Singapore—The country’s landmark legislation to combat fake news and hate speech was passed late on Wednesday after two days of debate that spanned over fourteen hours and much exchange of arguments and ideas from Members of Parliament.
Shortly after 10:00 in the evening, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill (POFMA) passed with an overwhelming majority of 72 MPs in favour of it, 9 MPs against it, and 3 NCMPs abstaining.
Since Ramadan started on May 6, and the Parliamentary session went on into the night, many of the Muslim MPs apparently decided to get together to break their fast, with Yaacob Ibrahim (Jalan Besar GRC), who is from the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), posting a photo on his Facebook account of their shared meal, saying this was the first time they had come together in this way, and expressing the hope that this type of gathering could be repeated for “other meaningful activities.”
He captioned his photo, which he uploaded on Thursday, May 9, with this: With the Singapore parliament going overtime on Wednesday 8 May, Muslims elected and nominated Members of Parliament (MP) from across the political spectrum came together for the breaking of the fast in parliament. It was the first ever event of its kind. Perhaps we can come together for other meaningful activities.
In the photo, along with Dr Yaacob, are Amrin Amin, Dr Muhammad Faishal, Ibrahim, Rahayu Mahzam, Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar, Zaqy Mohamad, Zainal Sapari, Saktiandi Supaat, who are all MPs from the PAP, as well as MP Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap, from the opposition Workers’ Party, and Abbas Ali Mohamed Irshad, the founder of inter-religious non-profit group Roses of Peace.
How POFMA was passed
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 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, people 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.
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.”
The Nominated MPs, on the other hand, 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.
K Shanmugam, the country’s Law and Home Affairs Minister, 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.’” /TISG