Anti-fake news law needed to help preserve social cohesion: Heng Swee Keat

Nicholas Yong
Assistant News Editor
Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat (left), in dialogue with Ambassador Ong Keng Yong at the International Conference on Cohesive Societies (ICCS) at Raffles City Convention Centre on Friday, 21 June 2019. PHOTO: ICCS

SINGAPORE — In an era marked by disruptions from global trade, technological advancement and human migration, Singapore’s anti-fake news law is one means of preserving the country’s social cohesion, said Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat on Friday (21 June).

“These three forces have combined in a way that has not worked for some people, and this has fuelled tension and conflict,” said Heng, who was delivering the closing remarks at the International Conference on Cohesive Societies (ICCS).

The situation has been exacerbated by the ease with which falsehoods and extremist ideas proliferate online, he noted.

As such, there is “legislation to ensure that our fault-lines are less easily exploited by those who seek to do us harm”, Heng said. He pointed to the use of laws like the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act and Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) to deal with hate speech and the spread of misinformation.

“We are not against free speech (but) we must prevent the negatives from spreading. Online falsehoods can be spread very, very quickly.”

Singapore has “learnt how to build cohesion the hard way”, noting that racially motivated riots in the 1950s and 1960s led to 58 people being killed and 835 injured, the 57-year-old said at the event held in Raffles City Convention Centre.

The country adopted a strategy of expanding common spaces and shared experiences, while preserving racial and religious diversity and guarding against forces that can tear society apart, he added.

Towards these goals, Singapore adopted measures such as instituting English as the common working language, and the Ethnic Integration Policy, which ensures a balanced ethnic mix in public housing estates, the DPM, who is the heir apparent to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, pointed out.

Heng noted that the Pew Research Centre has named Singapore as the most religiously diverse country in the world. But he warned, “Our increasing diversity means that our common spaces will be harder to maintain, and must be deliberately nurtured and expanded.”

Controversial law

The anti-fake news law, also known as POFMA, has been the subject of intense debate and scrutiny since its first reading in Parliament in April.

The Bill triggered widespread concerns such as the definition of what constitutes a falsehood, the powers to be given to individual ministers to deal with falsehoods, and the potentially adverse impact it would have on free speech.

It was passed in Parliament on 8 May.

Former Straits Times editor-in-chief Peter Lim, who attended the ICCS, told Yahoo News Singapore that while he felt the Bill was necessary to curb misinformation, “the worst part of the law” is the scope that it gives to ministers to determine what is fake news.

“The effect is that the complainant is also the investigator and the prosecutor. That’s wrong.They should not be the ones to decide that this is fake news. They are the involved party, so let somebody more objective do it,” said Lim, who advocated the use of an independent office to investigate fake news.

“Having said that, we got to live with it, because it has been passed in Parliament. How the law is administered, we got to watch it,” Lim added.

The ICCS brought together more than 1,000 delegates from close to 40 countries to discuss challenges facing social cohesion, and strengthen inter-religious and inter-cultural understanding globally.

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