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Will Singapore's plan to combat ‘deliberate online falsehoods’ stifle free speech?

Screenshot of YouTube video during the Parliamentary committee hearing on “Deliberate Online Falsehoods.” Some civil society groups questioned why witnesses were subjected to intense interrogation during the hearings as if they were accused of doing something wrong.

A committee was created by Singapore Parliament in January 2018 to address the problem of “deliberate online falsehoods”, or disinformation on the internet.

The committee's mandate is to examine “causes, consequences, and countermeasures” related to the spread of disinformation. In a rare move for Singapore, the committee solicited the views of the public and held public hearings to discuss various sides of the issue.

Alongside 170 written submissions, the committee received and heard the presentations of 65 individuals and organizations over the course of 50 hours of public hearings. Written statements represented the views of diverse groups which included media organizations, technology companies such as Twitter, Facebook, and Google, academics, policy experts, religious groups, civil society organizations, and even foreign offices like the Russian embassy.

Charles Chong, the Deputy Speaker of Parliament, summarized the work of the committee after the public hearings concluded on March 29:

We heard how there is no one silver bullet and how we need a suite of different measures to address this complex problem, including public education, media literacy, fact checking, quality journalism, technology and legislation.

We heard evidence about how current laws had limits of scope, speed and adaptability and why we need new legislative levers…Some witnesses were opposed to any legislation at all, even if today’s laws were inadequate in countering the harms posed by deliberate online falsehoods.

Chong's summary touched on a key area of dispute, but did not directly acknowledge the committee's treatment of civil society members who oppose creating new legislation.

Civil society members ‘harangued’ and ‘harassed’ at hearings

Although a wide range of voices were heard, civil society members who argued against new legislation reported that they were “harangued, harassed, threatened and misrepresented” in the hearings.

In contrast to the official summary, artist Alfian Sa'at offered this observation:

What I see are some activists and academics trying to give their views in good faith. But rather than being listened to like citizens representing the spectrum of political views in Singapore society, they are instead treated with sneering hostility, as if they were not witnesses giving evidence but the accused.

It seems as if the effect is to intimidate those with contrary views from making submissions to the government in the future. How can this ever be good for Singapore?

Some participants even used the hearings as an opportunity to directly undercut the work of civil society and academia.

Singapore Community Action Network reported that historian Dr. Thum Ping Tjin was questioned for six hours “over his work and expertise on Singapore history and whether there was evidence of a Communist United Front conspiracy in the 1950s and 1960s.” Although the historian had submitted recommendations on how to mitigate online disinformation, the committee did not ask or allow him to address these.

The group also described the committee's questioning of writer Kirsten Han, who is also a Global Voices contributor.

Kirsten Han was questioned over an article she had written for an online news publication. It was suggested that she had presented a misleading picture within the article. It was not clear how this was relevant to the Select Committee’s Terms of Reference. The exchange ended with Committee member Edwin Tong issuing a veiled threat that Ms Han had “not yet” been sued or jailed.

Some submissions to the hearings took a similar tack. A paper submitted by the People's Action Party Policy Forum (affiliated with the ruling party which has been in power since the 1960s) focused mainly on refuting the December 2017 report of Human Rights Watch about the decline of free speech in Singapore. It argued that the report is based on deliberate online falsehoods.

Due process, public education…or a ‘fact-checking council'?

While some maintain that Singapore's legal framework is already sufficiently equipped to address legal aspects of the issue, others (many of them lawmakers) argue that new legislation or regulatory measures are needed.

The senior editors of Channel News Asia, a mainstream media company, proposed that Singapore establish a “fact-checking council”:

It will be useful to establish a “fact checking” council, committee or body made up of diverse representatives to assess and thereafter designate ‘deliberate online falsehoods’ as specifically defined. This council should be independent, transparent and be able to react to emergent ‘deliberate online falsehoods’ quickly.

It should include Singaporean representatives from academia, NGOs, civil society, including from the legal community, and other social groups that are representative of Singapore society. Its mandate must include identifying ‘deliberate online falsehoods’ and thereafter recommending appropriate remedial actions.

Singapore Press Holdings, the country’s leading media company, argued that quality journalism is necessary to fight “fake news”:

The best antidote to “fake news”, or deliberate online falsehoods, is quality journalism – journalism that is accurate, objective, purposeful, credible and reliable.

The company suggested that if Parliament were to draft legislation on the issue, the new law should focus on the “unregulated sphere of online content” and social media distributors:

Legislation that restricts the investigative and reporting power of the media would hit the wrong target, as newsrooms already have rigorous and effective mechanisms to check and counter falsehoods. It might also inadvertently curb the media’s ability to fulfill its critical role in informing society, or to remain credible in the eyes of its readers.

Another protection against overly broad legislation would be the involvement of the judiciary in dealing with disinformation. The Association of Women for Action and Research touched upon this issue in their comments:

To prevent the measure from being overbroad, it is important that such restrictions must always be dependent on a judicial finding of that harm materializing. The involvement of the judiciary is a vital check and balance for this purpose.

One popular recommendation was the promotion of public education as a countermeasure to disinformation. The National Council of Churches of Singapore explained its position:

…the most important way to counter fake news is public education. Helping the public to acquire media literacy and learn how to spot fake news can counter their harmful effects in ways that legislation alone is unable to do…Such education should also be provided in schools and universities to enable young people to be more judicious in their consumption of media.

In tandem with several civil society organizations, independent news website The Online Citizen asserted that Singapore has adequate laws to deal with ‘deliberate online falsehoods.’ It also referred to extant media regulations, charging that they already represent a significant threat to democracy:

…the biggest threat to the stability and growth of the democratic process in Singapore is the government’s control of the media and information.

It urged the government instead to practice greater transparency.

