Virtually anything can be deemed ‘misleading’ under fake news law: historian Thum Ping Tjin

Vernon Lee
Senior Editor
Dr Thum Ping Tjin, historian and Managing Director of New Naratif. (Photo courtesy of Dr Thum)

SINGAPORE — The academic who sparred with Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam over the history of Operation Coldstore for almost six hours at a hearing last year said the impending fake news law would enable the government to “selectively and arbitrarily prosecute their critics while pretending to uphold the rule of law”.

Dr Thum Ping Tjin, a historian who attended the Select Committee hearing on Deliberate Online Falsehoods on 29 March 2018, told Yahoo News Singapore in an email interview on Tuesday (9 April) that the law is part of the same legislative strategy that the People’s Action Party (PAP) government had used in the past to cow critics. He cited previous changes in laws such as the Protection from Harassment Act and the Public Order Act.

In particular, Dr Thum referred to two “outrageous” sections in the fake news bill which are of great concern to him: the wording of what constitutes a false statement and the exemption clause.

Under the bill, which went through a first reading in Parliament on 1 April 2019, “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.”

Dr Thum slammed the definition as it stands and said, “Given that it is virtually impossible to include every single fact about any issue, especially if you are writing to a word limit, this guarantees that virtually anything can be deemed ‘misleading’. In such a way, the Bill, if passed into law, would allow the PAP (government) to arbitrarily and selectively take down virtually any statement.”

Clause 61 of the bill states that “The Minister may, by order in the Gazette, exempt any person or class or persons from any provision of this Act.”

Calling it a “shocking clause”, Dr Thum said the government could potentially use it “to exempt people from this law and that these people would be authorised to spread falsehoods”.

The proposed sanctions in the bill include fines of between $30,000 and up to $1 million, and/or jail time of up to 10 years. The penalties could be doubled if the falsehood will or is likely to impact public interest as defined in the law.

Debate with Shanmugam over Coldstore

In his written submission to the Select Committee, Dr Thum said, “Beginning with Operation Coldstore in 1963, politicians have told Singaporeans that people were being detained without trial on national security grounds due to involvement with radical communist conspiracies to subvert the state. Declassified documents have proven this to be a lie.”

Operation Coldstore, carried out by the police and Special Branch officers in the wee hours of 2 February 1963, led to the arrests of more than 100 people including top leaders of opposition party Barisan Sosialis. Some historians have argued that Coldstore was primarily motivated by political considerations.

Shanmugam slammed Dr Thum for his work into Coldstore at the hearing, pointing out that his research ignored critical circumstances leading to the arrests and accounts given by leaders of Communist Party of Malaya. The minister argued, “You ignore and suppress what is inconvenient…I’m suggesting to you, based on what you have said to us, what we have seen is not scholarship, but sophistry.”

In his interview with Yahoo News Singapore, Dr Thum said the fake news law could adversely affect historians whose works are at variance with the official narratives. He said the government could order their works to be taken down and be declared “falsehoods” under the law.

While the courts are the final arbiter of “the truth”, as specified in the bill, Dr Thum added that academics are not well paid and they would be unable to afford legal recourse should their works be challenged by the government.

“I can’t say if the PAP (government) would be foolish enough to take such an extreme step, of course, but then again I didn’t think they would be foolish enough to challenge my research in the Select Committee either, thereby blowing up the legitimacy of their own Select Committee,” said Dr Thum.

The Select Committee hearings were “an exercise in political theatre” to legitimise the law and a waste of public funds, according to Dr Thum. Testimonies from key witnesses such as himself, media professor Cherian George, freelance journalist Kirsten Han, The Online Citizen’s editor Terry Xu, and others, were ignored and they were treated with disdain, he added.

Impact on New Naratif

Yahoo News Singapore also asked Dr Thum about the potential impact of the law on the operations of regional news website New Naratif, which he heads as Managing Director.

New Naratif was in the news in April last year when the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (Acra) rejected the application by Dr Thum and Han to set up OSEA Pte Ltd and provide editorial services to the website. Acra said New Naratif’s purposes are “clearly political in nature” and that it had received a grant from a Swiss charitable institute, which was linked to an organisation with a history of political involvement in other countries.

In response, New Naratif said then, “Any notion that we are, as Acra alleges, ‘being used by foreigners to pursue a political activity in Singapore’ is unfounded.” The website emphasised that it is an open and transparent platform for Southeast Asian journalism.

Dr Thum told Yahoo News Singapore that New Naratif has no legal, financial, or physical presence in Singapore. While New Naratif is a UK-registered non-profit company with regional offices in Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta, Dr Thum noted that the new law could apply beyond Singapore’s borders.

He said, “All media outlets must be alarmed by this unjust and Orwellian attempt to monopolise the ‘truth’ and to arbitrarily declare what is ‘factual’ and not, and should resist the passage of this law.”

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