MOM's use of POFMA against SDP is 'not appropriate': party chair Paul Tambyah

Nicholas Yong
Assistant News Editor
(PHOTO: Yahoo News Singapore file photo, Facebook / SDP)

SINGAPORE — Manpower Minister Josephine Teo’s invocation of a controversial anti-fake news law against the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) was not an appropriate use of the legislation, as it is meant to be applied to “obvious, deliberate falsehoods”, argued the SDP in the High Court on Thursday (16 January).

SDP chairman Paul Tambyah told reporters after the hearing that the party’s statements, which were deemed false by Teo, were made based on a “reasonable interpretation” of publicly available data that was provided by the Manpower Ministry (MOM).

The application by the SDP against Teo over her directives is the first legal challenge to a Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulations Act (POFMA) order. Led by SDP chief Chee Soon Juan, the party, which is unrepresented, gave its arguments before Justice Ang Cheng Hock in chambers. It was not open to the media or members of the public.

“What we’re taking issue with is, MOM then takes its case, presents its data in a certain manner, and then uses it to say ours is false. That is the point of contention,” Dr Chee said to reporters.

Background to the case

Three correction directives were issued against SDP under POFMA, over two Facebook posts and an online article by the party titled, “SDP Population Policy: Hire S’poreans First, Retrench S’poreans last”.

The posts on SDP’s Facebook page, dated 30 November and 2 December last year, had contained links to the article, published on 8 June last year, which “contains a false statement of fact”, said MOM, pertaining to the party’s allegation of a rising trend of local PMET (professionals, managers, executives, and technicians) unemployment.

A “misleading graphic” depicting plunging local PMET employment was also attached to the 2 December sponsored post, it added.

The SDP complied with the request to add a correction note to each of the Facebook posts and the article, which read in part, “This post contains a false statement of fact. There is no rising trend of local PMET retrenchment. Local PMET employment has in fact increased consistently and continues to do so today.”

But on 2 January, the SDP called for Teo to retract the directives and issue an “immediate, unambiguous and public apology” over the matter.

The party applied to MOM to have the corrections cancelled the next day, but Teo rejected its applications three days later. On 8 January, the SDP announced that it had filed a court challenge against Teo, calling POFMA “an unfair weapon of the ruling party” and the issue of foreign PMETs a “controversial policy”.

No hearing in open court

Singapore Democratic Party chairman Paul Tambyah emerges from the High Court. PHOTO: Nicholas Yong/Yahoo News Singapore

Earlier, Justice Ang rejected the SDP’s application for the hearing to be held in open court. Deputy Attorney-General (DAG) Hri Kumar Nair told reporters after the decision that Justice Ang did not see any "special reason" to have the hearing in open court.

Dr Chee noted that a key issue raised in court was: what a reasonable person would make of the SDP’s statements. Alluding to Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam’s use of the Punggol Waterway Terraces roof collapse hoax as an example of an online falsehood. “A reasonable person would also be able to see whether the roof has collapsed or not. (In SDP’s case), you can argue until the cows come home…and you’d still have disputes about it, and that’s why we say POFMA cannot be applied.”

Asked why the SDP was not represented by a lawyer, Prof Tambyah said that while the party’s donors were “very generous”, it prefers to channel contributions to funds for materials or collaterals, in light of the upcoming general election.

The case continues on Friday morning, when SDP will conclude its arguments and DAG Nair will present the government’s response.