Wednesday, 27 September 2023

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Application of POFMA faces criticism for overlooking alleged SLA falsehoods amidst ministerial bungalow rental controversy

SINGAPORE – On Sunday (16 Jul), Mr Edwin Tong, the Second Minister for Law, issued Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) correction directions to Mr Kenneth Jeyaretnam, Secretary General of the Reform Party, Mr Thamil Selvan, and online publication Jom.

These actions were taken in response to various articles and social media posts that alleged irregularities related to the rental of two black-and-white bungalows on Ridout Road by Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam and Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan.

The controversy began in early May when it emerged that the two ministers were renting these iconic properties, managed by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA).

Mr Jeyaretnam stoked public interest by raising questions about the rental arrangement, suggesting that the ministers might be enjoying rents below the fair market value, especially since the SLA is a statutory board overseen by the Minister for Law.

However, investigations by the Corruption Practices Investigation Bureau and Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean found no evidence of any criminal wrongdoing or preferential treatment given to the ministers.

Law practitioner expressed disappointment with the PAP Government’s misuse of POFMA against Jom

Mr Yeoh Lian Chuan, a lawyer, expressed his disappointment with the PAP Government’s misuse of POFMA against Jom, stating “bad law badly used by the PAP Government” in his opinion.

Addressing Jom’s claims about the cost of the renovations, the ministries stressed that the tenants’ identities had no bearing on the expenditure.

They explained that the renovations were undertaken according to SLA’s standard practices and assessed as necessary given the condition of the properties and the requirements for their conservation.

The Ministry of Law (MinLaw) and the Ministry of Communication and Information (MCI) also clarified that the government had not issued any requests to Meta, Instagram’s parent company, to geo-block Charles Yeo’s post.

Yeo’s post was blocked for Singapore viewers, and Meta had stated it restricted access to the content in the location where it goes against local law after it had conducted a legal and human rights assessment in light of a legal request.

With respect to the Geo-blocking of Mr Charles Yeo’s post, Mr Yeoh pointed out that it appears that Jom had based its reporting on a response from Meta that it blocked the content after review of a court order received.

“The POFMA correction order did not (in my view) clearly debunk this – saying only that the Government did not issue any direction or order.”

“For the record, I consider that the allegation against Ravindran Shanmugam and Livspace is entirely false and unfounded. I do not support false narratives being promulgated about this.”

Concerning Ridout Road, the POFMA correction order claimed that Jom stated $1m was spent on renovations because Ministers were tenants, but Mr Yeoh highlighted that Jom neither expressly nor implicitly implied this.

“Nor did Jom expressly say nor (in my opinion) imply that SM Teo said nothing else about conflict of interest in Parliament beyond his observation about the spirit and the text.”

Mr Yeoh: SM Teo was not the right man to lead the review

On the question of potential conflict, he respectfully disagreed with Minister Shanmugam asking DS law for a list of properties, and recusal alone did not resolve all potential conflict issues since the decision-makers on SLA’s side were still the Minister’s subordinates.

“To me, SM Teo needed to have taken full charge of the transaction but he did not. Hence in my view SM Teo was not the right man to lead the review.”

For the above reasons, Mr Yeoh opined that the POFMA correction direction was “mis-aimed and bad”.

“In particular the PAP Government has the habit of POFMA-ing not what was actually said but words or interpretations of its own – a bad practice that ought to be deprecated.”

Mr Yeoh further challenged the SLA’s statement of 12 May contained false or misleading assertions in more than one respect, yet it stands un-corrected, such as the Minister offering below the acceptable rent to SLA, SLA counter-offering to rent the property at the lowest permissible rate, and the process not being a tender or auction.

In the SLA’s statement, it was mentioned that Mr Shanmugam was the sole bidder for the 26 Ridout Road property, while Dr Vivian Balakrishnan emerged as the highest bidder for the 31 Ridout Road property.

In a previous Facebook post on 7th July, Mr Yeoh had already pointed out that the CPIB later clarified the inaccuracy of stating that Minister Shanmugam paid more than the Guide Rent, as SLA had adopted a mistaken interpretation of what the Guide Rent should be.

In the CPIB report, the anti-corruption bureau noted that:

CPIB discovered that there was a lack of precision in SLA’s use of the term “Guide Rent”. As a result of this lack of precision, the earlier SLA statement dated 12 May 2023 that the offer by the tenant ($26,500) was above the Guide Rent was incorrect. In fact, the $26,500 rental Minister Shanmugam paid was equal to the correct Guide Rent on the property.

It turned out there was no auction or tender process, and that Minister Balakrishnan had put in a private bid which was higher than 2 separate bids made some months earlier and which had not been accepted by SLA.

Mr Yeoh reminded that according to the standard of truth under POFMA, if a statement can be interpreted in more than one way if it is false or misleading according to at least one interpretation reasonable people could adopt, then it can be found to be false or misleading.

Questioning the government’s double standards

Andrew Loh, co-founder of The Online Citizen, echoed the same sentiment, questioning the government’s double standards.

Andrew Loh criticized the government’s blatant double standards, pointing out the falsehoods in SLA’s misleading statement, including the claim that Shanmugam paid higher than the guide price, a matter confirmed as untrue by the CPIB, highlighting the irony of Pofma’s purpose.

Referring to Mr. Yeoh’s opinion, Mr Loh pointed out that, as the parliamentary debate showed, the ministers engaged in a direct transaction process for the Ridout Road property, rather than an open bidding process as claimed by the SLA.

“Also, the SLA statement said Shanmugam paid higher than the guide price. The CPIB found that this was not true.”

SLA’s falsehoods are “factually false”

Hence, Mr Loh called out the SLA falsehoods are “factually false”, exactly the kind of falsehoods which we were told Pofma was for.

“Yet the Pofma Office does nothing about SLA’s falsehood, and instead goes after others.”

Andrew Loh criticized the current state of Pofma orders, finding them meaningless due to perceived bias and government abuse.

“The fact that the SLA’s falsehoods are ignored by the government tells you all you need to know about Pofma and its abuse.”

Additionally, he questioned the effectiveness of Pofma notices, doubting that people actually read or believe the government’s version of events when demanded to be posted.

LHY reshared Mr Yeoh and Mr Loh’s opinion

Mr. Lee Hsien Yang (LHY), the younger son of Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, also re-shared Andrew Loh and Mr Yeoh’s Facebook post, indicating that he shares the same perspective as many other Singaporeans who doubt the POFMA office’s ability to consistently address falsehoods.

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