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POFMA and selective enforcement: A matter of principle or abuse?

Singapore government apparently has been reluctant to issue POFMA directions against prestigious media outlets, entities and individuals.

Introduced on 8 May 2019, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) was heralded by the People’s Action Party (PAP) government as a necessary tool to curb the proliferation of fake news and ward off foreign interference.

Under POFMA, any minister may issue the following orders to publishers of falsehoods, if it is in the public interest to do so.

However, over the years, POFMA’s usage has been largely targeted at local entities and individuals rather than foreign publications, leading to questions regarding its implementation and ultimate purpose.

Since its inception, approximately 100 POFMA directions have been issued by various ministers. (View the compilation done by myself)

Minister K Shanmugam stands out as the most frequent issuer, with a record of 12 instances, a number that rises when considering directives connected to controversies such as the Minister’s Ridout Road rental issue.

Most recipients of these directives are activists, politicians, non-governmental organisations, and alternative media like The Online Citizen (TOC). Notably, the majority of directives issued during the 2020 general election—nearly 30—were directed at Singapore-based alternative publications and political parties.

Simultaneously, there have been incidents where Singaporean diplomats opted for rebuttal letters rather than POFMA directions to counter what they considered misrepresentations by foreign media outlets.

Below is a non-exhaustive list of notable incidents where the Singapore government chose not to issue a POFMA directive even when it was claimed that a ‘falsehood’ was being communicated.

  1. Nikkei Asian Review, July 2020: Singapore’s Ambassador to Japan, Peter Tan Hai Chuan, rebutted an article titled “Coronavirus and Inequality Threaten to Unsettle Singapore Election.” He accused the writer, Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh, of painting a distorted picture of the situation. However, no POFMA directive was issued.
  2. Foreign Policy, May 2020: Ambassador to the United States, Ashok Kumar Mirpuri, wrote a letter to the editor-in-chief, Jonathan Tepperman, to refute an article by Singaporean Kirsten Han. The piece criticized Singapore’s handling of the migrant worker COVID-19 crisis as utilitarian and dehumanising. Mirpuri disagreed with Han’s view, but again, no POFMA directive followed.
  3. Eastern Broadcasting Company News Programme, April 2020: A Taiwanese news programme broadcast by Eastern Broadcasting Company made claims that the annual salary of Ho Ching, CEO of Temasek Holdings, was “around S$100 million.”In response, Singapore’s Minister for Finance, Heng Swee Keat, rather than issuing a POFMA correction direction against the Taiwanese news source, opted to have the POFMA office issue four correction directions to four different Singaporean entities and an individual who referenced the claim made by the news programme. Despite the international source of the claim, no POFMA directive was issued against Eastern Broadcasting Company.
  4. The Economist, December 2019 and July 2023: High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Foo Chi Hsia, directed a rebuttal to the publication over its coverage of POFMA, insisting the Act does not limit free speech but enhances public discourse. The High Commissioner to the UK, Mr Lim Thuan Kuan, also rebutted allegations by The Economist questioning the independence of Singapore’s anti-graft agency, the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB). Despite the strong counterarguments, no POFMA directives were issued in both instances.
  5. Nikkei Asia, July 2021: Senior director from the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), Sam Tee, called out inaccuracies in an opinion piece titled “The institutional failures behind Singapore’s latest COVID outbreak.” He noted that the author’s comments were not fact-based but imagined realities. Despite this claim, no POFMA directive was issued.

A case which did not involve a diplomat was the Private Banking Industry Group (PBIG) denying claims made in a recent report by the Financial Times in April this year that the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) had issued a “tacit directive” to banks instructing them to avoid discussing the sources of wealth inflows into the country. The Minister of Finance did not issue a POFMA directive against Financial Times.

None of these foreign media and entity incidents led to issuing a POFMA directive, despite the serious allegations or misrepresentation, suggesting a reluctance to employ the act against foreign publications.

As for individuals, MHA accused British billionaire Richard Branson of spreading alleged falsehoods about Singapore in November last year. Branson suggested that certain developments should give Singaporeans “cause for concern,” implying racial bias and claiming that recent executions targeted small-scale drug traffickers.

MHA refuted these assertions, suggesting that Branson was influenced by local activists with personal agendas. Despite the Ministry’s strong objection to Branson’s statements, no POFMA directive was issued against him.

On 18 May 2021, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal tweeted about a new, allegedly extremely dangerous coronavirus variant in Singapore, claiming that it could result in a third wave of infections in India, without providing any supporting evidence.

Instead of issuing a POFMA directive to Kejriwal for his tweet, Singapore’s Minister for Health opted to issue correction directions to Facebook, Twitter, and SPH Magazines Pte Ltd (HardwareZone forum). Despite the misinformation originating from an international politician, no POFMA directive was issued against Kejriwal himself.

The reasons for not issuing POFMA directives by the Singapore ministers could be multifaceted. Perhaps there is a concern about the international repercussions of enforcing POFMA against prestigious media outlets, entities and individuals.

Blocking access to these sites and celebrities could provoke global condemnation and risk scaring off foreign investments. Moreover, the potential futility of enforcing POFMA against entities outside Singapore’s jurisdiction may also explain the government’s choice for diplomatic rebuttals instead.

On the other hand, POFMA has been employed without hesitation against local individuals and entities, raising questions about its perceived primary purpose.

The few instances where POFMA directives have been issued against foreign entities, such as Lawyers for Liberty in Malaysia, and Asia Sentinel in California, have generally been perceived as low-risk scenarios.

The Singapore government could anticipate limited repercussions from these instances, and even a potential failure to comply might lead to just blocking the sites rather than a full-fledged diplomatic crisis.

Its selective application against activists, politicians, NGOs, and alternative media has led to a growing perception that POFMA is less about curtailing fake news or foreign interference and more about controlling local dissenting voices.

This selective enforcement of POFMA contradicts its proposed intent of preventing fake news and foreign interference, thereby raising the law’s principles into question.

The situation lends weight to criticisms suggesting that POFMA has become a tool for the PAP to suppress opposition and alternative voices rather than tackling disinformation.

This narrative finds echoes in a recent Facebook post by Lee Hsien Yang, where he noted that the trust placed in the PAP had been ‘shattered’—a statement which, illustratively, was subject to a POFMA direction.

The application of POFMA and its relationship with the government’s diplomatic strategy presents a conundrum.

Is POFMA simply a convenient tool wielded to maintain domestic political control while avoiding international confrontations? Or is it a symbol of broken trust, as suggested by Lee Hsien Yang?

This is 10 of 60 articles written for the already completed S$30k fundraising of Terry Xu’s contempt of court fine and cost. To see the full list of the 60 articles, visit this page.

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