Singapore— POFMA, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, otherwise known as the country’s landmark legislation aimed at combating fake news and hate speech, was passed in Parliament late on Wednesday night, May 8.
The Bill passed after over 14 hours of debate from Tuesday to Wednesday, which ended after 10:00 pm on Wednesday.
Among the Members of Parliament, 72 voted for the Bill’s passage. The nine Workers’ Party (WP) MPs and Non-Constituency Members of Parliament (NCMPs) voted against it. The three Nominated Members of Parliament, Professor Walter Theseira, Irene Quay and Anthea Ong, all abstained.
Pritam Singh, the secretary-general of the WP, requested that the MPs’ votes be formally recorded.
The new law gives ministers of the government the authority to command Facebook, Twitter and other such social media sites to put warnings on posts that they have decided are false, or even take these posts down, should they find it necessary.
Should certain acts be deemed as injurious to the country’s interests as well as malicious, those found guilty could be jailed for as long as 10 years, and companies fined as much as S$1 million.
The Government has emphasized that POFMA’s aim is to protect the country from entities that would purposefully spread falsehoods and harm public interest and that posts containing satire, parody, and opinions do not fall under the new law’s purview.
Under POFMA, a false statement is one that is false or misleading, both taken as a whole and partially, standing alone or within its context.
K Shanmugam, the country’s Minister for Law and Home Affairs said that while the court has the final decision on such matters, POFMA is necessary to empower the Government to act immediately in dealing with online falsehoods.
Opposition party WP had been vocal about their objections to POFMA in the two days of the debate, with WP MP Low Thia Khiang saying, “To introduce such a bill is not what the government, which claims to defend democracy and public interest, should do. It is more like the actions of a dictatorial government that will resort to any means to hold on to absolute power.”
He called the new law part of the Government’s aim to solidify what he termed as “absolute power,” reported Yahoo Singapore.
The Nominated MPs, on the other hand, had expressed concerns that the Government would be given powers that are too broad under POFMA, and therefore proposed an independent council to review the Government’s decisions concerning fake news.
Mr Shanmugam answered this concern by saying that a council could add to bureaucracy and that the current structure of the Executive in Parliament could address the NMPs concerns.
Rights groups have also been vocal with their concerns about POFMA. AFP reports Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s regional director for East and Southeast Asia, as saying that the new law “gives the Singapore authorities unchecked powers to clamp down on online views of which it disapproves.
It criminalizes free speech and allows the government almost unfettered power to censor dissent. It doesn’t even provide any real definition of what is true or false or, even more worrying, ‘misleading.’”
It is the “most far-reaching legislation of its kind to date,” according to the Asia Internet Coalition, a group which includes Facebook, Google, and Twitter.
Mr Shanmugam said that these technology firms cannot be depended upon to self-regulate.
“This is serious business. Tech companies will say many things to try and advocate their position. We have to show them we are fair, but also firm.”/ TISG