On 12 July, Singapore-based online publication Mothership published an article, titled ‘Nearly 400,000 S’poreans have at least S$500,000 in CPF accounts, 100 are aged 35 & below’, which revealed details of Central Provident Fund’s (CPF) Annual Report 2020.
The article mentioned that close to 400,000 Singaporeans have at least half a million in their CPF account, adding that 100 of them are aged 35 and below.
Following this, blogger Phillip Ang sent an email to the Executive Director of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) Lew Chuen Hong on 25 July, pointing out that there are inaccuracies stated in the article.
In his email seen by TOC, Mr Ang cited CPF’s Annual Report 2020 saying that the mention of “Nearly 400,000 S’poreans” in the article’s headline is not factual as foreigners and Permanent Residents (PRs) are also included in “All CPF Members”.
He asserted that Mothership’s report “appears to be an attempt at sensationalising our ‘successful’ CPF scheme”.
To illustrate further, Mr Ang noted that the table from the Annual Report clearly stated that the total number of “All CPF Members” is 4.05 million, however the number of Singapore citizens as of 2020 is only 3.52 million.
If that’s not all, he also highlighted “other factual inaccuracies” in another two sentences in the article.
The sentences are “Of these nearly 400,000 Singaporeans, 100 are younger than 35 – with 90 between the ages of 30 and 35, and 10 aged 25 to 30” and “The age group with the most number of Singaporeans owning at least S$500,000 (92,880) was between 51 and 55”.
Both these sentences mentioned Singaporeans, but in fact it should be “All CPF Members”, Mr Ang stressed.
Based on these inaccuracies, Mr Ang asked in his email to Mr Lew if Mothership will be issued a Correction Notice by POFMA.
However, the matter was then referred to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), and Mothership’s article was later “updated to accurately reflect the status of CPF members”.
The headline of the article was changed to ‘Nearly 400,000 CPF members have at least S$500,000 in CPF accounts, 100 are aged 35 & below’.
Mothership also replaced the word “Singaporeans” in its earlier write-up to “CPF members”.
Interestingly, Mothership did not update its Facebook post that was sharing the article.
At the time of writing, the headline still appears the same as the initial one.
Why was Mothership allowed to just amend the article without posting a correction notice?
To this, Mr Ang questioned MOM in a separate email – which was also seen by TOC – on why Mothership was allowed to simply amend the article without posting a correction note to inform its readers, which is a standard practice for publications under POFMA.
“And how did the MOM ascertain that the Mothership article was not attempting to spread fake news, ie no need for POFMA office to issue correctional direction?” he asked.
Separately, Mr Ang also said that Mothership’s article highlighted specifically the highest regrossed balance amount of S$500,000 of all CPF members. However, it did not inform readers that there are other important details like more than two million members having less than S$100,000 in their account.
“Was Mothership not trying to mislead?” he questioned.
“Point to note is the ‘fake’ news was easily verifiable. But we needed 11 days to have the article corrected. Without posting a correction note.”
Mothership spared from Correction Notice, but independent news outlets and alternative political parties do not share the same fate
The baffling matter here is that a Correction Notice was not issued by the POFMA office to Mothership for its inaccuracies, but other sites like TOC and The Independent Singapore, as well as alternative political parties like Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) and People’s Voice (PV) have been issued such notices with no hesitation.
In January last year, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) had issued Correction Directions to TOC, journalist Kirsten Han, Yahoo Singapore’s Facebook post, and Malaysian rights group Lawyers for Liberty (LFL) for an article on Singapore’s execution methods in prisons.
In April 2020, the Ministry of Finance (MOF) had also issued Correction Directions to TOC’s Facebook page, PV’s chief Lim Tean, The Temasek Review’s Facebook page, and HardwareZone user ‘darkseidluv’ for sharing an article by a Taiwanese news show on the salary of Temasek Holding’s CEO Ho Ching.
Few months later, the corrections orders were issued by the POFMA Office to SDP, PV, and TOC for publishing an alleged false statement that the CEO of the Housing & Development Board (HDB) had suggested that Singapore’s population will increase to 10 million by 2030.
These are just the many correction directions issued by POFMA to independent sites and alternative parties, but no such order was issued to Mothership for its article.
Background of POFMA
POFMA was enacted in October 2019, which enables authorities to tackle the spread of fake news or false information — particularly from those of foreign origins.
Under the Act, ministers are given the power to order for corrections or removal of online falsehoods, as well as demand for sites spreading such falsehoods to be blocked when they harm public interest.
However, if someone wish to challenge the decisions, it can be done in court after applications to the ministers to vary or cancel the orders are rejected, as the court is the final arbiter.
Mr Low Thia Khiang, former Secretary-General of the Workers’ Party (WP), said in the debate on POFMA that the law gives the minister(s) absolute power to judge what is false and to decide on what action to take.
Mr Low likened it to playing a game in which the minister is both the player and the referee.
“The real aim of the Government through this Bill is to protect the ruling party and achieve political monopoly,” he remarked.