Writing in a personal capacity on his Facebook page on Monday night (18 May), author and businessman Mr Yap Kwong Weng called out academic Professor Cherian George for the position he takes in a recent online posting which Mr Yap said is “interesting but contradictory and contrived”.
Mr Yap doesn’t specify which posting he is referring to specifically, but Prof George who is a Professor in the Department of Journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University, writes regularly on his website, airconditionednation.com about politics, media, elections, and society in general.
His most recent post on 17 May was about the responses he has received relating to several of his other posts. One of these other posts called for an online code of conduct for all political parties and while another was on what Prof George says are inconsistencies in the government’s responses to online falsehoods and harassment which he said reveals a worrying level of partisanship
Mr Yap, who is also the principal advisor of KPMG Singapore, addressed Prof George’s stance on Singapore anti-fake news law. He said, “First, regarding Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (“POFMA”), CG is asking why the Government hasn’t used POFMA against people who criticise him,” likening this to “asking someone to smash a mosquito with a hammer.”
His second point was that Prof George asking for POFMA to be used against people who have personally attacked him is not “conceivable” as the law can only be wielded when there is public interest involved.
“[Cherian George’s] feelings of personal hurt, do not equate to all of Singapore’s public interest,” said Mr Yap.
He continued, “There are likely to be hundreds, if not thousands of individuals, who feel hurt everyday by online posts which are put up, by others, given an increased contestation of ideas today.”
“The fact is: POFMA does not apply to those cases, nor do those who feel upset demand that POFMA be used. POFMA Orders also cannot be made when someone simply expresses an opinion.”
Mr Yap said that if Prof George feels the attacks against him are unjustified, he can seek recourse through libel action as well as other laws such as the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA).
Mr Yap then raised a third point by saying that Prof George “takes several contradictory positions” in his criticisms of the anti-fake news law.
“He argued that the provisions of POFMA were too broad. When it was pointed out that powers under POFMA are narrower than those under existing laws, he changed tack,” Mr Yap starts.
“He said that the POFMA provisions were more dangerous, precisely because they were narrower. He also argued that POFMA had created a new category of ‘illegal’ speech. When it was pointed out this was untrue, he then changed tack again, and called it ‘a side issue’.”
Mr Yap added he also finds Prof George’s demand to know why the government hasn’t criticised his own post or invoked POFMA on it as “quite bizarre”.
“If he is asking the Government to go around disavowing every site that someone complains about, then there would be no end to this. As a self-styled advocate of free speech, it is odd that [Cherian George] is asking for increased Government censure ship, if not censorship.”
Mr Yap went on to again point out that Prof George had said in 2018 that inserting an advisory to viewers was “wonderful” and “not a detriment to free speech”. However, Mr Yap says, Prof George “levelled his criticisms of POFMA and discarded his earlier views” once the Bill was introduced in Parliament.
“Now, he demands that the Government run to his assistance when he is the victim of online vitriol, including using apparatuses of the state to “disavow” websites or POFMA, to address his own grievances,” Mr Yap chided.
“At the same time, [Cherian George] had also asked the Government to use POFMA against his critics, instead of him considering his rights under POHA,” he added.
Noting that he finds it “difficult to reconcile” with Prof George’s view, Mr Yap said that when other people, including politicians, have received personal attack, they “don’t whine” nor asked for POFMA to be invoke. Instead, they sue for defamation instead or simply “develop a thicker skin”.
Mr Yap said that Prof George “should have understood this” but instead chose to compare his situation to the government’s recent correction direction issues to historian Dr Thum Pin Tjin over what it says are false statements about POFMA.
“When statements are made about what the public can or cannot do under legislation, it appears to me that there is clear public interest to ensure that false statements are corrected, and to help the public know of their rights under that legislation,” said Mr Yap.
Mr Yap went on to say, “I am concerned at the behaviour of these staunch free speech advocates: free speech is fine, except when they disagree with it, or when it hurts them.”
“This is far from the whole story; free speech is a much more complex phenomenon than this assumption of a ‘command-obedience’ model that suits individuals, and the same is true of freedom and the relationship between the latter.”
Prof George offers to discuss the misunderstanding; Mr Yap declines
In the comment section of Mr Yap’s post, Prof George replied to invite Mr Yap into a dialogue via Skype of email, which he says would be “more conducive to mutual understanding”.
Prof George replied, “Dr Yap, you appear to have a sincere desire to understand the issues, so it is unfortunate that you have mostly recycled talking points that were used a year ago to try to distract and discredit critics of Pofma.”
“If indeed my actual writing (as opposed to the reported version above) has been as contradictory as some claim, I would be happy to revise how I have communicated my views or those views themselves.”
Prof George also suggested that, if Mr Yap agreed, they could then share the full transcript of their discussion for those who are genuinely interested.
Mr Yap responded by asking Prof George for clarification on whether the professor did indeed ask for POFMA to protect him.
To this, Prof George said that he did not ask for POFMA to be used for his protection, noting that this is “one of the many misreadings” of his writing that he has seen. He then once again invited Mr Yap for a further discussion via email.
Mr Yap however countered that Prof George’s recent writings “certainly suggested: that he wanted POFMA to be used in his favour. Mr Yap went on to say that since the professor did not deny or agree that he wanted the governments to censure his critics, “it is best to leave it to readers to draw their own conclusions for now”.
Potential PAP candidate
Dr Yap was highlighted by Straits Times last year as a potential People’s Action Party candidate.
According to ST, he has been volunteering in Chong Pang ward in Nee Soon GRC since April 2018.
When contacted, Dr Yap said he has been in grassroots work for some time, “without any specific consideration of candidature”.
“I was asked if I would like to serve in the grassroots, given my background – experiences in the energy sector in Myanmar, start-up co-founder role in the travel sector. I said yes,” he added.
In an e-mail response to ST, Minister of Law and Home Affairs, Mr K Shanmugam said Dr Yap was among “several hundred people” serving in Chong Pang grassroots groups.
He added that it would be “pure guesswork” to identify any one of the volunteers as a potential candidate. “For that reason, I prefer not to comment on anyone, at this point,” he said.
Dr Yap’s comment thread was filled with PAP supporters who joined in to criticise Prof George on the topic.
Edit on 20 May: Insertion of Dr Yap’s background.