The High Court on Wed (5 Feb) dismissed the Singapore Democratic Party’s (SDP) appeal against Manpower Minister Josephine Teo’s correction direction made under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA).
Justice Ang Cheng Hock in his judgement today said that the party has not refuted the accuracy of the statistical evidence, and had opted to instead critique the evidence on other grounds.
He added that there was no reason why the Party “should have carte blanche to assert any timeframe of its choosing as being the applicable one”.
The POFMA correction directions — issued by Ms Teo on 14 Dec last year — targeted an article on SDP’s website titled “SDP population policy: Hire S’poreans first, retrench S’poreans last”. The posts, dated 8 Jun, discussed employment trends among Singapore PMETs and their foreign counterparts.
The SDP’s appeal against Ms Teo’s POFMA correction directions is the first one made against such correction directions to date.
The judge also highlighted that SDP had chosen not to label the time period for its graph on local professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMET) retrenchment.
Justice Ang also concurred with the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC)’s argument that “an ordinary reasonable person reading the December Facebook post would interpret the graph to be reflecting a present troubling trend, which the SDP’s policy proposals were aimed at addressing”.
Justice Ang also said that the Court is “constrained by what the legislation compels”, and that its role in the immediate context is to interpret the legislation, not to adjudicate matters regarding particular policies, such as those proposed by the SDP.
“Where there is doubt as to the precise ambit and contours of the legislation, the ordinary rules of statutory interpretation apply,” according to the judge.
SDP graphs on local PMET retrenchment “misleading”; an ordinary reasonable person will interpret SDP’s graph on local PMET retrenchment as recent: AGC
Deputy Attorney-General Hri Kumar Nair SC previously said in court on 17 Jan that while a correction direction can be issued based on the minister’s interpretation, the courts will have the final say on how a reasonable member of the public would interpret the statement.
Mr Nair also told reporters after the hearing on 17 Jan that POFMA covers both express statements and implied statements, and targets statements that are false or misleading — whether in whole or in part, when read on their own or in the context in which they appear, he added.
Responding to the SDP’s argument that MOM had arbitrarily chosen to use data the time period of 2015 to 2018 in its Labour Market Survey — and in reference to SDP including data from 2010 onwards to demonstrate a longer-term upward trend in local PMET retrenchment — he posited: “An ordinary Singaporean reading this is not going to think about the position back in 2010.”
A reasonable person reading the article, he added, would take the article to mean that the alleged trend is a recent one.
“Insofar as the allegation is that PMET retrenchments are increasing, the data shows that is not the position today,” he added.
“Knowing that it cannot sustain its assertion that the number of retrenched local PMETs have been increasingly recently, the SDP has contrived to rely on data going back to 2010,” added Mr Nair, branding the SDP’s alleged action “disingenuous”.
Background of the SDP v MOM case
The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) issued correction directions to the SDP on 14 Dec last year for three of the party’s online postings related to employment trends in Singapore.
SDP was directed under POFMA to carry a correction notice that includes a link to the government’s Factually site on each of the three posts, which “debunks” SDP’s statements with MOM’s own data.
While SDP complied with the directions, the party also refuted MOM’s claims that its statements are false and misleading, noting that the information they used in its statements was based on data published by MOM itself.
The party then submitted an application to Ms Teo to have the Manpower Minister cancel the correction directions. However, 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.
SDP responded that MOM’s rejection and the answer given “is not a rational answer”, and called MOM’s response a “cop-out”. The party contended that it had submitted a “detailed account – including analysing MOM’s own statistics – of the reasons for the statements in our posts.”
SDP also criticised Ms Teo for not offering an adequate explanation for rejecting the appeal despite having the time to do so.
The party wrote: “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.”
SDP then revealed that it was “left with no choice” but to pursue the matter in Court, adding that it has filed an originating summons against MOM in the High Court.
Commenting on the reason behind initiating legal action against MOM, SDP said that “Ms Teo’s order is an abuse of the law”, and that if the correction directions issued by the minister are upheld, then “the last holdout where important national issues are openly and robustly debated on the Internet in Singapore would be irreparably closed”.
SDP “very disappointed with the verdict” on 5 Feb, considering submitting appeal against Justice Ang’s decision
SDP in a statement today (5 Feb) said that the party is “very disappointed with the verdict”, and reiterated its court argument that “POFMA must only be applied to clear cut cases of falsehoods, not for interpretations of statistical data”.
The party however noted Justice Ang’s remark that the Court’s ambit is restricted to matters of interpretation concerning the legislation, and that “the Court is constrained by what the legislation compels”.
SDP also highlighted that the judge had pointed out that “the maker of a statement often has to contend with far more limited resources” than the Minister, “who is able to rely on the machinery of the state to procure the relevant evidence of falsity”.
The SDP said that it is considering making an appeal against the High Court decision.