Singapore’s POFMA Law: Riding the Fault-line between Regulation and Dissent

On 25 November 2019, Singapore for the first time used its new law, Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), to identify as false a Facebook post that was critical of the state led investment funds, which was allegedly posted by a member of the political opposition. This particular post on Facebook belonged to Brad Bowyer, a member of the opposition Progress Singapore Party, who happens to be a UK born politician but a naturalized Singaporean. Bowyer had earlier been a member of the ruling party the People’s Action Party (PAP) and is now with the opposition. Bowyer’s reference to the state influence on decisions made by state investors in Temasak Holdings and GIC implicates that the ruling party favours these two sovereign wealth funds, pushing the state agenda in this context.

Interestingly as the effect of the US-China trade war has begun to impact the Southeast Asian region, Singapore’s sovereign wealth funds, both GIC and Temasak, have approached the matter with the long standing Singaporean methodology to huge dramatic shifts – caution! Both these wealth funds have been cautious in terms of the regional economic forecast and have been watchful of the shifts resulting from the ongoing economic tussle between United States and China, even looking to see if opportunities emerge elsewhere in the region where a positive investment is likely such as in Vietnam which is seeing a more robust economic outcome as a result of the trade war, with investments moving to Vietnam. Thereby Bowyer’s reference to influence was seen as a matter that would reflect poorly on the leading investment funds in Singapore bringing with it signs of economic distress and trust deficit to investors. In response to the order the post was marked with a stamp clearly indicating that the details were false and Bowyer also did a quick retraction of his post.

The debate surrounding POFMA has seen some heated discussions and responses from within the Singapore parliament and civil society groups. In the run up to the passing of the POFMA in May 2019 several civil society groups expressed concerns over the fact that the bill was likely to grant excessive discretionary powers to those who are within the executive authority of the Singapore government, specifically the Ministers within the People’s Action Party (PAP), almost a single party dominating the political landscape in the country. Moreover, it gave the authority to Ministers to decide what constitutes fake news, thereby allowing them to have a whip over the nature and content that will be disseminated. And it allowed for the same ministers to exempt anyone they wanted from facing charges of fake news dissemination.

Interestingly, POFMA law is applicable to both individuals and corporate – whereby a person or an organization will be compelled to retract any online communication which violates the law on fake news. Corrections of the news may also be ordered by the authority in question, even requesting for the disabling of the access to that particular content. If these orders are not adhered to the matter would then be a criminal offense. This applies to all aspects of social media and can also be extended to include communications between individual members. Often in the case of social media the individual user may not be even aware of the nature of content shared, but these orders can nevertheless be applied in such cases too.

While the debates in Singapore on POFMA will be tested over a period of time it is significant to highlight that the challenge emanating from fake news is becoming increasingly difficult to manage. The origins of fake news lie in the United States Presidential Campaign of 2016, which became the high point on how the effects of fake news could bring about serious shifts in public opinion and damage the democratic legacy of a country. Increasingly, countries are also looking at fake news as a source of threat to national security, especially because it has the ability to seriously erode the fabric of social cohesion and law and order within states. Moreover, as proved by the US Presidential elections of 2016, fake news has been instrumental in severely damaging public institutions which have been built over several decades. Within this background several countries have sought to bring about legislation that could counter the onslaught of fake news and hate propaganda through the use of social media.

Singapore’s step to implement the POFMA while addressing its individual concerns is not without regional support. In September 2017 the ASEAN moved towards a regional approach to mitigate the impact of fake news. Under the initiative ASEAN Ministers Responsible for Information (AMRI), there has been an effort to address the negative implications for the region due to social media spreading hate without any restrictions. Singapore which was the Chair of ASEAN in 2018 headed the move towards the establishment of a regional approach to counter the problem. The focus was to promote areas of joint research which would evolve effective responses to dealing with fake news – in terms of both origin and content. Moreover, with Singapore passing the POFMA bill, ASEAN in the future may see it critical to address the growing security challenges that emerge from issues of fake news and bring it further into the ASEAN’s Politico-Security Community pillar. For the time being, however, Singapore will continue to ride the fault-line between what is seen as `necessary regulation’ and `stifling dissent’.

Professor Shankari Sundararaman is Professor of Southeast Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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