COMMENT: Singapore’s online falsehoods bill will deepen culture of self-censorship

PHOTO: Getty Images
PHOTO: Getty Images

By Cherian George

Singapore’s proposed legislation against online falsehoods is probably the world’s boldest and most elaborate attempt to regulate disinformation since “fake news” hit the top of the global agenda two-plus years ago.

The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) would empower the state to issue correction or take-down orders, or to fine and jail offenders in more serious cases. To close loopholes that malicious actors might exploit, the law gives ministers the room for manoeuvre that their counterparts in liberal democracies can only dream of. That is a source of comfort for Singapore’s security-minded officials, and many of its citizens.

Critics, however, are alarmed that the Bill denies any role for an independent public body to moderate elected officials’ demands. The way the Bill is worded, ministers could order take-downs of articles containing falsehoods that are deemed to diminish public confidence in any government agency’s work, even if that agency deserves a vote of no confidence, and if the incorrect detail is not relevant to the thrust of the article.

Among the groups that have expressed deep misgivings are academics, more than 100 of whom have signed a letter of concern sent to Singapore’s education minister. I was one of the early signatories.

Parliament is practically guaranteed to pass the Bill next month. Nevertheless, officials have gone out of their way to reply to us and others, through media interviews, Facebook posts, closed door dialogues, and open forums. This is a high-priority Bill for them, and they are sparing no effort in persuading Singaporeans of its merits.

Our failure to see eye to eye with the government is not because we do not take disinformation seriously. It has more to do with the wider context: the political culture within which officials and the public will respond to the new law.

POFMA’s imprecise wording and over-broad scope leaves a lot to the imagination of both the ministers who will use its powers, and citizens who are trying to stay clear of trouble. This is why political culture is key. Officials will be guided by pre-existing norms and conventions when deciding how to use their new powers. For the same reason, writers and publishers calculating how the new law might affect them will not only weigh the government’s words about the Bill but also its actions over the years.

On this score, the evidence is not encouraging. Self-censorship is already pervasive, with people holding back criticism for no other reason than fear of the personal costs that speaking up would entail.

Three disconcerting features of POFMA

There are at least three features of this wider political context that are especially relevant to the POFMA debate.

First, thanks to eagle-eyed netizens, we know that government has been trying to guide public opinion by sanitising media reports that do not conform with official spin or are potentially embarrassing. For example, when an accident occurred between two trains at Joo Koon metro station, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) initially asked media not to use the terms “crash” or “collision”: they should say the trains “came into contact”. This close encounter injured 36 people, so even the LTA backed off from its preferred euphemism.

Even factual reporting of ministers’ statements by a newspaper of record is not sacred. To cite just one example from 2015, the Straits Times took down an article correctly quoting a minister’s remarks about public housing and social inequality. He had observed that some Singaporeans enjoyed windfall gains from their public flats, and that those living in higher-end public housing probably had little interaction with households in rental flats. Although spot-on, these quotes were probably judged impolitic: they could play into the hands of critics of the public housing programme.

These publicly exposed examples are probably just the tip of an iceberg of routine impression management by Singapore’s establishment, relying on veiled threats as well as self-censorship by media gatekeepers. If officials have grown accustomed to operating in such an environment, we cannot lightly dismiss the possibility that some would be tempted to apply a very low bar when deciding whether to use POFMA’s powers.

Second, there is a troubling tendency in government to up the ante by accusing critics of lying, fabrication, having a political agenda, and so on.

In 2015, after the belated revelation of a cluster of hepatitis C infections at Singapore General Hospital, Straits Times journalist Rachel Chang pointed out in an opinion column that the government’s explanations had not settled the matter. It was not clear why there had been a 16-day gap between the date when a ministry official got involved (before the election day) and the date when his minister was officially informed (after election day).

Chang suggested three possible explanations for this, including that civil servants were sparing their political masters the burden of dealing with what could become an election issue. The Health Ministry called Chang’s column “irresponsible” and slammed The Straits Times for “repeating gossip while claiming to air opinions”. Faced with the risk of legal action, the editor of The Straits Times apologised that the column gave “wrong impressions”.

In 2017, the Reuters news agency received similar treatment. When minister Chan Chun Sing, then one of the front runners to be the next Prime Minister, was asked point blank if he would like the job, he replied, “All of us have to be prepared to do the job when called upon.”

In most countries, such an answer would be read as a “yes”, and the politician’s use of the plural “we” interpreted as self-effacing. Reuters reported the story with the headline “Chan Chun Sing says he is prepared to be next Prime Minister when called upon”.

Local media, more sensitive to how our politicians think and speak, correctly treated Chan’s statement as a non-answer. It would have been fair to conclude that Reuters misinterpreted a quote that was deliberately enigmatic and open to interpretation. The government’s verdict, though, was far more severe. It accused Reuters of running a “fabricated” headline and quote, calling the agency “irresponsible”.

