Singapore’s fake news law: countering populists’ falsehoods and truth-making

Singapore’s authoritarian style ot governance has often been the focus of criticism from the West, especially on issues relating to the freedom of speech. However, experts have also argued that features ot Singapore’s strong paternalistic state safeguard the country against the rise of populists and skillful demagogues. These include strong institutions that shape public moralities to protect values like diversity and inclusiveness, rigourously clean and meritocratic institutions, and a commitment to pragmatism and evidence-based policymaking instead of being guided by ideological positions (Tan 2017). The outcome is a high level of trust in the government that fortifies Singapore’s resilience against populism.

Nonetheless, the government has been cautious to dismiss rising populism in Singapore as an unlikely scenario. With populist tides rising both globally and in Asia, the spectre of populism looms over the mindshare of Singapore’s political leaders, and populists gaining a foothold in Singapore’s political terrain is seen a plausible outcome if the existing governance system fails to continue engendering trust in its people. The government has, on several occasions in the past years, cautioned against the social impact of anti-foreigners and xenophobic rhetoric and taken action against websites (e.g. the now-defunct The Real Singapore website) and members of the opposition parties said to fan those sentiments (Lee 2016; Loh 2020).

In November 2019, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke at the 65th People’s Action Party (PAP)’s Conference-Convention about the importance of not letting a disconnect between the elite and the masses take root in Singapore. Citing Chile as an example where populist movements gained traction due to an entrenched split between the elite and the masses, Lee stressed the importance of maintaining the ‘deep reservoir of trust’ with Singaporeans by upholding high standards of honesty, transparency, and integrity in governance (Tee 2019). Similarly, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam has also spoken about the importance of domestic policy responses in tackling issues such as increasing polarisation in politics and the media and an erosion of consensus and a sense of togetherness in society. He stressed that policy interventions such as greater redistribution, encouraging social mixing, and reinforcing social consensus in Singapore would serve as a strong safeguard for Singapore against populism (Yong 2017).

The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA)

On 8 May 2019, Singapore passed the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), which provides the government with the legal power to swiftly act against perpetrators of online falsehoods.

During the second reading of the legislation in Parliament, Minister for Law K. Shanmugam cited populism as a serious consequence of online falsehoods and articulated the need for a law like POFMA. He highlighted how a lack of regulation of the online space resulted in fertile conditions for populist movements globally, where populists mobilise falsehoods to attack institutions, invoke divisive rhetoric, use conspiracy theories to oversimplify complex issues, and persuade people based on untruths. This has led people to lose faith in institutions, opening the doors to populism, which further exploits and deepens this trust deficit. He explained how legislation can help protect the foundations of a healthy democracy, which include trust, free speech, and the infrastructure of fact (Shanmugam 2019). In other words, POFMA can be understood as one example of Singapore’s response to populism — particularly in the form of populism-fuelled falsehoods and populists’ truth-making — to restore confidence in public institutions in the face of rising populism globally.

Singapore’s ministers can invoke POFMA upon the fulfilment of two conditions — first, when there is digital dissemination of a ‘false statement of fact’, which excludes satire, opinion, or criticism and second, when a false statement of fact is deemed harmful to society, such as by undermining public interest in areas like security and public health, inciting ill will among communities, and the diminution of public confidence.

A false statement of fact can either be issued a ‘correction direction’ or a ‘stop communication direction’. In the former, the falsehood will be allowed to remain online, but relevant actors must comply by putting up corrective information provided by the government alongside the falsehood. This will allow people to ‘see both sides of the story’ and make an informed decision for themselves. In contrast, a stop communication direction (or a ‘take-down’ direction) will be issued in egregious situations to promptly stem the spread of a falsehood by ensuring its removal so that it will no longer be available on the internet.

In both scenarios, the use of POFMA is subject to judicial review, and an appeal may be made to the high court to overturn the minister’s order, which the government has argued prevents it from being the final arbiter of truth (Tham 2019).

Since coming into effect on 2 October 2019, POFMA has been invoked against falsehoods of a wide variety, including falsehoods about Singapore’s education spending, population policies, and criminal justice system. As of December 2020, eight cases of falsehoods relating to the COVID-19 outbreak have also received correction orders.

The controversies surrounding POFMA

The controversial passing of POFMA was met with pushback from members of civil society, media practitioners, and academics, all of whom voiced concerns about the legislation in a few areas.

First, many felt that the language of the law was too broad and sweeping, giving the government too much discretionary power when using it. For example, although POFMA targets falsehoods that ‘diminish public confidence in a state body’, the definition of ‘diminishing public confidence’ remains vague, allowing ministers to have extremely broad latitude to decide what that entails (Vaswani 2019).

Second, critics argued that POFMA allows the government to decide what is factual as only ministers, but not opposition politicians or members of the public, can trigger corrections or take-down orders. With POFMA designed as a tool for exclusive use by the government, some feared that the law could be abused to clamp down on political dissent and to stifle the opposition. Since coming into force, POFMA has been used in multiple instances against opposition politicians and well-known critics of the state, reinforcing the perception that POFMA serves to strengthen the hegemony of the PAP government by monopolising the means of shaping public narratives, instead of cleaning up cyberspace (George 2019).

Third, media experts have pointed out that POFMA may have a chilling effect on speech, resulting in the worsening of a self-censorship culture. Research has found that self-censorship is already prevalent in Singapore. For example, the 2018 Reuters Institute Digital News Report found that 63 percent of Singaporeans were concerned that expressing their political views openly on the internet could get them into trouble with the authorities (Newman et al. 2018). With the addition of POFMA to the government’s arsenal of speech laws, ordinary citizens may become even more hesitant to comment on socio-political issues online (Guest 2019).

 
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