passed in Parliament on Wednesday (8 May).
A total of 74 Members of Parliament (MPs) supported the Bill, while nine MPs comprising those from Workers’ Party (WP) and Non-Constituency MPs (NCMPs) went against it. However, one Nominated MP (NMP) Lim Sun Sun abstained from voting on the Bill in the first division.
In the final division, after which the Bill was passed at around 10.20 p.m., 72 MPs voted for the Bill, while the nine MPs and NCMPs remained dissenting, and three NMPs – Anthea Ong, Walter Theseira and Irene Quay – abstained from voting on the Bill after Parliament had rejected their proposed amendments.
During the debate, 31 members spoke and the majority of concerns were raised by WP MPs as well as three NMPs. In addition, a few People’s Action Party MPs also voiced suggestions and seek clarifications about the Bill.
MP for Aljunied GRC Low Thia Khiang said in his speech on Tuesday (7 May) that the Bill has a “hidden agenda” that gives minister the “absolute power” to decide what is fake news and truth, and what punishment to mete out. He added that the definition of falsehoods is too wide and ambiguous.
Following that, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam refuted his points in his closing speech by noting that the Bill calls for transparency – one of the main principals of the WP.
“You put up an article, Government says this is not correct. You carry a correction (and) let your readers judge. What’s the problem? More transparency, the better,” Mr Shanmugam said.
In addition, the Law Minister also acknowledged the points brought up by Mr Low and WP secretary-general Pritam Singh on citizens having to bring their appeal against a minister’s directions to the High Court, and arguing that most people will not be keen to do so.
He added the orders are, looking at the legal framework, and most probably to be mainly made against technology companies, and they can certainly challenge the Government.
Mr Shanmugam then said that there’s a “very serious logical fallacy” in WP’s suggestion that the courts should be the arbiter of what constitutes a falsehood.
“The point that both of you make is that people don’t want to go to court. But what you’re proposing will require people to go to court in every single case because you want the Government to sue them. So each time the Government wants to do something, somebody has to be sued,” Mr Shanmugam said.
The Law Minister also reiterated the Government’s stance before the House that POFMA will not be abused by the Executive as a tool to wield unfettered political power against critics and dissenting voices.
“(Debates) should be based on a foundation of truth, foundation of honour, and foundation where we keep out the lies, that’s what this is about. It’s not about the Workers’ Party or the PAP or today, it’s about Singapore,” he said.
Upon reading on the passing of POFMA, many netizens have expressed their sadness over this news on the Facebook pages of CNA and Yahoo Singapore, highlighting the end of democracy in the country. They also added that this is something that they “deserve” as they voted the current Government, and most of them turned out to be “yes-men” and agreed to the passing of the law without much debate or disagreements.
Some online users called for more voices in the opposition party as they were hardly heard during the debate. They even said there’s barely a debate in Parliament on this Bill as most people in the ruling party voted for POFMA.
Others opined that this Bill gives too much power to the ministers to decide on what is wrong or who is wrong, adding that it also controls information and it is something done by the elite to try and control the people. On the other hand, William Yap said that “with internet and power of speeches, comments and articles, that’s when people decide what is truth and join hands, truth revealed”.
As such, a large number of them have also pointed out that it’s time to vote wisely in the next election so they can put a stop to this.