Mr Ong sought to put to rest the concerns some academics have expressed, that POFMA (the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act) would curb political debate.
He made it a point to differentiate academic research from activism, and said that academics would be given the same treatment as other Singaporean citizens.
Though POFMA has “little to do” with his ministry, Mr Ong chose to comment during the debate in Parliament because the Education Ministry had received a letter signed by over a hundred and twenty academics from Singapore and abroad, concerned that POFMA “may deter scholarship and set precedents harmful to global academia”, specifically since hypotheses made for the purpose of research could end up being false or misleading, and therefore run afoul of POFMA in online discussions.
The law could also, the letter said, deter the aim of Singapore to become a global education hub.
According to the letter, the signatories were “concerned that the proposed legislation will have unintended detrimental consequences for scholars and research in Singapore.”
Additionally, the letter stated that a lot of the work academicians do is in dispute of “apparently established facts,” Channel NewsAsia (CNA) reports.
The Education Minister said that there are three ‘gates’ that must be passed before a statement is considered in violation of POFMA. First, the statement must be false. Second, it should be injurious to the public. Third, the one who spreads fake news should have done so deliberately, with the knowledge that it was harmful and false.
He said, “For there to be criminal liability, a third gate has to be crossed, which is that the propagator of the falsehood must have knowledge that it is false and harmful so there is malicious intent.”
Mr Ong said, “Any attempt to apply POFMA to empirically based, natural sciences research will fail at the first gate. What is the first gate you ask? Is there falsehood? No, because researchers use real data and observations to draw their conclusions.”
He added, “Second gate, is there public harm? I don’t believe good, honest research can cause public harm.”
Mr Ong also talked about the value that academics bring to society.
“Academics are well-respected members of society. We hold academics to ‘conduct professorial’ – high standards of integrity, in their teaching, their research, and the validity of their views put forward in public.
If any of our researchers make such a breakthrough in our understanding of the world, rather than being persecuted … they are more likely to be celebrated and may even be accorded a National Day award!”
However, he claimed, issues may arise with academics who are also activists, saying, “not all researchers as just researchers; most researchers may also be activists”.
“It is in their activist role that some of these academics are voicing their concerns about POFMA.
Let me put it quite plainly. Any activist will not be caught by POFMA if you express an opinion or even hurl criticisms at the Government. The law treats all activists equally, whether you are an academic or a man or woman on the street. It does not target academics.
You are as free as an ordinary citizen to comment on current affairs and critique the Government.”
However, these academic activists should be ready for the Government, if it is in disagreement with what the activists have said, to present its side.
“But in the interest of open debate and given your stature in society and position in a publicly-funded university, please expect government agencies, if we do not agree with you, to put out the data, put out our arguments, and to convince the public otherwise. If that has a chilling effect, please chill.”
He argued that the same standard applies to even Ministers and that POFMA actually enhances public discourse.
“Deliberate lies, connivance, impersonations, incitement of unrest and societal anger and turmoil. This is the world of online falsehoods and manipulations that this Bill is targeting.
We want this interaction and exchange of ideas and opinions to be free of malicious falsehoods which poison the atmosphere and mislead the discourse. POFMA enhances, and not diminishes, democratic public discourse.”
Mr Ong also said that the Ministry of Education, and well as Ministry of Communications and Information and the Ministry of Law, have made themselves available to meet with the signatories of the letter sent by the academics. /TISG