To combat falsehoods online or spread through social networks, legislation is not the way forward but a few steps back. The best way is to allow citizens to gain access to more sources of information and for them to develop a questioning and critical mindset on what is true or false, whether the information is from official or independent sources.

Kirsten Han emphasized her opposition to measures that would codify a centralized practice of censorship and content removal requests (to private social media companies):

I am opposed to measures that would give a sole body the power and authority to decide what content can or cannot be accessed by the population. It is my view that such censorship — enacted, for example, via executive takedown orders that would compel a social network to remove content — would curb freedom of expression and have a chilling effect on public discourse in Singapore.

The Parliament will resume its deliberations about the issue next month.

2 comments

  • Joe

    Dr Thum was given a public smack-down by the Select Committee when he claimed that the founding father of Singapore Mr Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) was a liar and a source of major fake news in Singapore’s history. He alluded to how LKY put many political figures in jail during “Operation Coldstore” falsely accusing them as communist agents who were bent on overthrowing the elected government by whatever means. He stated in his written submission that he was a Research Fellow of History at Oxford. Oxford University later clarify that Thum is a Research Associate with the School of Anthropology i.e. he is an external associate that the school works with on some projects. He is not a paid staff of Oxford.

    Imagine if you are a lay preacher and you go to the Vatican and tell the Pope that Peter was not the first pope in fact it was Paul and the whole foundation of Catholicism was built on dubious ground? Imagine what would happen to you if you do that at the Vatican!

    Thum being an Anglophile depended on the written English account of the declassified papers of the UK Special Branch when Singapore was part of the British Empire as well as written English accounts of academics, researchers and political figures of that time. He read mainly written accounts in English of the whole events to the exclusion of written accounts in Chinese by the leaders of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) who were active in the overthrow of the government of Malaya (present day Malaysia & Singapore) in the 1940s to 1960s. He admitted that he did not read the written accounts in Chinese even though it was published and readily available to any Chinese reader in Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong.

    He said to the effect that history is an argument and not a narrative as it is impossible to know all the facts. In other words history is subject to interpretation depending which source you want to rely on. Being an Anglophile he chose to depend on the English written account that he can easily get his hand on. In statistics we call this Sampling Bias.

    I think Thum is an intelligent and brave man. However I would rate him very low on common sense and EQ. He was rightly questioned by the Select Committee and was not able to substantiate his claim when he admitted that he selectively chose only to present the English written accounts of history that supported his argument.

    I however applaud all the academics that came out to support him as it shows that there is strong camaraderie among the academics. It just like when you are crossing a river in a ferry and somebody fell into the water – your first instinct is to help. Even if you were to find out later that the person was actually pushed overboard as he tried to start a fight with the crew by insulting the captain’s father.

    • Johnathan Li

      A few quick rebuttals on the under-informed comment:
      ‘He stated in his written submission that he was a Research Fellow of History at Oxford. Oxford University later clarify that Thum is a Research Associate with the School of Anthropology i.e. he is an external associate that the school works with on some projects. He is not a paid staff of Oxford.’
      Actually, Thum Ping Tjin (“PJ”) is co-ordinator of Project Southeast Asia (a SPECIALIZED Academic Centre set up by none other than Oxford University itself) , and a Research Fellow at the University of Oxford. He is also one of two ASIANS in the Board of Trustees in Project Southeast Asia (aside from Dr. Mari E. Mulyani, an Indonesian).
      ‘He admitted that he did not read the written accounts in Chinese even though it was published and readily available to any Chinese reader in Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong.’
      If you’re referring to books like ‘LKY, the Beliefs behind the man’ and ‘Constructing Singapore: Elitism, Ethnicity and the Nation Building Project’ both co-authored by Michael D. Barr (one of those who signed the letter), ‘Men In White: The Untold Story of Singapore’s Ruling Political Party’ by Sonny Yap, or even more perspective works like ‘That we may Dream Again’, ‘Living in a Time of Deception’ (which is offered billingually), ‘Comet in Our Sky’ and ‘Democratically Speaking’, then you either REALLY haven’t been reading or being too deep into Cambridge-y thinking.
      ‘However I would rate him very low on common sense and EQ. He was rightly questioned by the Select Committee and was not able to substantiate his claim when he admitted that he selectively chose only to present the English written accounts of history that supported his argument.’
      If that’s the standard of your rating, then the rating of the one that questions him, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam would be far, far lower given that he ‘subjected Dr Thum to six hours of questioning by the Minister for Law and Home Affairs which focused on the findings of his academic research. In the course of this interrogation, which may be viewed in full online at the Government of Singapore’s YouTube channel, the Minister repeatedly expressed disdain for Dr Thum’s research, rephrasing its findings in general terms that misrepresented it, and attempting to get Dr Thum to agree to those rephrasings by attempting to force him to provide only yes/no answers. Dr Thum has since been subject to unflattering and one-sided reporting by the media.’, that even warranted a serious rebuttal from founder of Merdeka Centre in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Dr. Poh Soo Kai (one of the founding members of the PAP in 1954 who turned Political Dissident and the author of his own LKY-competing memoir ‘Living in a Time of Deception’ and grandson of one of Singapore’s Founders Mr. Tan Kah Kee).
      It now has become so serious that Project Southeast Asia even had to publish a strongly worded statement on their own site stating that ‘There is an evident irony in a Select Committee addressed to deliberate information falsehoods which proceeds by impugning and restating empirical findings. The implications for academic freedom, and for freedom of expression in Singapore, are very troubling. Instead of a hearing with the stated objective of securing truth in information, the actual conduct of its questioning appears designed to intimidate those who seek to publish the truth.’ Source: http://projectsoutheastasia.com/in-defence-of-dr-pj-thum-and-academic-freedom-in-singapore

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