In an interview with Bloomberg earlier this year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (PM Lee) had justified the necessity for the controversial Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA).
For those who are unaware, POFMA basically gives ministers the power to call out content that they deem falsehoods. Ministers can issue directives to mandate publications remove content that is considered “fake news”. While the act does provide leeway for the perpetrator to appeal to a court to challenge such directives, the act has been criticised for numbing down critics and curbing free speech.
It would appear that the Government is also considering a separate bill to specifically target foreign interference that would give authorities “powers to make targeted, surgical interventions” to investigate hostile information campaigns from abroad.
Law Minister K Shanmugam made the government’s intentions known during a speech in September. At the moment, the Government has to rely on POFMA to target such errant foreign influence.
One fine example would be Alex Tan whose page on Facebook is now barred to those surfing the internet from Singapore as a result of a POFMA order that Facebook had to comply with.
PM Lee had expressed concerns that foreign powers could put out misleading information which could exacerbate existing fault lines and weaknesses in order to sharpen conflicts and contradictions and stoke social disorder.
The question however would be whether or not such a law, if passed, will be applied evenly to all “foreign interventions”.
Let’s take the example of alternative news website, Critical Spectator, founded by Polish national, Michael Petraeus.
The Critical Spectator has published a number of articles that could amount to “foreign interventions”. Its articles delve into, among other things, relations between Singapore and Malaysia which could arguably influence the opinions of Singaporeans on those issues.
One of the Critical Spectators’s recent posts talks about the imminent general elections in Singapore and comments on potential amendments to voting age. He also referenced the situation in Hong Kong, blaming protesters for the unrest which is incidentally an issue that Singapore Prime Minister’s spouse, Ho Ching has opined on.
Could this not amount to foreign intervention and influence that our government is so sensitive about?
However, to date, no action has been taken against him (that we know of). Is it because his writings are favourable of the Peoples’ Action Party (PAP) led government?
If the Government wants to curb “foreign interventions”, it should curb such interventions fairly and evenly. It should not be applied only to publications that are critical of Singapore.