Just last week, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) issued three correction orders under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), upon Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) over three online postings made by the party.

MOM claims that the posts and article from SDP contained “a misleading graphic and false statements of fact”.

SDP is required to carry the correction notice at the top of both Facebook posts and the article on its website, which it has done. SDP has also followed the correction notice with a statement of its own saying that while it is complying with the order, the party will also be applying to cancel the correction direction.

The full correction by MOM is posted on the government’s fact-correction site ‘Factually’.
In the correction, MOM states the reasons why the information in SDP’s postings are falsehoods.

Other than the clarifications and correction, the statement on Factually also included a condemning remark on SDP:

These false and misleading statements by the SDP have a singular objective – to stoke fear and anxiety among local PMETs. It is important to set the facts straight so that Singaporeans are not misled.

What MOM has alleged SDP of doing with its ending remarks – which have been widely reported by local media – is understood to be that the party had made misleading postings with the intent “to stoke fear and anxiety among local PMETs”.

Without arguing whether the postings were misleading or false, can MOM really claim that SDP had planned to word their postings in a manner “to stoke fear and anxiety among local PMETs”? What proof does it have to make such an accusation?

While fear and anxiety may have arise among readers of SDP’s postings but can it be said that it is the reason for the postings?

Let us use Minister of National Development, Lawrence Wong’s statement in March 2017 about Housing Development Board flats as example why this logic is questionable.

Mr Wong had cautioned home buyers in a blog posting not to assume that all old HDB flats will be automatically eligible for the Selective En bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS).

He said that the Government will continue to maintain the strict selection criteria for blocks eligible for SERS, noting that only about 4 per cent of HDB flats have been identified for SERS since 1995 as he was concerned about reports of HDB flats with short leases left being transacted at high prices in the resale market.

“As the leases run down, especially towards the tail-end, the flat prices will come down correspondingly,” he said. “So buyers need to do their due diligence and be realistic when buying flats with short leases. This is especially important for young couples, who have to plan for a much longer future.”

In other words, when the lease of a HDB flat expires at the 99-year mark, its value will be zero. After his blog post, prices for old HDB flats in the property market dropped.

By imposing MOM’s logic with SDP upon Mr Wong’s blog post, can we say: “These statements made by Minister Wong have a singular objective – to stroke fear and anxiety among flat owners and potential buyers”?

Of course, that would be ludicrous even though the effects were, indeed, outcomes stemming from the minister’s blog post. But that’s what MOM’s statement is doing here, which is to make irresponsible and speculative claims upon a political party that has no equal means against the government to address the statement.

Does the government and its ministers get a blank cheque with the use of POFMA to issue unfettered claims upon activists, opposition politicians and political parties?

Workers’ Party Member of Parliament, Ms Sylvia Lim pointed out during the POFMA debate in May this year, that the courts could only set aside a minister’s direction on three grounds:

  1. If the subject statement is not a statement of fact, or is a true statement of fact;
  2. if the individual did not communicate the subject statement in Singapore; and
  3. if it is not technically possible to comply with the direction.
“The High Court cannot inquire into the merits of the decision, whether in the courts’ view the decision should have been made in that way,” said Ms Lim.

She added, “The court, for example, cannot ask important questions such as is the minister overreacting, did the directions impose obligations on the communicator which are excessively onerous and harsh, or does the public interest require the direction to be issued.”

Given what Ms Lim said is true, what recourse can such affected parties seek if they are wrongfully defamed by the government, the ministries or the ministers?

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