We may survive fake news but not sterility

Sense And Nonsense by Tan Bah Bah


Are we heading for safer, brighter days or darker ones on the journey to being a truly First World nation? If we take a wrong turn following the Select Committee’s hearings on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, we may sour up whatever we may have achieved to encourage a vibrant society of citizens fully and fearlessly engaged in a functioning democracy. This, to me, is a far, far greater concern than trying to stamp out fake news. Too heavy a price to pay, if we overdo it.

One should, therefore, be glad that Law Minister K. Shanmugam told Dr Gillian Koh: “Let me assure you we are dealing with deliberate online falsehoods. Let’s stick to that.” Yes, let’s.

The Minister and the public policy researcher were earlier discussing Dr Koh’s point that online falsehoods have a place in public discourse as she argued for people to be engaged so that people can come around to seeing it’s false. Shanmugam disagreed asserting that such falsehoods have no place in a democracy. Allowing them to circulate would lead to people being misled.

His assertion was supported by constitutional law expert Dr Thio Li-ann who said deliberate fake news does not deserve protection. The spread of such  disinformation impedes public debate and destroys the very reason for free speech itself.

I think Dr Gillian Koh was rightly persistent in disagreeing and saying you have to also engage and persuade people that something is false.

The key word is engagement. This goes to the heart of public discourse and the dissemination of information and ideas.

You can draft any law you wish and try and enforce it and you may think you have gotten rid of fake news online and in print. But you may just be sweeping everything under the carpet. It is practically impossible to check everything and punish millions of cell-phone, notebook, smartwatch and laptop users. People can also whisper to one another, take pictures and so on.

And, if you believe people will flock to mainstream media for “credible news” just because it comes from a government press release or its equivalent, that may be a mistake. It is in the nature of news reporting, as attested in every newspaper writing workshop I have ever attended, that news must necessarily be slightly anti-establishment to have traction, that objective news reporting must always push the envelop to force action.

Already, Warren Fernandez, SPH editor-in-chief, has cautioned against legislation so broad that it deters sharing of information and hinders the work of mainstream media journalists.  (It) can scare people from offering information, he said.

Scare does not begin to tell the story. I notice that a participant from a law firm recommended a focus on prosecuting sources of fake news, as “take-down notices” alone may be insufficient. “The strongest measure is to make sure there are equally prohibitive consequences for the creation of the article in the first place,” he said.

Such a sentiment represented just one end of the spectrum in the hearings and research papers, I’m sure. Just as I’m sure there will be a full range to reflect the nuances and exceptions.

In the end, the committee should recognise that falsehoods in themselves are not something new. They are now being targeted because of the instantaneous and extraordinary wide reach of modern social media technology.

Internet falsehoods are a festering disease.

After you produce the medicine to deal with the virus, the big picture worry is that you may just wipe out everything else around it and create a sterile environment of correctness and playsafe attitudes. And this is much too dangerous a price to pay for any society which wants to be innovative.

Falsehoods we may live with and survive, within current laws. But sterility is the beginning of our end. Inoculation, in the form of education and engagement, is the real solution.

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.


  1. The best way to tackle fake news is to address it with facts. If the government is more transparent, they would have been able to tackle these so called “fake news” but most of the time, they just choose to attack the naysayer on the basis that the government is always right.

  2. Could not agree more with GK. The government has to take good with the bad. There is no absolute truth as there is no absolute falsehood. Will the government and it’s controlled MSM guarantee no fake news or false information.
    You don’t throw stones living in a glass house.

  3. Who is gonna determine what is fakes news. Mr Shanmugan? Who is gonna check that your’s is not fake news. So all this time your news is true news and every thins else is Fake news. Just like Trump who coined Fake news. So might else well just cut off all news. NO NEWS IS GOOD NEWS.

  4. Dah fuck.. Goverment so desperate to weed out fake news? If its fake news we smart people will be able to tell. No need simi government to tell us which one is fake.
    Fake news is entertaining. Just even pure entertainment your government also want to take away? Communist

  5. After seeing the attack on Muslim community in Sri Lanka and Myanmar that were caused by deliberate online falsehood and hate speeches I would suggest that we treat fake news especially hate speeches against minorities like the way we handle an EBOLA crisis. You insolate, traced the source, exterminate and sanitized. Many Muslim life were safe when the Sri Lankan government banned social media for a week and imposed curfews in the troubled areas, preachers of hate and falsehood were put under detention, soldiers were put outside mosques and Muslim communities to protect them from the mobile. The situation stabilize after 1 week. The FB representative quickly turned in Colombo to plead the govt to quickly lift the ban as it was affecting their business and they don’t want other govts to have the same idea. I wish the Myanmar government has done the same when the Rohingya minorities were being attacked by Buddhist mobs.

