Tightening the Screws on Social Media



By Augustine Low

The idea that fake news is the exclusive domain of social media is in itself fake. But with the Select Committee on fake news and ominous words from the top, the writing is on the wall: social media is under threat.

Minister K Shanmugam has said more than once that Singapore is “highly susceptible” to the threat of online fake news. Remember the things he said in the run-up to the sham of a Reserved Elected Presidency?

PM Lee Hsien Loong has said that Singapore, being “highly connected and wired-up, is especially vulnerable.” He makes it seem like we are on one planet and other countries on another, that they are all non wired-up, in the age of no Internet.

PM Lee also gushed over a “powerful speech” by MP Lee Bee Wah in Parliament last week, highlighting rumours which surfaced in Malacca in 1969. Plucking a half-century old story on rumours during race riots to illustrate the perils of fake news on social media today is truly preposterous. If PM Lee is so besotted with that story, there might as well be a Select Committee to combat rumour mongering in wet markets, coffee shops and community centres, from Ang Mo Kio to Woodlands.

The fact is that fake news can just as easily be on print and broadcast media. Fake news is not only falsehoods – it is also half-truths and distortions. In a newspaper or TV report, when a headline is deliberately misleading, when key facts or contrary views and positions are deliberately omitted, when only one side of a story is purposefully presented, what do we call that? Half-truths and distortions.

Just last week, in Parliament, what we witnessed concerning the Keppel bribery scandal were dodging of questions, evasive answers and nothing resembling the whole truth. Could be even worse than outright lies. Writer Anurag Shourie said: “A half-truth is more dangerous than a lie. A lie, you can detect at some stage, but half a truth is sure to mislead you for long.”

There are many murky issues the Select Committee on fake news has to wade through. Starting from what exactly is fake news. Sure, falsehoods that incite violence and racial hatred must be weeded out. But not everything is in black and white. Who are the arbiters of truth? When does legitimate commentary and discourse become fake news?

Already, Singapore is making the news internationally for the wrong reasons. On Wed 17 Jan, United States Senator Jeff Flake took to the Senate floor to condemn President Donald Trump, comparing him to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin for his sustained attacks on the media. Flake said others like Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte and Myanmar’s leaders have jumped on the bandwagon to scream fake news. Then he added: “Leaders in Singapore, a country known for restricting free speech, have promised “fake news” legislation in the new year.”

The fear is that in Singapore, we have a situation where the leaders have already begun with the end in mind, as they did with the Reserved Elected Presidency. Heavy-handed legislation will unduly suppress liberties and social media in Singapore, social media as it ought to be in a democratic country.

Augustine Low is an op-ed contributor and his views do not represent the views of the editors.


  1. Why tighten screw on social media? Why not tighten your party and government services? Money is drained left and right. Why no tightening? SLA – cheating happened, N Parks, SCDF, LTA in train procurement, even to build dustbin centre it’s controversial. Still want to tighten? Better declare as People’s Republic of Chingapore. Remove all civil rights and abolish all opposition. Just do it

  2. There is no total true news. Many so called reputable news agencies e.g. cnn or ny times also exposed to have misleading news e.g. smearing donald trump. The key is to have freedom of media so all media platforms free to counter and expose each other…e.g. Fox and others like reuters frequently expose other western media and cnn often go out to expose mistakes of FOX…

    However, here in Singapore for MSM, ONLY SPH and MEDIACORPSE platforms are allowed. The rest even if have are merely online and don’t have enough each

  3. We are wired up and vulnerable?? His mouth seems to be in his backside. Because we are wired up the cheng hoo feels vulnerable. That’s why they want to tighten up social media. The one that needs to be tightened up are they. But who in SG can tighten them up? Ownself check ownself. Only the big countries can.

  4. Fake news have existed since the media as we know it today first emerged. We here are talking about fake social media news, unlike in the US. So, fake news have not really destroyed civilisations or even nations. It is rumours which had as they caused chaos by instigating the unlettered and the easily excitable. But would fake social media news do? Unlikely too, as people usually take them with a pinch of salt. But when the newsmakers could not prove falsehoods and swing opinions, well, then what is called false might contain considerable amount of truth. That is the game of the new media era.

  5. (Reposting my blogpost of Jan. 19)

    January 19, 2018
    Recently, TISG (The Independent Singapore) published a laundry list of what it reported to be Singaporean filmmaker Martin See’s 10 pet peeves about ‘fake news’. FWIW, here’s my take on them in CliffNotes version couched in parenthesis:

    1. Singapore was a fishing village before 1965.
    [Patently not so! Before Sir Raffles set shop here in 1819, local pop. was less than a thousand; by the turn of the century, it was over 228K, a bona fide hyperactive entrepôt/metropolis already by 1901; surely not some fishing-village jerkwater kampong by any stretch of the imagination.]

    2. Singapore is a meritocracy.
    [If by it, meant a society managed and ruled by skilled and talented people selected on the basis of their abilities, Little Red Dot does qualify as such to a point. But are they the best? … far from it; case in point: SMRT CEO Desmond Kuek’s rumored salary of S$2.25 to S$2.5 million in the last 3 years simply does not comport with the strict definition of meritocracy in view of the recent rash of technical snafus plaguing the MRT public transport network.]

    3. Singapore has parliamentary democracy.
    [To be precise, it’s undeniably a one-dominant party parliamentary democracy; but a rose by any other descriptive name is still a rose.]

    4. Elections in Singapore are free and fair.
    [Under a one-man-one-vote system, it’s deemed free and fair, ceteris paribus — but all things in life are never being equal. However, for example, if a pol got clobbered not once but 5 times on the hustings, he has himself to blame.]

    5. The mainstream press is fair, objective and responsible.
    [Sure, it is as fair and objective as its government-appointed overseer would allow it.]

    6. High salaries attract competent and honest politicians.
    [There is a modicum of truth to that… even the Beijing Mandarins are now seriously looking at adopting such a scheme in order to ameliorate the incidence of corrupt officials being sent before firing squads.] …