The link between POFMA, ISA, and all of us

by Jason Soo

On Wednesday 8 May 2019, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) was passed in Parliament with a majority of 72 to nine, with three abstentions. Welcome to a fate worse than Orwell’s 1984. We now have not one but 16 ministries of truth.

During the period when POFMA had not yet been formalized into law, over 100 people had assembled at Hong Lim Park on Sunday 28 April. Despite the searing heat, they had gathered to register their opposition to POFMA. Among the crowd were several ex-detainees of Operation Spectrum. They had been arrested under the Internal Security Act (ISA) in 1987. I was not surprised to see them.

Operation Spectrum and similar preventive detentions from the 1960s onwards is evidence that the government is historically the biggest producer of fake news. The falsehoods manufactured by the government had catastrophic consequences, both for the detainees individually, and for society at large. Condemned as subversives in the absence of a trial, the detainees were tortured by officers from the Internal Security Department (ISD). They were even coerced into producing “evidence” against themselves, in the form of “confessions” broadcast on primetime television, and statutory statements splashed across the front pages of newspapers. For everyone else, Operation Spectrum meant the near-paralysis of civil society. It is only in the last ten years or so that we are slowly emerging from this paralysis.

2019 marks the 32nd anniversary of Operation Spectrum. In the last ten years, a growing bibliography of books, poems, artworks, and films has been made of the arrests and detentions. In all that time, no truth and reconciliation commission has been set up, no official response has been forthcoming – not even in the recent Select Committee that spend hours trying to demolish the credentials of historian PJ Thum and the veracity of his research on Operation Coldstore of 1963.

On the contrary, the government has found time to charge activists and bloggers for defamation and contempt, driven critics and academics out of the country, and passed even more legislation to control and criminalize any narrative that does not conform to the officially approved version.

Activists and historians will be able to give a more complete list, but limiting our examples to new laws alone, we have had in the last ten years, the Public Order Act (2009), which in Orwellian doublespeak considers that one person constitutes a public assembly; amendments to the Parliamentary Elections Act (2010), used against alleged offenders for violation of “cooling-off day”; the Broadcasting (Class Licence) (Amendment) Notification (2013), used against news websites to restrict funding and content; the Protection from Harassment Act (2014), used by the Ministry of Defence to allege fake news by alternative news website The Online Citizen; the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act (2016), which entrenches the anachronistic offence of scandalizing the judiciary; and amendments to the Films Act (2018), which eliminate the need for search and seizure warrants.

In 2019, we now have POFMA, the latest incarnation of this control.

At Hong Lim Park, an ex-detainee felt unwell and had to leave. Later, he sent me a message, “I am so angry with POFMA. It is the ISA in new clothes.” The comparison seems far-fetched at first. Closer inspection reveals more compelling similarities.

Essentially, POFMA gives not one but all 16 ministers power to decide whether what you say and write is false and undermines national security or public interest. Likewise, the ISA gives the Home Affairs minister power to decide whether what you do undermines national security.

In both instances, how to define “national security” is left to the discretion of the minister. In both instances, the punishment is severe, with imprisonment of up to 10 years and fines of up to half a million dollars (POFMA)1 or indefinite – I repeat – indefinite detention without trial (ISA). In short, POFMA threatens your right to inform and to be informed, while the ISA threatens your freedom and your liberty, your right to live and act as responsible citizens.

Not surprisingly, in its public relations offensive, the authorities have tried to play down the dangers of the proposed legislation. The following are statements made by the law minister in relation to POFMA:

The Rhetoric:  “Laws to curb fake news target false statements of facts, not opinions2.”

The Reality: The division of statements into true, false, and not a statement (i.e., opinion) is flawed and dangerous. Opposition MP Low Thia Khiang has shown that the division between a statement and an opinion is not merely linguistic or formal, but political. Low cites a statement made by PAP minister Heng Swee Kiat, who said, “Older generation of Singaporeans are not ready for a non-Chinese prime minister3.”

In the mouth of the minister or his supporters, such a statement would be considered personal opinion. But if the statement “were to come from the minister’s political opponents on social media, the minister may say that spreading such falsehoods will create racial conflicts, endangering national security4.” As this example shows, the applicability and operation of POFMA will be about power and who possess the power to categorize what one says into a statement or an opinion.

As for the division of statements into true and false, the same principle applies. A letter signed by 83 academics makes precisely this point: “The advance of knowledge derives from, and hence much of academic work focuses on, disputing apparently established ‘facts’. […] Interpretations of even generally agreed upon ‘facts’ may vary greatly…5 In short, facts are determined in a particular place and a particular time. They can be changed. What a fact is or is not, is as much a matter of power and perspective, as of truth and veracity6.

The Rhetoric: 99% of people don’t have to worry about what they do 99% of the time7.”

The Reality: 100% of people have to worry 100% of the time. Why? Because ANYONE can suddenly become part of the so-called 1%. You never think you are going to be arrested and charged. There will be no advance warning. Just ask the church volunteers, lawyers, student activists, and theatre practitioners who were tortured and imprisoned under Operation Spectrum. They never imagined that one day in 1987, they would be accused of participating in a Marxist conspiracy to overthrow the government. In his assertion that 99% of people do not have to worry about POFMA, has the law minister made a true or false statement, or is he merely expressing an opinion? Under POFMA, he can exempt anyone, including himself, even when a false statement is made.

The Rhetoric:  “If a minister makes a decision, he can be accountable in Parliament8.”

