Ambassador to the United States of America (USA) for Singapore, Ashok Mirpuri has in a letter, dated 21 May, to the editor of American news publication, Foreign Policy, defended the Singapore government’s handling of the coronavirus vis-à-vis the nation’s migrant workers.
Mirpuri’s letter was in response to an article entitled Singapore is trying to forget migrant workers are people” published by the Foreign Policy, which Mirpuri felt, presented a “distorted view” of the situation. The letter was eventually released on the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) after the Foreign Policy allegedly refused to publish it.
In the Singaporean context, one can be forgiven for being surprised that an ambassador would choose to engage with differing views via statements instead of force. After all, a number of journalists and news websites have already been slapped with official Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) correction directives for arguably less. While an ambassador, being a civil servant, is not theoretically a member of government, one can be forgiven for seeing them as all part of the same camp where Singapore’s dominant Peoples’ Action Party (PAP) led government is concerned.
While it is prima facie refreshing to see Mipuri attempting to engage, the question on the enforceability of POFMA on an overseas website like Foreign Policy must be asked. Could it be that Mipuri had to engage in the manner that he did because there is no way a publication like Foreign Policy could ever be policed by POFMA?
The premise of the enactment of POFMA was ostensibly to prevent a very widely defined version of “fake news”, particularly those that originate from foreign sources which are not subjected to local laws.
Minister of Home Affairs and Laws, K Shanmugam said during the passing of the POFMA bill, “If you apply the Workers’ Party’s proposal of the Courts first, you cannot be sure that you can act speedily. You will have to bring a person to Court every single time, and that is even without considering other issues. I have said foreign agents. Who do you sue? How long will it take to find the originator? How do you serve?”
If the offending article had been published in a local publication, would a POFMA correction or worst, a retraction directive be issued? And if so, is that fair?
While not advocating that articles of such nature ever be subject to the scrutiny of POFMA, it could nevertheless create a situation where local news websites are unfairly penalised.
So far, no foreign sites other than that of Lawyer for Liberty’s and Alex Tan’s various blogs have been slapped with POFMA. Even in the recent case of the POFMA correction direction upon TOC, a Taiwan news channel — the originator of the alleged falsehood was not issued a similar correction direction as confirmed by the Ministry of Finance.
This goes to the heart of the question – was POFMA ever really necessary?
There are after all other pieces of legislation to combat fake news without the need for POFMA.
Let’s take the example of Kenneth Lai Yong Hui, a taxi driver who has just been sentenced to 4 months jail under the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act for falsely stating in a private Facebook group that all coffee shops and food courts were to be closed with supermarket opening hours being limited as Singapore was about to implement circuit breaker measures.
This is a clear case of spreading untruths — its prevention of which POFMA’s enactment was premised. Why then was POFMA not utilised? From this example, it is clear that POFMA is not needed to tackle “fake news”.
Instead of stopping genuine fake news, does POFMA have the potential chilling effect of numbing down local government critics for asking inconvenient questions or proffering “non-kosher” opinions?