by Joseph Nathan
When parliament passed the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) Bill at 10.30 pm, during the second day of the fasting month of Ramadan, one cannot help but wonder why there is such an urgency attached to this bill. Naturally, conspiracy theories abound and the lack of concise and timely answers on the part of the government, or “disinformation”, just raised more questions.
One key question that was never really answered decisively was why the urgency in passing such a contentious bill despite the strong public pushback?
Logic dictates that given the strong pushback, it would be wiser for the government not to be rushed into making any hasty decision. Brushing them off as small, irrelevant or insignificant also defeats the very premise of public consultation.
Two Unsettling Revelations:
During the parliamentary debate, the People’s Action Party (PAP)P MPs, like a well-rehearsed orchestral, were hitting all their rehearsed notes until lawyer Vikram Nair stated that “the court would be overwhelmed with hundreds of applications from ministers for POFMA if judges were to be the first arbiter of the bill”. When WP Leon Perera questioned him further, Vikram cited that the numbers could be high during election time.
With such unsettling statements from a practising lawyer, one would have expected the bill to be set aside. By mid-afternoon, when parliament was almost empty, it looks like the parliamentary-interest in the bill has also dwindled. By late evening, parliament was “miraculously” packed when the bill was put to a vote.
Here lies the second revelation. If the elected MPs were largely missing and not listening to the live debate during the day, on what basis are they premising their votes upon?
Aren’t those “missing” MPs showing blatant disrespect to the high office of our parliament and isn’t such action making a mockery of our parliamentary debate? The public call for a parliamentary debate to be telecasted live is starting to make a lot of sense now. If we cannot see those whom we have elected into parliament in real action, how can we be expected to be electing better MPs to make Singapore a better place for all?
But live broadcasting is also a double-edged sword. If those 4G politicians were as good as what PM Lee has endorsed upon them, then they would be able to articulate succinctly on public policies and national debates, much to the detriments of the opposition. I am wondering as to why PM Lee is not pushing for the live telecast of parliamentary debate to gain an upper hand politically? Could it be that the PAP is modest about showing off the flair and competency of their MPs so openly?
Will POFMA Be Used Politically?
By Vikram’s statements, it seems that those who had rationalized that there is a political component to the POFMA Bill are not too “far-fetched” after all. I truly empathize with all those good souls who had invested much time and effort in researching their feedbacks. Their diversity shows that most are not political in nature and their many concerns seek only to ensure that Singapore remains open to constructive public feedbacks and criticisms and that the only avenue where the public can come together in demanding due accountability and transparency of our political leaders and public institutions is not curtailed.
While it is true that people can vote out any politician at the ballot box, it is equally true that not all issues need to be decided at the ballot box but can be resolved by an open public debate and consensus. With the POFMA bill passed, should all concerned Singaporeans become cynical here forth, and let all issues snowball into catastrophes until next election?
The Good & Bad of Being Cynical:
By being cynical, we can selfishly preserve our own sensibility, but it also means that the government will be losing a critical feedback channel and will no longer benefit from its citizens’ effort in research and their honest feedback. Such a self-inflicted dilemma does not augur well for us as a nation.
Cynically speaking, Singaporeans now have every right to demand that the government stop using the catch-phrase of “shared responsibility” since it is making itself the first arbiter of the law. If our political leaders see themselves as such, then it is equally true that they can see themselves as sufficiently faultless and competent, probably even to the point that they can do no wrong. Are we naively falling into syllogistic fallacies by allowing such presumptive assumptions to dictate our collective rationale?
By looking back at the public outcries and pushback on the Casino Acts, Reserved Elected Presidency and now POFMA, we can see a pattern of “Fiat Accompli” – where a decision has been decided long before those affected hear about it or was consulted, leaving them with no option but to accept the decision, and it is looking like a norm rather than an exception.
Same Repetition, Same Outcome:
When PM Lee suddenly announced that the 2016 Presidential Election (PE) would be reserved for a minority race, it self-excludes the highly popular Dr Tan Cheng Bock from running in the PE2016.
When a few brave Malay candidates from the community stepped forward to contest, Law Minister announced a change by raising the financial criteria of candidate’s management experience in a company with at least S$500-million in shareholders’ equity instead of S$100-million previously. This again self-excludes the two brave hearts and literally means that there is no one left to contest in PE2016 except for the PAP endorsed candidate.
Win the Argument, Lose the War Mentality:
The irony of these two sweeping changes, carried out with just as much urgency as the POFMA Bill, means that Singaporeans got to elect their first Reserved Elected President without the need of an election. The line between being elected and appointed became blurred.
