The controversial Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) became law in Singapore on 8 May 2019. The Peoples’ Action Party (PAP) dominated government had vociferously supported the passing of POFMA to ostensibly curb the proliferation of fake news and the threat of foreign interference.
However, it would appear that the vast majority of POFMA directives have been issued to alternative news sites based in Singapore instead of foreign publications.
Using the recent general election as an example, no less than 30 POFMA directives were issued to Singapore-based alternative publications and political parties. In view of this, has the POFMA achieved its objectives of preventing fake news and foreign interference? Or rather, has it been arguably viewed as a piece of legislation used to control what critics can or cannot say?
Ambassador to Japan for Singapore, Peter Tan Hai Chuan has issued a letter to rebut an article carried by the Nikkei Asian Review entitled, “Coronavirus and Inequality Threaten to Unsettle Singapore Election” In his letter, to the Editor of the Nikkei Asian Review, Tan accused the writer, Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh of painting “a distorted picture”.
Ambassadors and other civil servants writing to refute opinions voiced about Singapore by publications outside Singapore are not rare and Tan is not the first to do so.
Earlier this year, Ambassador to the United States for Singapore, Ashok Kumar Mirpuri directed a letter to editor-in-chief of the Foreign Policy, Jonathan Tepperman to refute an article written by Singaporean, Kirsten Han which called Singapore’s handling of the migrant worker COVID-19 crisis utilitarian and dehumanising. Mirpuri was of the view that Han presented a “distorted view” of the situation.
Late last year, High Commissioner to the United Kingdom for Singapore, Foo Chi Hsia directed a rebuttal to the Economist for the publication’s coverage of the Pofma. In her rebuttal. Foo insisted that the POFMA does not limit free speech, but rather, it enhances the quality of public discourse because the the law “strengthens and safeguards proper public accountability that must necessarily underpin democracies”.
In none of the situations above was a POFMA directive issued.
Given that each of these high level civil servants issued letters after POFMA was passed, can it be said that POFMA is of no use to controlling foreign interference whatsoever? After all, if POFMA directives would have worked, why weren’t POFMA directives issued to each of the above? Did the various high level civil servants resort to issuing letters because POFMA would not have worked on foreign publications?
If so, how can the Government continue to justify the existence of POFMA?