    • No need to talk cock about other countries, just fix the mess here in this country. Don’t use them as excuses to justify PAP evil actions. Their problem is that they have not paid their politicians millions. We paid our politicians obscenely, we have Spf mannequins everywhere, so the same thing will not happen here, get it?

  6. The trouble with this minister is that he has lost credibility, I do not trust him. People called him prata man not without reason, in the oxley saga, in the isa extension, the church corruption case, even in the bank robbery case. If they get Tharman to present the case, it may face less resistance.

  7. Republic of Singapore???

    Please correct me if I am wrong.
    Control all media and the only source of news from the government?
    When late LKY in power, he detest(hate) most is communist and we saw how he cracked down communism in Singapore.
    You can see few communist countries left in this present world and in full control of the media. One example to quote is North Korea and their leader keep observing us and praised Singapore twice in the past few years

    Now late LKY DISLIKE became your LIKE and he likely to scold you on your present action.
    North Korea likely to give praise Singapore for the third time if you insist and pass the law
    Likely our world ranking on Freedom of Speech will go rock bottom and I thank you Sir for your action

    • simple la bro without LKY to teach them now everyone all scare liao worrying certain things will be leak out also scare that their post not going to hold so start to block this and that. simple to day trying to cover up mistake that are done. now all have their own saying not like LKY times they listen to order

    • LKY was the biggest proponent of fake news, think Operation Cold Storage and Operation Spectrum. He also banned / limited and sued international publications like FEER, and many more. LKY closed down newspapers and detained journalists who refused to dance to his tune. Singapore has become a sterile and soulless country where people don’t even dare to openly discuss bad policies and politics.

  8. We all know the new law is all about pap having the sole right to propagate fake news to manipulate the people and banning all real news in alternative media. All the forums, discussions on the fake intent is really a big bullshit and distraction from the truth.

  9. The government seeks to be the sole arbitrator of truth and the decision maker of what is true and false. Pap discussing about spreading falsehoods, eroding democracy and misleading people, what an irony when they have been doing the same for the past decades. If not for the alternative news channels and social media, we would have never been able to spot the chameleons. I guess hypocrites get offended by the truth, so seeking desperate measures to curb and stop all the ‘falsehoods’ surrounding them.

  10. Dearest Mr Minister K Shanmugam’s, sometime you have to learn something in life and that is “TRUTH HURTS” and “Shame the Devil with Truth” and therefore it is because most of the posting are true and that you and your party memeber are embarking the Law on FalseHOOD and your own Party by itself is the Root to making false hood which you know very well the person Appointed in this Panel as Chairman is Charles Cheong and Root to Falsehood in the last election whereby he Mr Charles Cheong DESERVE ppl to think the town council lost of $22.5 million .

    OMG how STUPID can you all be to PUT that Clown as your Panel Chairman “Look at him on that Panel and his sly Face is like a chinese saying Smiling Tiger”

    The Chinese expression “smiling face tiger” (笑面虎) is defined in English at one website as “an outwardly kind but inwardly cruel person”. More broadly it doesn’t need to refer to someone who is actually positively cruel.

    You guys create 2 laws to protect the PAP should they have their down FALL:

    1. What is Personal Data?
    Personal data refers to data, whether true or not, about an individual who can be identified from that data; or from that data and other information to which the organisation has or is likely to have access. Personal data in Singapore is protected under the Personal Data Protection Act 2012 (PDPA).

    2. soon another Law deliberate online falsehoods, which can cross borders, spread rapidly and have serious, sometimes irreversible, consequences.

    They the PAP create this in order to protect their data/information should they loose power in GRC/Single Ward and also should they loose foothold as Government and doesn’t want anyone to know their DIRTY Laundry that the FACTS…Every Singaporean should know FULL well that our existing Laws are good enough to even cover for those “New Law they (PAP) are enacting to protect not just themselve but their Cronies and families and friends. Don’t believe me just do your own homework well and I says again the Chairman for Falsehood himself is bad enough.

    Rumours = Falsehood = Lies = Same Meaning lah Clown

  11. They have one agenda and one agenda only. And that is to legitimise the new laws they plan to enact to clamp down on Facebook and online media sites.

    This is a Party that has lost its noble bearings a long time ago. Wanting to cling on to power and to banish all criticism of their government, whatever the cost.

    They alone will pronounce what is true and what is fake. They alone stake their claim to be the arbiters of truth and falsehood. And we are supposed to believe them.

    That’s akin to asking us to sell our soul to the devil. They may have done so. But would we? Could we?

  12. Ex shittytimes reporter will always be a shittytimes reporter, clearly shown in the mindset and they cannot breakaway from it. It is not correct to say that newspaper has to be anti establishment to gather readership. In any real democracy, the mass media, such as newspaper, has special role to provide diverse views and scrutiny to public policies and provide a platform for useful public discourse. So for the author to say any media that provide different views as anti establishment just shows the ingrained PAP influence working under a government mouthpiece.