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Manpower Minister Josephine Teo’s use of POFMA on SDP’s statements are “not appropriate” argues SDP in court

Invoking the use of the Protection From Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) over three of the Singapore Democratic Party’s (SDP’s) posts was not an appropriate use of the legislation, argued the party in the High Court yesterday (16 January). It explained that the legislation is meant to be applied to “obvious, deliberate falsehoods”.

Party chairman Dr Paul Tambyah, when speaking to reporters after the hearing, said that the party’s statements which were decided to be false by Manpower Minister Josephine Teo were actually made based on a “reasonable interpretation” of publicly available data provided by her ministry.

This challenge by SDP against the minister’s correction directions is the first POFMA case to be brought to court. The party, representing themselves and led by SDP chief Chee Soon Juan, presented its arguments before Justice Ang Cheng Hock in chambers. The party had applied for the case to be heard in open court but was denied.

Speaking to reporters, Dr Chee said, “What we’re taking issue with is, MOM then takes its case, presents its data in a certain manner, and then uses it to say ours is false. That is the point of contention.”

Dr Chee also noted that the Ministry of Manpower’s statement is not false either if they are using a different timeframe. However, SDP’s statements are based on factual data from MOM in a different timeframe.

So the dispute here is about the varying interpretations of the data by the SDP and MOM, viewed in different perspectives.

Dr Chee stressed that a key issue raised in Court is what a reasonable person would make of SDP’s statements.

Talking about the Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam’s use of the Punggol Waterway Terraces roof collapse hoax as an example of an online falsehood, Dr Chee said, “A reasonable person would also be able to see whether the roof has collapsed or not. (In SDP’s case), you can argue until the cows come home…and you’d still have disputes about it, and that’s why we say POFMA cannot be applied.”

When asked about why the party was not represented by a lawyer, Dr Tambyah said that donors have been very generous, adding that the party would prefer to channel the monetary contributions to fund its campaign for the upcoming general elections.

The hearing continues today with SDP finishing up their presentation, followed by the Attorney General acting on behalf of MOM.

The case so far

On 14 December, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) issued correction directions to the SDP for three postings it made online relating to employment trends in Singapore. The MOM alleged that SDP’s statements are false.

The party was directed under POFMA to carry a correction notice on each of the three posts which includes a link to the government’s Factually site, debunking SDP’s statements with MOM’s own data.

While SDP complied with the directions, the party also refuted MOM’s claims that their statements are false and misleading, noting that the information was based on data that MOM published itself.

The party then submitted an application to Ms Teo to cancel the correction directions, but the application was rejected. Ms Teo said that the party did not provide sufficient grounds for its appeal. However, no further explanation was given on how the SDP’s application was lacking.

Consequently, the party released a statement to say that MOM’s rejection and the answer given “is not a rational answer”, and called MOM’s response a “cop-out”. The party contends that it submitted a “detailed account – including analysing MOM’s own statistics – of the reasons for the statements in our posts.”

The party also hit back at Ms Teo for not being able to give an adequate explanation for her rejection of the appeal despite having the time to do so.

“Minister Josephine Teo, despite having the entire Ministry and its officials at her disposal with two full working days and an entire weekend to refute our specific arguments, has refused or been unable to do so. This is telling,” it wrote.

The party then revealed it is “left with no choice” but to pursue the matter in Court, adding that it has filed an originating summons against Ms Teo in the High Court and will not be engaging a lawyer but argue the matter themselves.

SDP had also applied for the matter to be heard in open court. It said in a statement, “Given that the matter has drawn widespread and intense public interest, the SDP is of the view that the case be open to the public.”

However, the judge refused the party’s application and the case is being heard in chambers instead, where the media and members of the public are not allowed to attend.

The party explained that if the correction directions issued by Ms Teo are upheld, then “the last holdout where important national issues are openly and robustly debated on the Internet in Singapore would be irreparably closed”.

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