SINGAPORE — The Workers’ Party (WP) argued against the proposed fake news law on Tuesday (7 May) with its Member of Parliament (MP) for Aljunied GRC Low Thia Khiang saying it is a ploy by the government to cement its “absolute power”.
Speaking in Parliament during the second reading of the Protection against Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, Low said that the draft law comes with a hidden agenda by the government.
“To introduce such a bill is not what the government claims to defend democracy and public interest, it is more like the actions of a dictatorial government that will resort to any means to hold on to absolute power,” said Low, who was speaking in Mandarin.
Low expressed concern that the Bill calls for wide powers to be vested in ministers who can determine what is online falsehood, saying it is akin to a minister who is both a player and a referee during a match.
“How can we be sure that the ministers from the ruling party will not manipulate opinions and spread falsehoods in order to win elections?” Low argued.
The veteran opposition politician said the definition of online falsehoods is vague and could be manipulated by the government to its advantage.
Under the Bill, “a statement is false if it is false or misleading, whether wholly or in part, and whether on its own or in the context in which it appears”.
Saying that he has no faith in the government to deal with the issue impartially, he gave two examples to underscore his concerns.
“Will the government show its true colours (after the law is passed)? For example, if I say the Pioneer and Merdeka Generations packages are to buy votes, is this opinion or information?”
Citing the statement that “the older generation cannot accept a non-Chinese prime minister”, Low said, “If this were to come from the minister himself or his supporters, the minister may say this is a personal opinion. However, if this were to come from the minister’s political opponents on social media, the minister may say that spreading such falsehoods will create racial conflicts, endangering national security.”
The law, if passed, will curb freedom of expression and compel people to protect themselves by engaging in self-censorship, according to Low.
“The government can selectively punish a few offenders to achieve a chilling effect, to scare the monkey by slaughtering the chicken,” he said, referring to a Chinese proverb 杀鸡儆猴.
Earlier in Parliament, WP Secretary-General Pritam Singh also expressed similar concerns about the Bill.
There has been “significant disquiet even amongst moderate and politically disengaged members of the public” about powers that would be accorded to ministers under the Bill, said Pritam.
In Singapore’s history, there have been episodes where decisions made by the government were questioned by members of the public, Pritam said. Citing the Operation Spectrum or the Marxist conspiracy of 1987, he pointed out that even Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam had expressed doubts in an interview on whether the detainees were communist conspirators.
Instead of ministers, Pritam argued that the courts should be the decision-makers right from the start on matters concerning deliberate online falsehoods and manipulation.
“The fact that this Bill would have to regulate what some reasonable people may well interpret as an expression of free speech under Article 14 of our Constitution, must to give us reason to pause and question whether the courts are better placed to exercise judgment on this point,” he said.