Since June 25, the controversial Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) has been in effect in Singapore, having been passed in Parliament with 72 votes in support. There were also 9 votes against and 3 abstentions.
The Act was introduced in April 2019 to the displeasure of experts and critics who assert that the provisions provide powers that are too broad to government ministers. Local and international experts, activists, NGOs, and community organisations were quick to vocalise their concerns of the law potentially being misused by errant politicians seeking to further their political agenda by silencing their critics online.
This shock wave of debates around the island led to many questions being raised over not only the need for such a legislation but also the fact that it relies so much on the benevolence of government officials, how the law could be manipulated, and the effects it will have on free speech and freedom of the press in Singapore.
The apparently urgent need for an anti-fake news law
Once the bill was introduced, the government was adamant about pushing it through Parliament quick, citing the spread of fake news for the urgency.
Minister of Law and Home Affairs Mr K Shanmugam has repeated over and again in defence of the Act that Singapore needs this law in the face of fake news being used by nefarious agents. He said POFMA will help support the ‘infrastructure of fact’ and preserve public harmony and trust in government.
Falsehood, said Mr Shanmugam, has wreaked havoc in both developing and developed countries from Sri Lanka to Germany, all resulting in serious consequences such as murder, riots, and the election of extremist politicians.
In less extreme circumstances, Mr Shanmugan said that falsehoods have a harmful effect on the functioning of society, causing people’s sense of reality to ‘gradually become unhinged from the facts’.
And when trust in public institutions is lax, that creates a dangerous situation. It is important for the public to be able to trust public institutions, says Mr Shanmugan, and that trust can be eroded due to the spreading of falsehoods.
In the fact of those factors, Singapore needs this law, says Mr Shanmugam.
A subsidiary legislation will be introduced…but when?
Even so, many critics have pointed out the weak points in the Act and several Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs) even proposed a number of amendments for the bill which they felt would address the concerns that have been raised.
They said in a statement, “We are concerned that these broadly worded clauses give the Executive considerable discretion to take action against online communications, without protection in the primary legislation that codifies the assurances given by the Government in explaining the Bill to the public.”
However, in response, Mr Shanmugam merely said that the bill intends to make use of subsidiary legislation to supplement POFMA, adding that these will differ from the Broadcasting Act in one key aspect. Where the Broadcasting Act is limited to within the boundaries of Singapore, POFMA extends beyond borders.
However, the NMPs said that the subsidiary legislation would not accurately address the issues they’re raised. One NMP, Ms Anthea Ong said that the subsidiary legislation “can be amended without coming before Parliament.”
Another NMP, Assoc Prof Thesseira later added, “It is crucial that every Government official involved in the exercise of powers abide by a common set of principles in administering the Act. What is the difference between doing so in the Bill, versus leaving it to subsidiary legislation or internal regulation? Sir, the difference is governance. Subsidiary legislation can be changed without a Parliamentary vote. The primary legislation cannot.”
He continued, “I think it is important to provide a plain language set of the principles in the primary legislation that cannot be changed by a future Government without returning to Parliament.”
Why rush the act through parliament in May when it is clearly not ready to become law?
Now, aside from the fact that the NMPs agreed that the subsidiary legislation is not the best measure to address the concerns that have been raised regarding POFMA, there is also the fact that Mr Shanmugan hasn’t given any details on what would be included in the subsidiary legislation nor any clear timeline of when the legislation will be introduced.
Worker’s Party MP Sylvia Lim said that while the government’s assurances that further controls for POFMA will be enacted are recorded in the official Parliament reports, the government should make POFMA as clear as possible given that it is a law that could potentially catch all Singaporeans who use digital communication.
However, it has been close to three months since POFMA was passed and we have yet to see a subsidiary legislation to POFMA. On top of that, while the Act has been gazetted, the law is only in force when the Minister decide on a date for it to be.
So now the question is, where is that urgency that was earlier professed in passing POFMA into law? Couldn’t the discussions and parliamentary debate on the bill have been postponed to a later date – as requested by NMPs and opposition MPs as well as activists, experts, and NGOs – to allow for a more thorough debate on the issue together with the relevant detailed subsidiary legislation? Taking aside the June parliamentary holiday, the proposed law could have been more throughly discussed in July, August or even in September, given that the subsidiary legislation is clearly not ready. Why the rush?
Or was this passing of POFMA meant to be preparation as being PAP’s trump card in silencing negative coverage for the upcoming general elections as suggested by critics and Worker’s Party MPs?