Law Minister Shanmugam weighted in then to dispel the notion that these changes were implemented to prevent certain individuals from standing in the PE2016. He rationalizes that Singaporeans should “start with a set of LOGICAL questions on the system, and then apply it FAIRLY”. His widely-quoted four “logical” questions were:
1. Do we BELIEVE that Singapore needs a president with SPECIFIC POWERS to say no to the government?
2. If so, do you think this person needs to be ELECTED and cannot be APPOINTED by the government?
3. If so, do you think there must be SOME CRITERIA beyond being a Singaporean aged 45 and above so that he can say yes or no to spending a large sum from our reserve?
4. And if so, do you think the criteria need to be reviewed REGULARLY?
He further stated that the government, after the Elected Presidency was introduced 25 years ago, was merely updating the system for the “best possible chance of having the RIGHT PERSON for the job, not making an exception to ensure a particular individual would qualify or not”.
New Can of Worms:
Why make so many changes so suddenly after 25 years of inaction? Why not allow the two Malay candidates to contest against their endorsed candidate, and make the financial change only after PE2016? Again, its urgency was unfathomable.
Instead of having an opportunity to unite the nation, Singapore ended up with another wasted opportunity, and in the process, created further undue tension between the people and the government. The same is true of the Casino Acts and the recent POFMA Bill. These Hard Truths are just mind-blogging for a simpleton like me.
As a lawyer, the line of reasoning that the Law Minister is applying is known as propositional logic or inductive reasoning to debunk or support his case, like he would in any Court of Law. He did the same with the POFMA Bill except that in the Public Court of Opinion, there was no judge to forcefully demand that he substantiate his argument and not indulge in syllogistic fallacies.
Anyone who would review his four lines of logical reasoning can see how flawed and unquantified they have been premised upon, and also the lack of the prevailing variables. To begin with, he did not substantiate what exactly is the “specific power” needed to say no to the government of the day.
His second line of questioning self-contradicted his own reasoning logic when the PAP endorsed candidate became the reserved Elected President – when there is no “sensible” difference between being elected or appointed. The same is true of his third and fourth line of questioning when he was again vague in detailing out what exactly is of paramount concern that drives the government into making these changes so hastily instead of regularly.
Reframing his logic and line of reasoning across his recent argument for the POFMA Bill, we can see the similarities at play. Without a learned judge in place to demand that he substantiates his argument more factually and succinctly, syllogistic fallacies seem to have gotten the better of us all for all the wrong reasons.
Importance of Clarity, Detail & Logic:
Extrapolating these fallacies into the proposed application of the POFMA Bill where ministers are empowered to determine what is Fake News instead of Learned Judges, concerned Singaporeans are naturally alarmed.
Even if we have the best technology to build the world’s smartest computing system and most complex algorithms to help our ministers in analytical prediction to screen out Fake News, the mere error of these fallacies would mean that we are never going to get any useful or meaningful output out of our “best of class” system.
If grounded logic cannot transform a butcher into a medical surgeon overnight, how are the 4G ministers going to play the role of the Learned Judge in arbitrating what is quantifiable as fake in any alleged Fake News overnight then? Even the academics and industry experts are as clueless as the general public on what exactly constitutes a Fake News that warrant governmental intervention. If everyone is in the dark except for our Law Minister, can anyone or everyone call him directly for a free consultation before we publish any articles?
To better engage the public on a peer-to-peer basis, the Law Minister ought to have put in greater effort in quantifying and substantiating his logic, and also take into consideration the variables that were at play. As at the end of the day, why argue to win at all cost and lose sight of the missed opportunities at hand? Such a mentality makes me wonder if he will end up doing more harm than good for our country as a whole.
As such, it may be healthier to remain cynical when it comes to future public consultation as our human psychology is not meant to take such harsh abuse. If our 4G ministers think that they know best, then there is nothing we can contribute to make them better.
If they want to engage Singaporeans critically, then our 4G ministers ought to show more discipline by substantiating and quantifying their argument more factually and also put in more effort in articulating the details more succinctly. One cannot engage in critical dialogue without the necessary discipline of all stakeholders and free access to critical information. There is clearly no room for pure laziness, vagueness or motherhood statement.
As the POFMA Bill is making some Singaporeans nervous, the reverse could also be true. Using the Law Minister’s own line of reasoning, one may premise that the 4G politicians are equally nervous. If so, that may explain why they need such a high-powered bill going into the upcoming election. If so, what exactly are they nervous about?
Looking ahead as we are about halfway into this supposedly election year, the many pertaining issues and also paradoxical ones like these are pushing more concerned Singaporeans into thinking much more critically. This awakened consciousness may just become PAP’s Achilles Heel at the upcoming election if we collectively believe that Singaporeans deserve better.
This was first published on Joseph Nathan – Hard Truths of SG’s Facebook page and reproduced with permission.