Ms Foo Chi Hsia, UK High Commissioner for Singapore has defended the newly passed law, Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) by writing a letter to the Economist, in response to an article, “Singapore strikes its first official blows against fake news” published earlier this month, stating that Singapore’s laws are designed to meet its own context and needs.
The 7 Dec article on Economist was reporting on the correction made by US tech giant, Facebook on a post published by States Times Review (STR) in its social media platform under the instructions of the Singapore government.
The article reported that the post had alleged that the country’s elections are rigged and that the next one could “possibly turn Singapore into a Christian state”.
It wrote, “The idea that the ruling People’s Action Party is trying to turn Singapore into a theocracy is absurd—even “scurrilous”, as the government put it. (The contention that it rigs elections is more defensible, although it does so not by stuffing ballot boxes, but by making life difficult for its critics and threatening adverse consequences for areas that vote for the opposition. It has won every general election in the past 60 years.)”
Besides noting that STR founder, Alex Tan had refused to comply with the order to publish a correction notice under POFMA, it also commented about the correction order instructed upon politician, Brad Bowyer by Deputy Prime Minister, Heng Swee Keat where it opined that while “Bowyer’s post had indeed contained errors, on which the authorities seized. But its main contention—that the government’s investments were not as well managed as they could be—is clearly a subjective matter.”
The hubbub over the two orders relates more to the display of pofma’s powers than to the details of the posts themselves. The law aims “to prevent the electronic communication in Singapore of false statements of fact” and “to suppress support for and counteract the effects of such communication”, among other things. It allows any minister, upon declaring a particular statement to be false, to order its removal or correction. A special pofma office advises ministers on how best to act. It also offers codes of practice to digital platforms.
The article also reported on the opposition that POFMA had from the human rights groups, a UN Special Rapporteur and “a cluster of tech firms”, noting that the law is part of “a host of other legislation which already keeps critics in check”.
“The country’s constitution limits free speech with “such restrictions as it considers necessary or expedient”. Contempt-of-court law has been used to target the odd journalist, cartoonist or blogger. Defamation cases trouble other outspoken figures. Singapore sits below Russia, Afghanistan and many of its own neighbours in the latest ranking of press freedom compiled by Reporters Without Borders, a watchdog.” wrote the Economist article.
Ms Foo in her letter, sought to correct Economist’s description of the two posts which were issued with correction orders by supplementing with further information of the falsehoods contained within the posts.
Pointing that Economist itself agrees with the problem of online falsehoods, Ms Foo defended POFMA by stating that Singapore as “a small English-speaking, multiracial, multi-religious city-state open to the world”, is more vulnerable than most legislatures to this threat.
“We have no ambition to set any example for other countries, but neither do we make any apologies for defending our own interests.” said Ms Foo.
The full letter from Ms Foo, titled, “Free speech in Singapore”
Contrary to your report (“False alarm”, December 7th), our Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act should be looked at in the same context as our belief in the right of reply, which in our view enhances rather than reduces the quality of public discourse, and strengthens and safeguards proper public accountability that must necessarily underpin democracies. Online posts that have been corrected remain available in full, but with links to the government’s response appended. Readers can see both and decide for themselves which is the truth. How does twinning factual replies to falsehoods limit free speech?
You also misrepresented the falsehoods that the government corrected. One post not only accused the government of rigging elections and conspiring to convert Singapore into a Christian theocracy, but also made false claims that it had arrested specific critics. Another did not only question the “investment nous of Singapore’s sovereign-wealth funds”, but based this on false allegations of losses that never occurred. The Economist itself recognises how serious a problem online falsehoods are, for example in “Anglichanka strikes again” (April 21st 2018). Fake stories have influenced British politics, notably in the Brexit campaign. Legislatures around the world have been grappling with this problem.
Singapore, a small English-speaking, multiracial, multi-religious city-state open to the world, is more vulnerable than most to this threat. Having observed in Britain and elsewhere the cost of doing nothing, we decided to act. Singapore’s laws are designed to meet our own context and needs. We have no ambition to set any example for other countries, but neither do we make any apologies for defending our own interests.