The Reality: The ruling party holds 82 out of 88 elected seats in Parliament, far above the two-thirds majority needed to amend the constitution, and far, far above the simple majority needed to pass legislation. Until this changes, Parliament is not an effective arena where ministers are held accountable. And neither are elections, which government ministers are fond of citing in order to legitimize their control. Workers’ Party MP Leon Perera has pointed out that “a rogue government can precisely use POFMA powers to stop voters from learning negative information about its actions9.”

This is true, but the even worse reality is that with all TV stations and all newspapers under effective control of the ruling party, the government has already been framing the limits of information ever since Television Singapura (1963) came under the control  of the Ministry of Culture, and ever since the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (1974) gave the government power to decide who owns the shares of a newspaper company. In short, the kind of accountability that we need is not the kind that is limited to Parliament or to elections. Accountability should be inscribed in law and practised continually in all instances, not just once every five years during elections or during those rare instances when the party whip is lifted in Parliament.

The Rhetoric: [A Minister] can be brought to court and he has to justify this decision10.”

The Reality: When is the last time that a minister appeared in court to justify any official decision, and what has been the outcome? As for the judiciary, an example from Operation Spectrum will be instructive. In 1988, four detainees challenged their detention in a trial that went up to the Court of Appeal. Eventually, the judges choose to release the detainees not on substantive grounds, but on a technicality. This paved the way for the following moves. Hours after the ruling, ISD officers drove the detainees outside of the prison gates, instructed them to get out of the car, and then re-arrested all of them the moment their feet touched the ground. And, as if the control was not extreme enough, the government announced 12 days later that it would amend the law so that ISA detentions could no longer be challenged in court. The following month, these amendments were promptly passed by a Parliament that consisted of a single opposition member.

With POFMA now passed into law, we can expect that it will soon be used on an unfortunate victim. And we also know that like any other laws, it doesn’t need to be used in order to imprint its chilling effect. Faced with such an oppressive regime, what can any of us do? The answer is, not much. There will be no short cuts and quick fix. But one thing I learned is that all rights are indivisible. They cannot be separated.

The right to liberty, is linked to the right to assemble, is linked to the right to express oneself responsibly, is linked to the right to be informed, is linked to the right to be free from poverty and economic exploitation, is linked to the right to choose your sexual orientation, etc. And, if individual acts are limited in effect, then the obvious answer is that we need to go beyond our atomistic self and engage in collective action. That sounds like something beyond the reach of most of us. But it really isn’t.

Collective action is not a matter of numbers. An individual becomes a collective as soon as s/he plugs into something outside him or herself. And since no single person can exist in isolation, every person is already plugged into multiple collectivities. So in whatever profession you operate in, whatever duties you have to fulfil, whenever you stand up against injustice, whenever you speak out against exploitation, whenever you amplify the voices of those who are silenced, that is collective action in practice. As a poet once said, “We are all each other’s consequences.”

Author/Filmmaker’s Note: On May 19, there will be an anniversary screening of the documentary film on Operation Spectrum at The Projector, followed by a Q&A with the filmmaker and ex-detainees.

Tickets available here.



1. In the case of companies as opposed to individuals, the fine goes up to a million dollars.

2. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/no-impact-to-free-speech-law-minister-laws-curb-fake-news-target-false-statements-fact-not-opinions (Accessed 10 May, 2019)

3. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/older-generation-singaporeans-not-ready-non-chinese-pm-heng-swee-keat (Accessed 10 May, 2019)

4.  https://sg.news.yahoo.com/fake-news-law-is-ploy-by-government-to-hold-absolute-power-low-thia-khiang-155910029.html (Accessed 10 May, 2019)

5.  https://www.theonlinecitizen.com/2019/04/13/academics-against-disinformation-singapores-proposed-online-falsehoods-law-may-deter-scholarship-and-set-precedents-harmful-to-global-academia/ (Accessed 10 May, 2019)

6. Consider the following question, “Who is the first elected President of Singapore?” On the surface, the answer seems quite straightforward, a matter of fact. But the answer will vary depending on who you ask, and, when you asked them. For most people, the first elected President was Ong Teng Cheong. However, in 2017, the government came up with the idea of a reserved presidential election.

Henceforth, elections for the president would be reserved for candidates of a particular ethnic group, if that ethnic group has not been represented for five terms. The government then announced that counting of these terms would start from Wee Kim Wee. Wee was not popularly elected, but he had been the first person to exercise the powers of the elected president, back when the scheme was introduced during his term.

With the subsequent controversy over whether counting of the terms should start from Ong or Wee, most critics regard the reserved presidential elections as a ruse used by the government to install its preferred candidate, Halimah Yacob. The government’s anxiety to prove the ethnic identity of Halimah is another good example of how seemingly factual statements cannot be satisfactorily categorized into simplistic binaries of true or false, Indian or Malay. It will not have escaped the reader’s attention that the examples cited here repeatedly involve the question of race.

Despite the rhetoric about a “multi-racial” society, many government policies are discriminatory toward minorities. See for example the work of scholars such as Lily Zubaidah Rahim and Michael Barr.

As for the many ambiguities of the elected president, see this article by Jack Tsen-Ta Lee.

7. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/proposed-law-on-falsehoods-has-clear-oversight-mechanism-to-11438132 (Accessed 10 May, 2019)

8. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/proposed-law-targets-only-those-who-spread-fake-news-deliberately (Accessed 10 May, 2019)

9.  https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=2431732310439484 (Accessed 10 May, 2019)

10. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/proposed-law-targets-only-those-who-spread-fake-news-deliberately (Accessed 10 May, 2019)