Singapore’s authoritarian conundrums in using POFMA
While the government laid out its rationale for enacting strong legislation to stem populists’ falsehoods and truth-making, its approach to how POFMA has been designed and used signals the recognition of two conundrums that it has to contend with so that the use of POFMA would not paradoxically enable a populist opposition to make significant political gains.
First, although POFMA offers a strong and swift response against falsehoods that erode public trust, an over-reliance on this repressive and strong-handed response risks backfiring on the governments legitimacy if the law is not perceived to be used judiciously or is seen as unjustified legislative overreach. This may cause the government to lose credibility and trust, ironically making the Singapore electorate more susceptible to the appeals of a populist opposition, the very enemy it was fighting in the first place.
Second, an over-use of POFMA may have a serious chilling effect on speech, leading people to self-censor on the internet to avoid getting into trouble with the law. This may result in a counterproductive situation in which the government becomes less sentient of peoples genuine sentiments, concerns, and dissatisfactions. One example of such a situation is China during its early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak, when the Chinese government’s digital surveillance and censorship tactics for managing online dissent made citizens too afraid to talk about the virus for fear of being punished for spreading ‘rumours’, paradoxically stifling online conversations that would have offered signals about a potential viral outbreak (Tufecki 2020). In other words, the chilling effect of POFMA may lead to an inaccurate picture of public opinion, thus weakening the government’s ability to anticipate challenges and adjust its strategies in response to shifts on the ground to bolster political support for the long run. This also gives populists political mileage to portray the government as ‘not in touch’ with the ground, reinforcing the populist narrative of a split between the elite and the masses.
The rest of this chapter highlights two approaches that the government has employed to solve the aforementioned dilemmas so that it may continue justifying the use of repressive tools without implicating its credibility in a manner that would allow a populist opposition to significantly challenge its legitimacy in the long run.
From repression to calibrated coercion
First, the government has been measured and calibrated in both its design and use of POFMA.
While the government had historically taken a heavy-handed approach to managing political dissent and criticism during the early stages of nation-building, its governance style has since strategically shifted to a light-touch approach. In his analysis of press controls in Singapore, George (2007) introduced the concept of ‘calibrated coercion’, in which the state is able to deploy repressive tools against dissenters yet incur minimum political cost. George argued that the advantages of calibrated coercion include reducing the prominence of coercive tactics in the public consciousness and minimising backlash and moral outrage from the public that may be strategically leveraged by a populist opposition to the government. Furthermore, calibrated coercion involves ‘a dynamic process of creatively adapting regulations to suit recent experience and changed circumstances . . . quickly responding to news technologies. . . [that] pose a threat to [the government’s] political control’ (George 2007, p. 142).
In this respect, the calibrated design and use of POFMA can be understood as an extension of the government’s strategy to discipline the online space in a way that uses just enough coercion to get the job done.
Firstly, the government has argued that the calibrated design of POFMA narrows its powers by allowing for more proportionate and measured responses (compared to existing legislation such as the Sedition Act and the Defamation Act, which are blunt and sweeping) (Mohktar 2019). For example, a correction direction against a falsehood, which the government has also said would be the primary response for most situations, allows the falsehood itself to remain accessible on the internet as long as the corrective information is published alongside it. Similarly, a stop communication direction would apply only to the content containing the falsehood — which must be made unavailable — but leaves the rest of the website available online. Heavier penalties, such as cutting off a websites revenue stream or shutting it down, would happen only if it received three directions within a period of six months. Hence, the calibrated design of POFMA grants room for the government to justify its use of the law in a manner that is synergistic with creating a public image of upholding free speech.
Secondly, on top of its calibrated design, the government’s use of the law has also been calibrated thus far. Since the law came into effect, every instance of the governments use of POFMA has involved only the issue of correction directions, rather than its deploying the more extreme features of the law, such as take-downs. Tougher actions, such as compelling social media platforms to restrict access to certain websites, have only been taken when there has been noncompliance. Furthermore, the government has been cautious in ensuring that its use is targeted and narrow enough not to affect most Singaporeans directly, thus reducing the salience of its coercive tactics in Singaporeans’ consciousness.
In other words, the government’s calibrated design of POFMA and its measured use of the law (thus far) play a role in allowing the government to respond strongly against any populists’ falsehoods that undermine public trust while not catching itself in a bind where the salience of its coercion backfires on its legitimacy and counterproductively give populists greater political mileage.