Who needs protection from “false information”?

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By: Leong Sze Hian

I refer to the Ministry of Law’s response to Workers’ Party’s statement on Protection from Harassment Act (POHA).

“The Government has never said that it needed protection from harassment.  Nor does the Government intend to amend POHA to protect itself from harassment…
The Government strongly believes that the scourge of false information must not be allowed to take hold in Singapore, lest it weakens our democratic society and institutions. At a time when false information can affect election results, contaminate public discussions and weaken democratic societies, it is important for the Government, as well as corporations and individuals, to be able to respond robustly to false statements that could poison public debate and mislead decision-making. Everyone, including the Government, should be entitled to point out falsehoods which are published, and have the true facts brought to public attention…
The Government needs to take steps to protect the public and Singapore’s institutions from the very real dangers posed by the spread of false information. The Government will not shy away from this, whatever may be said wrongly about its intentions and objectives.”

In the public interest and fair comment?

In this connection, is it arguably, in the public interest and fair comment, to ask for some clarification as to what may constitute as “false information”?

The issue of “false information” may not be as straightforward or simple as it may seem.

Who gets to determine, perhaps arguably, arbitrarily what is false, or how false or how true the information (in part or in its entirety) may be?

What if information (in part or in its entirety) that was at one point in time deemed to be wholly true, but then subsequently may seemingly be deemed to be not so true, or for that matter not so false after all?

Another example may be that of court judgements, as legal history may be littered with many cases of what the judge determined to be true or false on the weight of the evidence and arguments before him or her, that subsequently turn out to be different, such as by way of the discovery of new evidence or old evidence that was not presented to the court or in the right manner, or subjective interpretations on points of law?

Yet another example, may similarily be that of say police investigations, investigations by the authorities, “not so independent” inquiries, etc.

Like some proponents of history have said – arguably, history may be written by the victorious and those in power, and thus may be subjective as to how true or false the “information” contained in history at different points in time may be?

If most Singaporeans may be afraid of being sued for talking about so called subjective “false information” – then we may arguably have taken a thousand steps backwards in respect of democracy and freedom of expression – such that questions and the discourse on matters in the public interest and fair comment, may trickle to a drip – and thus arguably, Singapore society may end up to be worse off then it already is today.

Let us get back to the initial question when we started this discussion above –  “In this connection, is it arguably, in the public interest and fair comment, to ask for some clarification as to what may constitute as “false information”?”

Let’s try to look at some examples in Singapore’s history to try to have a better understanding of possibly some of the issues – from a “in the public interest and fair comment” perspective.

The Finance Minister in a Parliamentary reply in May 2015 said that only the GIC managed CPF funds. So, why is that in 2007, when MP Low Thia Kiang asked, “I would like to seek clarifications from the Minister. Does the GIC use money derived from CPF to invest?” –

Then Manpower Minister Ng Eng Hen said, “The answer is no”?

And also why did the late former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew say in 2001, when he was the chairman of GIC, that “I want to clarify that there is no direct link between the GIC and the CPF.”. The Straits Times carried an article headlined, “GIC does not use CPF funds: SM Lee”?

Then Minister for Labour and Communications Ong Teng Cheong said in 1982 that, “CPF savings form a large portion of Singapore’s savings. These savings are used for capital formation which means the construction of new factories, installation of new plant and equipment, expansion of infrastructure such as roads,’ ports and telecommunications, the building of houses and so on”. Temasek has an annualised return of about 16% per annum, since its inception.

Since state companies like SingTel were arguably built with CPF funds and were transferred to Temasek – is it arguably, categorically and absolutely correct for the Finance Minister to say that “No. It (Temasek) has never managed CPF funds”?

In my opinion, the Government also made some very good arguments in rebutting the Workers’ Party’s stand on POHA from their point of view.

The Law Ministry’s exchange with Workers’ Party (WP) comes on the back of a recent split decision by the Court of Appeal, which ruled 2-1 that government agencies cannot invoke POHA. The WP put out a statement in responding to the MinLaw’s comments on the Court ruling. MinLaw had then reportedly said: “The Government will study the judgment, and consider what further steps it should take to correct the deliberate spreading of falsehoods.”

In arguing its case, WP had cited a 1988 case to bolster its point:

“In December 1988, the Court of Appeal passed a landmark judgement in Chng Suan Tze v Minister for Home Affairs stating that “all power has legal limits” and the legality of detention orders under the Internal Security Act (ISA) had to be subject to judicial review. The Government at the time disagreed with the Court’s ruling and by end-January 1989, had passed retrospective legislation to abolish judicial reviews and appeals to the Privy Council for ISA cases…
Should the Government react to the Court’s judgement by seeking to amend the law to more clearly define how the POHA “protects the Government from harassment”, the Workers’ Party will vigorously oppose such amendments.”

The Law Ministry argued that WP’s statement was “misconceived and misrepresents the issues and the Government’s aims”.

“POHA provides statutory remedies for two distinct types of wrongs:
(a) Harassment;
(b) False statements.
In AG v Ting Choon Meng, the Government sought to invoke the statutory remedies against false statements, or what has now come to be known as “fake news”. The Court of Appeal found that there had been publication of falsehoods about the Government. But the Court was divided on whether the Government could require publication of the true facts. The majority believed that POHA, as currently drafted, did not give the Government the power to do so. On the other hand, the Chief Justice, in his judgment, said that the Act clearly allowed the Government to correct falsehoods.

This case thus had nothing to do with harassment. It was about false statements…

The Workers’ Party claims to be a champion of transparency; if this were so, it should welcome the ability of the Government and others to put a stop to falsehoods. There can be no objection to this unless the Workers’ Party sees profit in the dissemination of falsehoods.”