As the Chief Aunt in The Handmaid’s Tale said, “there will be consequences”, whenever a transgression by any Handmaid took place in the Republic of Gilead. Singapore may not have reached the dystopian state envisioned by Margaret Atwood in her story. But we may be getting there, not in the subjugation of women (a theme in the book) but in the suppression of the enquiring and questioning spirit following the passing of POFMA in Parliament.
What are the consequences?
Perhaps the good one is that nothing will change for the ordinary man in the heartland. He will pick up his one or two copies of the local vernacular papers and continue to lap up the latest scandals in between double-checking his Toto or 4D numbers. He will sit down with his evening kakis at the coffeeshop and gossip away. Not about POFMA which does not interest him in the least but, ironically, in any kind of fake news itself. Big hole in the middle of Orchard Road? Someone showed him a smartphone picture. I don’t think POFMA is targeted at either person.
From the ground level, let’s take a jump all the way to the academics. Law Minister K Shanmugam touched on this the week before last. Basically, he said, provided your research is based on real data and facts, the new law does not apply.
Ong Ke Yung elaborated on Tuesday May 7 in Parliament. The Education Minister said that to be penalised under POFMA, falsehoods must pass through three “gates” – the statement put up online must be false, it must cause public harm and the person disseminating the falsehood must have knowledge that it is false and harmful.
When the first two conditions are met, the authorities may order for the falsehood to be corrected or removed. This would not be a criminal punishment, Mr Ong said, as reported in CNA.
“For there to be criminal liability, a third gate has to be crossed, which is that the propagator of the falsehood must have knowledge that it is false and harmful so there is malicious intent,” he said.
Are academics concerned about the criminality of their work, or perhaps their liberty and duty to be more vigorous in pursuing the truth?
Nevertheless, the Education Minister’s three gates would go some way to ensure that academic transgressions would have consequences mainly within the confines of academia rather than in the courts.
So it is the new media which is the chief target of POFMA (Shanmugam does not count Facebook or Google as enemies but as less than reliable partners who may have their own corporate agendas). Singaporeans will support the government in its fight against foreign countries using information warfare, malignant forces resorting to falsehoods for political ends or harm others, or even groups profiting from and exploiting readers’ gullibility and weakness for sensationalised stories. I would include in these groups social media which do not contribute – either in their one-trick pony pretence at reporting or in the poor quality of content – to the cause of journalism.
The real bad long-term consequence of POFMA, however, is self-censorship.
We have seen how the mainstream media have been so stripped of any critical element that they have become nothing more than the mouthpiece of the establishment. They even devour their own children. Senior and good journalists have been sidelined. And till now, I have yet to read any opinion piece by any credible elected, repeat, elected Opposition MP in MSM’s Op-Ed Pages (English press).
For self-survival in the new POFMA age, everyone indulges in self-censorship. Workers Party’s redoubtable Low Thia Khiang gets the honour of ending this humble column. Using the Chinese proverb 杀鸡儆猴, he said: “The Government can selectively punish a few offenders to achieve a chilling effect, to scare the monkey by slaughtering the chicken.”
You do not want to be the chicken. Neither do you want to be the supressed Handmaid in a dystopian Gilead or Singapore.
Year of the Comebacks: Mahathir, Anwar, Tiger, Liverpool, Spurs and …TCB?
OK, I stretch it a bit. Malaysia’s royalty-bashing PM and his incoming PM replacement won the general elections last year. But they are only getting to grips with their work this year. The comeback miracle is wearing off a little but think of what Malaysia would have been if Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim had not won.
After 11 years, golfer Tiger Woods survived an incredible leader board to claim his 15th career major at Augusta in April. Suddenly, golf is sexy again.
And Liverpool. With Anfield urging them on, Jurgen Klopp’s team overcame a 3-0 deficit from the first leg of the Champions League semi-final against Barcelona to whip the Spanish team 4-0 in the second leg. Sports writers ran out of words to describe the comeback.
Just as soccer fans were trying to catch their breath, Tottenham Hotspur next scored three goals against their semi-final opponents Ajax Amsterdam to cancel a 2-goal disadvantage to set up a mother-watering final with Liverpool.
So will Dr Tan Cheng Bock make his Parliament comeback in the next GE?
Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.