COMMENT - Truths, half-truths, opinions: where does POFMA stand?

Red Computer Keyboard with balloons showing Fake News or Facts
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SINGAPORE — Barely two months after a controversial piece of legislation on fake news took effect on 2 October, the Singapore government struck with lightning speed by throwing the book at one politician, followed by two political parties and a website and demanding corrections to what the government calls misleading information.

An examination of two of the cases shows the government is going into the grey areas of the legislation. Despite assurances that opinions are okay, opposition politician Brad Bowyer’s blog post claiming that the government has a say in the investment decisions of GIC and Temasek Holdings makes one wonder what is actually an opinion.

Arguments can be mounted either way. It is not an opinion because Bowyer’s assertion cannot be proven and so fails the test of law. It is an opinion because he drew a conclusion from the fact that the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister are the chairman and deputy chairman respectively of GIC and a former senior minister, Lim Boon Heng, is the chairman of Temasek. Both opinions have different shades of the truth, for sure.

But Bowyer’s case was weakened because he did not get his facts right on Singapore’s stake in helping to build a new capital city for the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh and Temasek’s investment in a debt-laden company. Reality check: Get all your facts right if you want to maintain the credibility of your arguments and opinions.

Opposition politician Lim Tean’s point that foreign tertiary students get the lion’s share of government bursaries and scholarships can be debated till one reaches the cul de sac. The government insists that the Lim Team statement does not give the full story as it doesn’t factor in many other monetary benefits that Singapore students get.

I would argue that commentators and politicians need to be balanced and responsible when they write and speak. Also, they need to ask what kind of impression their points of view leave behind with the reader. Lim Tean fails this test, but marking his post as fake news does not fit the spirit of the law as Law Minister K Shanmugam has taken pains in the run-up to its implementation to emphasise that it is narrow in scope.

The other two cases are easier to deal with. The Singapore Democratic Party’s post that more PMETs have been retrenched have been shown be not true. And for the party to say that they got the information from The Straits Times just doesn’t cut it. The guiding principle must be to always go to the source – in this case, the Ministry of Manpower.

The fourth example is the States Times Review which, true to form, deserved to be shamed. It has always been mischievous in its content and its latest was no different. So why bother to call it out? Knowing full well that the publisher, in the safety of Australia, cannot be punished, the target had to be Facebook as the article was posted on its platform.

Where does this leave the government and its war on fake news?

One, it will go all the way to define fake news very narrowly. It can go after those who write opinion articles even if they are based on some facts, but not the full facts.

Two, the government will always win because it has all the facts, many of them not in the public domain, and will use them to prove that it is right.

Three, proving your point can be impossible. In Bowyer’s case, there is no evidence of government interference in GIC and Temasek’s decisions. Inference alone is not going to get you anywhere.

With elections round the corner and with the first few actions by the government raising questions, it might be the right time for those fingered to test the decisions in court.

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 and author of the best-selling “Reluctant Editor: The Singapore Media as Seen through the Eyes of a Veteran Newspaper Journalist”. The views expressed are his own.

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