International Asia While PM Lee hails anti-fake news legislation, Mahathir warns that it could...

While PM Lee hails anti-fake news legislation, Mahathir warns that it could be abused by Governments

The two leaders had differing opinions on the anti-fake law legislation

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In the first meeting between the leaders of Singapore and Malaysia since Pakatan Harapan took power last year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong defended the the legislation tabled to be passed into law soon – Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA).

POFMA is widely referred to as the anti-fake news law. POFMA was introduced in Parliament on April 1 for its first reading. The proposed law which is expected to be passed into law soon has been widely criticized.

In responding to a question by Malaysiakini, PM Lee defended the enaction of the anti-fake news law in Singapore saying, “this is the problem of fake news and deliberate false statement being proliferated online. It is a serious problem which confronts many countries.”

He added: “Singapore is not the only one which has taken legislation on this issue. The French has (sic) done so, the Germans have done so. The Australians have just done so, something similar and very draconian. The British are also thinking of doing this as well. So Singapore had to do this and we had a long process… finally we have this bill and it will be debated in the house and I hope eventually it will become legislation.”

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In rejecting criticisms and fears about the anti-fake news law, that it has the potential to be abused by the Government and stifle free speech, the Prime Minister said: “what we have done have (sic) worked for Singapore. And it is our objective to continue to do things that will work for Singapore. And I think (the new law) will be a significant step forward in this regard.”

PM Lee’s Malaysian counterpart, Tun Mahathir Mohamad, however appeared to disagree with PM Lee stating that anti-fake news laws could be abused by Governments to further an agenda.

In referring to why the Malaysian anti-fake news law was repealed, Tun Mahathir said his government made a promise to the Malaysian people before their last election that they will do away with the law. “That is because this is what the people want,” he said.

He added: “For us, we need to learn how to handle such fake news. When we have laws that prevent people from airing their views, then we are afraid the government may abuse the law as it has happened in the last government. We do not want any government, whether this or succeeding governments, to make use of this law in order to tell and create fake news in order to sustain themselves. Of course it will be difficult to handle, but we believe we can accept the challenges and we can handle that.”

In April 2018, Malaysia implemented the Anti-Fake News Bill 2018, a controversial law that deemed publishing and circulating misleading information as a crime punishable by up to six years in prison and/or fines of up to RM500,000.

At implementation, the country’s prime minister was Najib Razak, whose associates were connected to the mishandling of at least S$3.5 billion by a United States Department of Justice report. Of that sum of money, S$731 million was deposited into bank accounts controlled by Razak. The convergence between the fake news law and Razak’s connection to scandal was made clear by the Malaysian minister of communications and multimedia, Salleh Said Keruak, who said that tying Razak to a specific dollar amount could be a prosecutable offense.

In the 2018 Malaysian general election, Najib Razak lost his seat as prime minister to Tun Mahathir Mohammad, who vowed to abolish the fake news law in his campaign. In August 2018, Malaysia’s anti-fake news bill was repealed by the Mahathir Administration.

The Malaysian Government’s repeal of the law was met with a warm welcome from press freedom groups and advocates. Teddy Brawner Baguilat, a board member of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, called the decision “a huge step forward for human rights in Malaysia.”

“This is a law that was clearly designed to silence criticism of the authorities and to quell public debate — it should never have been allowed to pass in the first place.”

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