This month, in the midst of the POFMA debate, there was another noteworthy official response, this time to journalist Kirsten Han and other commentators who criticised the apparent lack of consistency in the permit system for events. They noted that a prominent foreign vlogger did not require a permit for an event at the Botanic Gardens, even though local civil society activists do. This is a legitimate matter for public debate: at its heart is the question of how Singapore values civic gatherings relative to commercially-oriented celebrity events.

The police clarified that the vlogger’s event did not require a permit as it did not involve a cause. But the spokesman did not stop there. He said that the allegations of double standards were “untrue and baseless, and maliciously seek to undermine confidence in public institutions”. The language was uncannily reminiscent of POFMA, which states that a minister would be serving the “public interest” if he acted “to prevent a diminution of public confidence” in government agencies. It came across as a telling preview – even if inadvertent, a Freudian slip – of how POFMA-armed officials could treat fair criticism as threats to the state institutions.

In many cases, the government’s over-the-top reaction probably fails to persuade objective fair-minded bystanders. But they do produce another effect – warning critics that they have crossed a political line and can expect something more than words if they persist.

This brings us to my third observation. Singapore has a track record of penalising critics – not all of them, every time, but regularly enough to give academics, journalists and others cause for pause before speaking truth to power. It is widely assumed that publicly contradicting the government on issues that it considers important – everything from foreign relations to social inequality, from constitutional principles to municipal matters – can have career-limiting consequences even if one has broken no law.

Thus, one of Singapore’s only internationally renowned constitutional law scholars, Professor Kevin Tan, was blocked when he tried to secure full-time employment at the National University of Singapore. The open secret was that this was because Lee Kuan Yew had once chided him in Parliament. Tan had opined to the Straits Times that the Presidency had become a “confused” institution after it was turned into an elected position. Lee, the mastermind behind the move, accused Tan of not having read Singapore’s Constitution, and said he was “alarmed” the academic was teaching constitutional law.

That was 20 years ago. A shadowy system of political screening has continued to stop academics from being hired and rewarded as departments see fit. In 2017, writer Tan Tarn How reported documenting more than a dozen cases since the 2011 General Election of artists and activists who said they have been denied jobs in academia or asked to leave their full-time or part-time jobs in the education sector.

POFMA’s indirect impact

On the bright side, it is certainly the case that the government has not been making maximal use of its censorship powers. Government repression is targeted enough to not affect most Singaporeans directly, which is why there are no mass protests against POFMA. (On the contrary, it is probably a popular move, appealing to the majority’s preference for law and order.)

It has been decades since the government detained political dissidents without trial, even though the law still allows it to do so. Within the law, it could, if it wished, ban every movie, play or book it did not like. It chooses not to. Current internet laws allow massive blocking and filtering of online content, but the government has opted not to go the way of China, Iran, and other highly repressive regimes.

To take comfort in these observations, though, would be to apply an insultingly low bar to Singapore. The more appropriate measure for a republic with Singapore’s aspirations is whether citizens are able to exercise First World levels of fearless participation in public affairs.

The precedents show that many officials have a narrow view of what counts as a legitimate, good-faith contribution to public debate. They do not seem to appreciate that speech requires some breathing room – some licence to err and to offend – if it is to contribute to a society’s progress.

POFMA’s indirect impact will probably be more significant than its direct effects. Not every situation would be covered by POFMA. But the government-knows-best principle that has been so emphatically enshrined in the new law is likely to embolden public servants to dampen inconvenient criticism by whatever means – and they have several.

There will also be an indirect impact on academics, journalists, and other citizens. For every one who is actually at risk of violating POFMA there will be countless others who, aware of the breadth of the law and the amount of discretionary power it vests in officials, will simply decide that there are easier ways to live than to write about Singapore.

The lack of Singapore scholarship in the humanities and social sciences, which other scholars and I have separately written about, is a crisis that will corrode Singapore’s capability to deal with a complex future. Meanwhile, the government’s micromanaging of mainstream media has contributed to a degradation of journalism’s capacity for intelligent sense-making of current events. The journalist Rachel Chang, for example, decided to leave The Straits Times soon after the paper was forced to apologise for her column. She is now a Bloomberg correspondent in Shanghai – one of many outstanding Singaporean journalists of her generation who have given up pursuing their calling in the country they love.

All serious analyses of the disinformation problem, including by the 2018 Parliamentary Select Committee that led up to the Bill, agree that it is not enough to weaken bad-faith communicators; we also need to strengthen the institutions whose job it is to exercise public reason. In its zeal to fight the true enemy, POFMA threatens to injure allies in both academia and media.

This article is based on the prepared text of a talk at an Internet Society Singapore Chapter’s educational seminar on 25 April 2019. A fuller version of this piece appears on the Australian National University’s New Mandala website. Cherian George is Professor of Media Studies at the Hong Kong Baptist University School of Communication. He researches media freedom, censorship, and hate propaganda. He was invited to give oral testimony to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods in 2018.