Select Committee: Rachel Er on absolute truth

Sense And Nonsense by Tan Bah Bah

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So were the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods’ hearings a good chapter in Singapore’s political development or a sham? No, they were necessary.

A 10-member parliamentary committee spent time sifting through 170 written representations and another eight days spread over three weeks listening to individuals and organisations from diverse backgrounds.

Youths participating in a democratic process – that would be the reaction of the two SMU law teams and NUS law team answering questions from Desmond Lee. The Minister for Social and Family Development played Avuncular Uncle as he tried to charm the students with friendly prodding on their concerns and aspirations as young students.

I am particularly interested in the views of Rachel Er Shingtian from the NUS. She said she was passionate about constitutional law. But she had two concerns – that this society must be strictly secular to rise above religious and other pulls and that the laws must be objective to navigate us through the “post-truth era” where truth seems to be emotional (based on one’s feelings) rather than based on facts.

She said: “I hope we will start believing there is an objective solution to this issue (presumably in dealing with deliberate online falsehoods), that we should eschew the point that things can be relative and that there’s no absolute truth and that no one can ascertain the truth anymore.”

Perhaps she was just voicing out her anxiety, that in a new age where there are so many contending shades of truth, she would be more comfortable with one absolute truth.

Other Singaporeans are struggling with simply trying to find a forum to tell their truths or side of the online falsehood story.

Kudos to academic Cherian George for his words of caution against knee jerk and other sledgehammer solutions to stamp out something which may not really be that easy to wipe out.

He stressed, as reported in the mainstream media, that legal solutions provide a “false sense of security” and can backfire, especially if states “make the mistake” of trying to prohibit insult.

Prof George also suggested that the disproportionate attention paid to social media may be counterproductive: “Taking away their Internet tools would not suppress the spread of their viewpoints. They would simply find other means, including by going underground.”

“Face-to-face communication within places of worship and study groups probably play a much bigger role than online messages in fostering religious tolerance,” he said. “In many countries, long-established talk radio and cable television news programmes do more to create intolerant ‘echo chambers’ and ‘filter bubbles’ than social media.”

As he seemed to have had no history of open confrontationist debate with the establishment, the Select Committee seemed to have given him due respect. There were a couple of “we will look into your papers” and “we will certainly pass your views to another committee”.

The exchanges between Prof George and the Select Committee were respectful and almost collaborative. Like participants drawing up war plans to deal with the bubonic plague.

LKY School of Public Policy’s Dr Gillian Koh had a less smooth, though still pleasant, treatment from K. Shanmugam. The Law Minister kept haranguing her to accept his contention that deliberate falsehoods have no place in a democracy and should be blocked outright from circulating. Dr Koh said it was better to use the falsehood as a way to educate people of such dangers. Engagement is important, otherwise, people will not know what a falsehood is.

And then there was Dr Thum Ping Tjin: “There is a clear source of ‘fake news’ which has spread falsehoods, with major impact, and hitherto escaped sanction. That is the politicians of Singapore’s People’s Action Party.”  The historian claimed that detentions made under the Internal Security Act between 1963 and 1987, including for Operation Coldstore, were examples of this. He also said that declassified documents have shown that the detentions were made for political purposes rather than security ones. Mr Shanmugam disagreed and went to great lengths and detail to debunk Dr Thum’s research findings.

Dr Thum maintained his position as a historian who interprets historical evidence with nuances, instead of subjecting it to yes or no answers to Mr Shanmugam’s questions.

This brings us back to NUS law student’s plea. Absolute truth? Maybe not. The law is usually on the side of the big battalions.

Deliberate falsehoods? Tread with extreme care on this one. Better to present the facts and engage the community.

Sense And Nonsense is a weekly series. Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.