Singapore—The country’s landmark legislation to combat fake news and hate speech was passed late on Wednesday night, after nearly 14 hours of debate that occurred over two days, with one-third of the House chiming in for and against the bill.
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.
In a speech just before voting began, K Shanmugam, Singapore’s Law and Home Affairs Minister, spoke to the Members of Parliament from the opposition Workers’ Party, calling them out on having sidestepped his question as to how the new law, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) would result in a chilling effect on free speech when the bill actually narrows the Government’s power and guarantees judicial oversight.
He also said that the WP MPs confused facts with opinions.
According to Mr Shanmugam, POFMA is a “completely defensible, open system that places no great power within the executive.
In that context, all the nine WP MPs’ speeches are remarkable for the fact that (they don’t) deal head-on with the point I made, which is that the powers here are narrower than the powers that currently exist.”
He seemed to be directing many of his points toward WP MP Low Thia Khiang, who had said that with the new law, the Government has a “hidden agenda” of self-protection and attaining to a “political monopoly” in crafting the draft laws, among other arguments.
To this, Mr Shanmugam said, “The Armageddon we were threatened with if this Bill comes to law, I’m still trying to see the logical flow of that argument.”
He emphasized that there is no “no political profit” in letting fake news spread or harm Singapore’s “infrastructure of fact”.
“It will damage the institutions and frankly, no mainstream political party will benefit from this. It will damage any party that wants to consider itself mainstream and credible. Everyone will be damaged.”
He reiterated that POFMA is needful in keeping and guarding the values of Singapore and to allow it to have a “set of honest debates” on policies established on a truthful foundation.
“That’s what this is about. This is not about the Workers’ Party or the PAP (People’s Action Party). Today, it is about Singapore,” the Law and Home Affairs Minister said.
Workers’ Party’s and Nominated MPs’ objections
The opposition party had been vocal about their objections to POFMA in the two days of the debate, with Low Thia Khiang saying at one point, “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.”
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. Reuters 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