Singapore’s crackdown on fake news and what it could mean

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The government of Singapore erected a white wall around themselves on 8 May, as some prefer to say.

They are most probably referring to the passing of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) in the Parliament of Singapore. Seventy-two legislators from the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) agreed to it, while all nine opposition members from the Workers’ Party (WP) were against it. Three nominated members of parliament abstained from voting after their proposed changes to the Act were rejected.

Law and Homes Affairs Minister K Shanmugam (TheIndependent.sg)

With such little resistance, the Bill was signed into law, and the noose of censorship just got tighter. The broad-ranging aspect of the new law was a grave cause of concern for many, along with the clause that provided exceptions for certain individuals deemed fit by the Executive Branch of the state. Hence, it was no surprise that POFMA generated what might be the most robust debate in Parliament not seen in decades.

The passing of POFMA can be said to be a natural progression of the continued crackdown on dissent in Singapore ahead of the next general election, most likely to be held in October at the earliest. It comes just over a year after the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods accepted submissions from various quarters through a series of public hearings. The most sensational submission was made by the historian Pingtjin Thum, who argued that the biggest purveyor of fake news had to be the Singapore government itself. He drew references to supposedly anti-communist operations they conducted in 1963 and 1987 which were more for the PAP’s political gain than for safeguarding national security. This drew the ire of the Minister for Law and Home Affairs, K Shanmugam. Thum was subsequently subjected to a vicious smear campaign denigrating his academic credentials.

That was in March 2018. Fast forward to last week. Announcements that POFMA would be debated in Parliament came about in April. It drew widespread consternation from various technology firms, journalists and non-governmental organisations. All of them were convinced that POFMA had the potential to stifle free speech and undermine the role of the press. Assurances that the Act wouldn’t be used against academics or that 99% of citizens had nothing to fear did not go down well with a skeptical public.

Former WP leader Low Thia Khiang, the nation’s longest-serving opposition legislator to date,  could not have been too wrong when he warned that POFMA was putting Singapore down the slippery slope towards a dictatorship. In his words, POFMA was designed to “protect the PAP and acheive political monopoly”. It is interesting to note that Low supported having such legislation in principle, having being a victim himself of online falsehoods propagated by diehard PAP loyalists. However, the idea that the executive branch of the state should be making the final decision on what constituted truth was too rich for him. The WP favoured having the court of law as the decision maker instead. As such, it was in the interests of WP to reject the passing of POFMA as it gave the Cabinet too much power over online critics.

Opposition activist Brad Bowyer went one step further, questioning if the Singapore Government was attempting to build a 21st century version of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). It was well-known that the GDR built one of the most efficient surveillance states under the watchful eye of the feared Ministry of State Security (Stasi). While the methods employed by the Stasi are certainly not palatable, they could offer some inspiration to intelligence services struggling to contain the twin threats of Islamism and white supremacism. This is due to the way the Stasi built up a network of watchers in each neighbourhood to report on activities of suspected dissidents. Back then, nobody cold trust their neighbour as the latter might be a government spy. In modern times, China has attempted to emulate the GDR by setting up platoons of cybertroopers, commonly called “Fifty-cent Brigades” to monitor online discourse. Following the PAP’s worst showing at the 2011 general elections, it established “citizen patrols” who post content on social media platforms denigrating opposition MPs and singing praises of the PAP. There is also the Critical Spectator website helmed by the mysterious Michael Petraeus whose articles appear to incite conflict with Malaysia, which saw a change of government last year. With POFMA, Singaporeans are only going to feel suspicious of their fellow citizens, fearing that the person next to them may be reporting directly to the PAP. The fact that POFMA applies to messages exchanged by members of closed groups is only going to cement that belief in people’s minds.

Both Low and Bowyer are correct in their own ways. POFMA instills fear in the hearts of Singaporeans and makes them distrustful of their fellow citizens, thus dividing them and making them vulnerable. It puts the PAP in a position to hold absolute power over the common citizens because the likelihood of them rising up against the government is next to zero. Used in conjunction with the Internal Security Act, POFMA will erode whatever little freedom that currently exists.

With regards to Clause 61, which allows the minister to exempt certain individuals or groups from being covered by POFMA, it has the potential to create a system of double standards. Already, we have seen PAP cybertroopers openly defame WP MPs during the court hearings into alleged impropriety at the WP-run Aljunied-Hougang Town Council. So far, nothing has actually happened to them. Yet, a blogger could be sued just for sharing an article on Facebook that portrayed the Prime Minister in a bad light. Obviously, things are only going to get worse with POFMA in force. Ideally, POFMA should have been decided by way of a referendum given its huge impact on the citizens at the bottom of the social pyramid.

The only way for Singaporeans to show their disgust for POFMA is to vote against PAP at the upcoming general elections. After all, the reason why POFMA was even implemented was to stop all criticism of the current regime. The only reason why anyone would even voice displeasure at the current regime is due to the direction it has taken the country towards. The government knows all too well it may lose power and will stop at nothing to cling on to power for eternity. Hence it is coming up with all sorts of legislation to curb free speech. The citizens need to wisen up and vote the PAP out of power to save their country, as well as themselves. Singapore can ill-afford another term with PAP in power as the fourth generation of leaders from this party are mostly incompetent. Yet nobody is allowed to point out their obvious weaknesses without getting crushed like a cockroach.

In short, the best way to protect ourselves from POFMA is to vote out the architects of POFMA themselves. A vote for the PAP is a vote wasted.