It was an information war to beat all other verbal contests in Singapore. In its intensity, clarity and agility, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam’s campaign to win over the sceptics of the Bill aimed at fighting fake news was unprecedented in recent Singapore history. He was out there smiling, explaining and, sometimes even, cajoling, the hand-picked doubters to his way of thinking on a legislation that was passed after a heated debate over two days on 8 May.
Nearly every inch was covered; even a famous Ah Lian was not left out. This popular internet personality and the alter ego of actress Michelle Chong interviewed the Minister but Shanmugam appeared a little stiff. When she tried to give him a high five, he seemed to be taken aback, then rushed off. He also met many of the dissenting academics and senior counsel Harpreet Singh, wrote a commentary in The Straits Times and appeared in a video on Vulcan Post - the theme was the same and it was displayed in his serious yet smiling style.
Shanmugam was consistent in his messaging: The proposed legislation was narrower in scope with provision for the public and organisations to seek redress in court, was not against opinion but misleading facts and not against free speech.
Despite the blistering public relations blitz, the divide doesn’t seem to have been narrowed. Even after Shanmugam’s explanations and assurances, three NMPs pushed for changes to some aspects of the Bill in Parliament including inserting a clause that outlines key principles to guide the exercise of powers under the Act and creating an independent Council to provide oversight on the use of executive powers. The Bill went through with no change, except for some assurances that amendments can be made in subsidiary legislation. That had an instant comeback from one of the NMPs, who said that such changes will not be presented for parliamentary scrutiny.
In voting against the proposed law, the Workers’ Party was vocal in its opposition with its former secretary general, Low Thia Khiang, describing it as the government being both the player and referee. Now that the Bill has been passed by Parliament with 72 ruling party MPs and NMPs saying yes, nine opposition parliamentarians saying no and three NMPs abstaining, a more arduous task is at hand – healing the wounds that the debate has opened up.
It is not just your usual suspects who called the government out. Respected members of society like academics, lawyers and NMPs have shown their apprehension. With Shanmugam not prepared to concede on any suggestion they brought up, the stage is set for the next fight. That is likely to take place when the first cases come up with the possibility that old issues will be dug up if these people feel that the grounds against those who are found guilty are vague or unfair. This is the cross the government has to carry in its implementation. Even in the best of laws, it is how they are implemented that the public will decide the government’s sincerity. Each fake news report it acts against will have to be watertight.
Then there is the point that no society, let alone the one in Singapore, will remain static. With the explosion of information and opinions, Singaporeans’ expectations of a first world society, not just in the standard of living but also in areas like fairness, human spirit and inclusiveness will come to the fore. Take OB Markers as an example. The markers on matters like race and religion will continue to be generally accepted, but on other sensitive matters like LGBT rights, workers’ rights, foreign labour and inequality, the attitudes towards them are changing and more receptive. There is no way the government can ignore shifts like these as Singaporeans continue to talk about them openly and vociferously.
When society progresses and matures eventually, Singaporeans will be able to differentiate between falsehoods and facts. As this happens, the government must be ready to relook at some of the disputed parts of the law and even amend them. The hope is that Shanmugam - or his successor as Law Minister - will be as committed and intense to push for the changes.
P N Balji is a veteran Singaporean journalist who was formerly chief editor of Today, as well as an editor at The New Paper. He is currently a media consultant. The views expressed are his own.