In an interview with Diana Ser, Minister for Law and Home Affairs, K Shanmugam said that the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) does not disadvantage the opposition but instead “encourages greater democracy.”
He says that the POFMA “actually encourages greater democracy” because “POFMA orders require you to put up a health warning that what you have said is untrue” alongside your original content” (which does not have to be removed if the health warning is there). According to Shanmugam, POFMA “doesn’t disadvantage you,” because “people read what you have written. People read what the Government says. And they decide for themselves.” In Shanmugam’s opinion, this “actually encourages greater democracy” because it encourages more information.
Presumably. Shanmugam is talking about this in the lead up to the general election to allay possible disquiet on the role POFMA will play to limit what critics say. It is important to note that this is the first general election where POFMA will be in place. It will also be the first general election Singapore has ever had in a time of global pandemic with active cases still within the country.
However, reading what Shanmugum had to say to justify POFMA together with how POFMA has been used so far, his arguments do not appear to be convincing or logical.
Firstly, if you have to insert a health warning to say that what you are saying is untrue, it will already discredit you right from the start. How can people take what you have to say seriously if the opening line says that what you have to say is untrue? Shanmugum’s reasoning taken at face value shows a complete lack of understanding on how communications work.
Back in May, the Government had issued a corrective direction against a video published by the New Naratif on its You Tube Channel. It is noteworthy that the video starred historian Thum Ping Tjin who had previously locked horns with Shanmugum in the now infamous interrogation by the Selection Committee which lasted for an epic duration of 6 hours in 2018!
This interrogation garnered worldwide interest in academic circles which prompted an open letter demanding for an apology from the Select Committee to be issued to Thum. None was of course forthcoming. Shanmugum had also previously vigrously attacked Thum on the latter’s meeting with Dr. Mahathir.
While the commonality of the actors in this saga could just all be a huge coincidence, it does leave open the possibility that the POFMA could indeed be used to target critics of the ruling Government.
Indeed, the New Naratif had said it is of the opinion that the extremely broad definitions of falsehoods and public interest in POFMA allows, in theory, any criticism of the Singapore Government to be considered false, and that in its opinion, POFMA correction directions like the one it had received are an attempt to intimidate independent media and an abuse of the law, designed to strike fear into the hearts of the Government’s critics and citizenry.
Looking at a few other examples may send chills further down the spines of those who may have been considering airing divergent views from the ruling Government. It would seem that the number of POFMA correction orders have been directed at alternative parties in a disproportionate manner.
Since its enactment, correction directions have also been issued to the following who incidentally are known critics of the government:
- Progress Singapore Party’s Brad Bowyer by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat.
- States Times Review Facebook page (a website critical of the Singapore Government) by Shanmugam.
- The Singapore Democratic Party by Minister for Manpower, Josephine Teo.
- Alternative politician, Lim Tean by Heng and Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung over separate incidents
- The Online Citizen in relation to the brutality of the death penalty by Shamugam
- The Online Citizen in relation to Ho Ching’s salary by Heng.
- HardwareZone user ‘darkseidluv’ in relation to Ho Ching’s salary by Heng
- The Temasek Review in relation to Ho Ching’s salary by Heng.
While Minister for Communications and Information have labelled these as “just a convergence or coincidence“, is this convincing?