The Chief Minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal has made dubious claims on his Twitter account that “a new variant of coronavirus found in Singapore is being said to be very dangerous for children”. He further declared that this new strain in Singapore could usher in the third wave (of COVID-19) in India.
As Mr Kejriwal made these claims, India is in the grip of a pandemic catastrophe as the country battles with a deadly new strain of the Coronavirus. Alongside many other countries, Singapore has put in a ban on visitors coming into the country from India.
An unsubstantiated statement like this would no doubt constitute “fake news” that would fall under the ambit of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA). Yet, instead of taking any action under POFMA, it was the Ministry of Health (MOH) that has had to tackle this falsehood.
As a result of this unsubstantiated claim by a high ranking government official in India, MOH has issued a statement on Tuesday (18 May) to rebut Mr Kejriwal.
When POFMA was first enacted 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. This objective was also reinforced by former senior minister S. Jayakumar in his book, ‘Governing: A Singapore Perspective‘.
Professor Jayakumar said that POFMA is “a piece of long overdue legislation” that deals with both deliberate falsehoods originating from abroad, as well as from within Singapore, the real safeguard is still Singaporeans’ own vigilance.
Speaking at a press conference in Jan 2020, then-Communications and Information Minister S Iswaran said that the Government must take “swift action” against falsehoods being used to create anxiety amid the coronavirus situation.
“Otherwise, there is a grave risk that they will spread and cause panic amongst our citizens. That is why we have the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), and we will not hesitate to use the powers under the law to take action against any party that spreads such falsehood,” said Mr Iswaran
So, why is it that POFMA has not been used here?
This publication has previously observed that the POFMA has overwhelmingly been used against local critics such as independent media and opposition politicians. Critics of foreign origin have had the courtesy and civility of rebuttal letters instead of having the law used against them.
Let’s look at the examples.
Just over the period of the general elections in July 2020, no less than 30 POFMA directives were issued to Singapore-based alternative publications and political parties. Yet when the Asian Nikkei Review carried an article entitled, ‘Coronavirus and Inequality Threaten to Unsettle Singapore Election‘ which did not paint the Government in the best light, Ambassador to Japan for Singapore, Peter Tan Hai Chuan issued a letter to rebut the article, accusing the writer, Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh of painting “a distorted picture” instead of a POFMA directive being issued.
Another example would be when Ambassador to the United States for Singapore, Ashok Kumar Mirpuri directed a letter to the 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. Yet again, no POFMA directive.
There’s also the time with 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 law “strengthens and safeguards proper public accountability that must necessarily underpin democracies”.
In each of these examples when civil servants have risen to defend the Government, a POFMA directive could have been issued although it never was. However, had a local publication published such content, would they have the courtesy of a rebuttal letter? Or would it simply be a POFMA directive or worse, a defamation suit? Think bloggers Roy Ngerng and Leong Sze Hian.
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 local critics can or cannot say?