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Singapore’s online falsehoods Bill – the death knell for trust in the public service?

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I’ve always had a healthy respect for the Singapore public service. The ten years I spent there in public communication taught me a lot about the importance of a group of people who can put their minds together for the sake of the nation. It is for this reason that I believed, even if we were to have a change in government, the public service will still pull us through.

I’ve had the good fortune of serving with some of these people. My first boss once said that our role as public communicators is not just to be the organisation’s mouth, but to also be its ears. We listen to the needs of the people and feed those needs back up, hoping that they will somehow make a difference.

I’ve held that view dear, but my second boss was the one who lived it. I always remember this incident where we have an hours-long meeting with the CEO to decide on how to respond to a journalist who has written negatively about us. My boss was adamant that we should let it be – the journalist was entitled to her opinion, and what she said was not all incorrect. The final verdict was to send the newspaper a letter of clarification, which would not go on the journalist’s record but still get our point across.

I’ve learnt a lot during my time in the service, but eventually left – partly because I was annoying my colleagues by being a moody jackass with highfalutin ideals of what public communications should be about, but mainly because I felt we did not listen enough to the grouses on the ground that was fed to us through well-meaning journalists.

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But I still help a glimmer of hope that someday, the public service would be willing to listen again.

Those hopes were dashed with the announcement of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill. Much of the Bill can be seen as a deliberate attempt to further restrict the space for free expression, but the most critical point to me was the inclusion of “false statements” that “diminishes public confidence in the performance of any duty or function of, or in the exercise of any power by, the government” as fake news.

This essentially allows a government department that is not inclined to answer for things they do to, well, simply not answer them.

Dealing with confrontational media is messy business – it takes time away from family and other pressing deadlines, and it makes us uneasy that there is an odd chance that the journalist might just be right. So if there is path of less resistance, where a single factual inaccuracy can allow the public service to demand retractions, apologies and article take-downs – without even having to call upon Lady Justice herself – what is to prevent the public service from taking it?

With the new law-to-be, nothing. In fact, we might even imagine that it would be the new standard operating procedure.

I can imagine another take of that hours-long meeting I had, but instead of having communication officers debating it as an engagement issue, we would have lawyers in that same room debating it as a legal issue.

The most dangerous part of the Bill is not that it allows for a curtailment of media freedom, much as the Law Minister wishes to declare otherwise. No doubt, it effectively opens a path to the censorship of anything that is critical of the government, over and above the concerns of social harmony and fair elections.

The most dangerous part of it is that it allows the public service unfettered jurisdiction to call anything it wants “false”, with no indication in the Bill for a need to provide good reason beyond “it is a false statement of fact” and “it defames our good reputation”. Anything published by anyone that criticises the government is subject to scrutiny under this law, whereupon only the government calls the shot on whether it is an opinion or a statement of fact.

With the current focus on transparency and accountability following numerous data leaks, potential conflicts of interest and public policy failures, the correct approach should have been to ensure that any law passed be above reproach and inspire confidence that the government, this or the next, will not be able to abuse it.

There is no such assurance provided with the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill as it currently stands.

Yes, the Law Minister would declare that the courts are the final arbiters of whether statements are true or false. But I can tell you with dead certainty from experience that access to that arbitration would easily cost an independent news website two years in revenue. Without the goodwill of lawyers stepping up to take the risk, justice effectively ends with the mere proclamation of falsehood. To profess otherwise is to be either blissfully ignorant or deliberately insincere.

The public service needs to re-assert its position of public trust. It will not do so with a law that lays claim to such trust, without the need to earn it. It can only earn trust by listening and explaining, not by branding honest intentions to engage together with lies and falsehoods.

Moreover, we need to remember that in the original conception of what the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods should focus on, racial and religious harmony and free and fair elections were the two issues that were highlighted repeatedly as the reasons for contemplating legal action against fake news. Most Singaporeans would have no objections to these objectives, flawed as they might be.

That this section of the Bill – essentially a blanket provision to protect the government from “diminished public confidence” – was now included should give us cause to question if the government has indeed stuck to its end of the bargain, of if it has always had something else on its mind.

So I will state it clearly: If we do not question this Bill, if we do not press our Members of Parliament to scrutinise it properly, if we do not demand that such over-reaching power be curtailed, if we do not call for clarity and limits to how such a law can be used, the penalty is not a just a curtailment of our freedom of speech.

The penalty is a public service that is deaf to our concerns and blind to our needs, with an ever-diminishing respect for transparency and accountability, a public service that is only answerable to itself. This cannot be the public service we want for Singapore, and we are all to blame for letting it happen.Follow us on Social Media

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