Even as the date of the general election remains unknown, it would appear that preparations are underway which add credence to rife speculation that such elections are imminent.
It has been reported that notices of of appointments of alternate authorities have been published on the Government Gazette. These notices will permit the permanent secretaries for all 16 ministries and several portfolios in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to exercise the powers of the ministers under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) during the election period.
This would mean that for the duration of the election period, the permanent secretaries (and not the ministers) will have the power to determine that a piece of news is “false”.
While the POFMA has been passed by Parliament after a year long consultation, it was perhaps one of the most controversial pieces of legislation to have been passed in Singapore. In a nutshell, when the legislation was first billed, many people had been concerned that the POFMA could be used to numb down government critics.
Basically the POFMA gives any minister (or the relevant permanent secretary at election time) the power to instruct the Infocomm Media Development Authority, which administers POFMA to issue directives if the Minister (or the permanent secretary during election time) determines that there is a falsehood that could hurt public interest. POFMA’s ambit also includes “falsehoods” that could influence elections.
What remains unclear is how a statement is determined to be “false”, what constitutes public interest. and what “influence elections” means. This could potentially lead to abuse as it could effectively give a minister the power to determine anything he or she does not like as “false”. At election time, this could permit an unelected official by way of the permanent secretary, to suppress information that could affect the re election of a particular minister.
At the time the POFMA bill was being debated, Minister for Law and Home Affairs, K Shanmugam had downplayed the risk of misuse on account of the ability to challenge a minister’s decision in court. He had said that if a court disagreed with the minister, that the minister’s reputation would suffer. In other words, a minister’s actions could be kept in check given that his reputation would be on the line.
Using the example of a journalist, Shanmugam had said : “Now, a journalist can go to court and say, “Why am I being stopped? What is false?” because the Minister’s Direction has got to set out what is false. ….And the Minister will suffer greater embarrassment. You know why? Because not only did he try to suppress something embarrassing, but now he would be shown to have used and abused his powers, and overruled by a Court. So, double blow. It is far worse for a Minister to do that. It is very serious.”
If we follow Shanmugam’s logic, how do we keep a permanent secretary in check?
The permanent secretary doesn’t have to worry about his or her own reputation. He or she isn’t up for election they way a minister’s is. His or her job will not be on the line. Besides, a permanent secretary reports into the minister. Is this not a conflict of interest?
With these set of circumstances, will POFMA give yet another advantage to the incumbent Peoples’ Action Party?