Veteran opposition leader Low Thia Khiang asserted in parliament yesterday (May 7) that the “real aim” of the government in proposing fake news legislation such as the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) “is to protect the ruling party and achieve political monopoly.”
Asserting that the proposed law seems to come with a hidden agenda and that it is a ploy by the government to solidify its grip on “absolute power,” the Workers’ Party’s (WP) former chief said in Mandarin:
“The real aim of the Government through this Bill is to protect the ruling party and achieve political monopoly.
“To introduce such a bill is not what the government claims to defend democracy and public interest, it is more like the actions of a dictatorial government that will resort to any means to hold on to absolute power.”
POFMA, which aims to provide the government with powers to act against online falsehoods to protect public interest, intends to give ministers the authority to determine what is an online falsehood and how to act against what they deem to be online falsehoods. Earlier, the government had confirmed that the law would also apply to private WhatsApp chats and social media groups.
Low acknowledges that regulation is needed to tackle online falsehoods which could undermine society, racial harmony and the outcome of elections but says that he is “surprised and disappointed” with POFMA since it could also be used against the government’s critics.
Echoing concerns from academics, journalists and industry organisations that the bill asks for wide powers to be vested in ministers, Low says that this is akin to making a minister both a player and a referee during a sports match.
The seasoned politician, who is the MP for Aljunied GRC, also expresses concerns with the vague definition of online falsehoods in the law and said that this could be manipulated to suit the government. Asserting that he has no faith in the government to handle such matters impartially, he asks:
“How can we be sure that the ministers from the ruling party will not manipulate opinions and spread falsehoods in order to win elections?”
“Will the government show its true colours (after the law is passed)? For example, if I say the Pioneer and Merdeka Generations packages are to buy votes, is this opinion or information?”
Citing a certain section of the government’s oft-repeated sentiment that “the older generation cannot accept a non-Chinese prime minister,” Low notes: “If this were to come from the minister himself or his supporters, the minister may say this is a personal opinion.
“However, if this were to come from the minister’s political opponents on social media, the minister may say that spreading such falsehoods will create racial conflicts, endangering national security.”
Noting that social media has empowered citizens to express their opinions on socio-political matters online, beyond just private conversations at coffeeshops, and that the internet has removed some of the people’s fear of being detained without trial, Low said that POFMA could have the chilling effect of curbing freedom of expression and compelling Singaporeans to practice self-censorship to protect themselves.
Referring to 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.”
Instead of enacting such legislation, Low suggests that it would be more acceptable for ministers to take their complaints to court and prove that the information published online is indeed fake news.
He also said that, compared to legislation, civic education would be more beneficial in the fight against fake news:
“The Internet is an open platform. Netizens can rebut irrational, extreme and unfair online remarks. Relevant government agencies and ministers can also clarify and state their stance. By doing so, the true nature of online rumours, fake news and misleading remarks will be known, netizens can also be educated and their ability to judge enhanced.”
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