Pritam Singh & Edwin Tong clash over merits of POFMA at NTU Forum on fake news

Speed, accountability, transparency, and the 'chilling effect', lots of good points were brought up.

Sulaiman Daud | February 09, 2020, 05:17 PM

Two parliamentarians from opposite camps came head-to-head during a forum about the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation (ACT).

A Fake News Forum, organised by the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Public Policy and Global Affairs Club, invited both Pritam Singh, leader of the Workers' Party (WP), and Edwin Tong, Senior Minister of State for Law and Health of the People's Action Party (PAP) to speak.

Both Pritam and Tong involved in past debates on POFMA

Both Pritam and Tong had been heavily involved in the debate leading up to the passing of the Act by Parliament in May 2019.

Both men were also members of the Parliament Select Committee, set up in 2018, to study the issue of fake news.

In 2018, they even went on a trip to London together, as part of the delegation to attend the International Grand Committee Hearing on Fake News and Disinformation.

Parliamentary debate on POFMA

During the marathon debate in Parliament, Tong covered the technicalities of the law, including the fact that it applied to closed messaging platforms like Whatsapp and Telegram.

Pritam, along with the other members of the WP, voted against it.

Pritam argued that the matter of fake news should be up to the courts, and not first acted upon by a Minister.

The use of POFMA so far

It has been some months since the law came into force, and it has been used in a variety of situations, on a variety of people and organisations.

These included opposition politicians, an opposition political party, and the editor of a socio-political site.

When some of the aforementioned individuals did not comply with their Correction Directions, government ministers instructed the POFMA Office to send directions to social media platforms like Facebook to add the Correction Notice themselves.

With the coronavirus outbreak, the increased number of rumours and falsehoods prompted the government to use POFMA orders against those who spread falsehoods.

It marked a number of firsts, including the use of POFMA against an anonymous post on an online forum, and against Facebook users who have already deleted their posts.

In one instance, Facebook informed the government that they were unable to comply with a POFMA order, as the users in question had already deleted their posts.

Pritam's arguments

Pritam's opening remarks in the forum on Jan. 28, 2020, which you can read on the Workers' Party's website here, began with addressing the justification used by some members of the ruling party that POFMA was needed to deal with viral falsehoods that had to be taken down within "hours".

Pritam said:

"What this implies is that the falsehood is so dangerous and malignant for the public discourse, potentially inciting violence and harm, that it has to be dealt with speedily – hence the inclusion of POFMA in the Government’s armoury."

Back in Jan. 2018, during the Parliamentary debate to appoint the Select Committee on fake news, then-Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said:

"In the Internet age, falsehoods can go viral in seconds. Digital content can be easily manipulated to make it more provocative, and stir emotions more easily."

But Pritam pointed out that the early POFMA cases mostly did not involve falsehoods that went viral in a short amount of time, including one where there was a gap of 12 days between the sharing of the post and the use of POFMA. Pritam said:

"So if the Government could afford to take 12 days to respond to an online falsehood, it is my argument that the alleged falsehood may not have been of such a malignant nature nor may it have met the public interest threshold to invoke POFMA."

He also pointed out that the early uses of POFMA against opposition politicians, parties or critics of the government prompted Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Anthea Ong to ask in Parliament about the "perceptions of a partisan political bias" over the use of POFMA.

Minister for Communications and Information S Iswaran replied that some might say it was an "unfortunate convergence or coincidence", but POFMA should be used even if the person/organisation spreading the falsehood was politically affiliated.

Two criteria need to be met -- but those two are wide

Pritam's second point was that the law only allows POFMA to be used if two criteria are met:

  • Enacted on a falsehood.
  • The issue is one of public interest.

He points out that "falsehood" is widely defined, and encompasses both false statements and those that are merely misleading, whether whole or in part, whether in context or out of it.

But for "practical purposes", Pritam referred to Deputy Attorney-General Hri Kumar's explanation, which is: "A minister who initiates a POFMA direction will look at the article or statement in question and determine what he believes to be its meaning. A correction direction can then be issued based on the minister’s interpretation."

Hri Kumar, a former PAP Member of Parliament, said this while representing the government in its case against the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), reported the Straits Times.

Pritam said this highlighted the sweeping nature of the power afforded to any Minister.

Pritam argued that while the government assured the public that POFMA does not cover opinions, the fact that the Act does not define what an opinion is makes it unclear when an opinion becomes an interpretation, for POFMA's purposes.

Pritam added that his view is that POFMA should be used principally for false statements or falsified information, and gave the example of the order issued against SPH Magazines Pte Ltd, which operates HardwareZone Forums.

A member of the forum had falsely claimed that a person in Singapore had died from the novel coronavirus.

Pritam also noted that matters of public interest as defined in the Act was "non-exhaustive", which gives Ministers a large amount of leeway in deciding to use POFMA.

Added Pritam: "I am not going to say more about this except to add – Is it a surprise then that the Workers’ Party did not support the Bill?"

Courts as the final arbiter

Pritam mentioned that the PAP cited the final oversight of the courts as proof that there were checks and balances in the Act.

However, Pritam noted that there are only three grounds in which the court can set aside a POFMA order:

  • The subject statement was not communicated by the person in Singapore.
  • The subject statement is not actually a statement, or it turns out to be a true statement of fact.
  • It is not technically possible to comply with the direction.

Addressing the government's stated commitment to the "multi-pronged approach", which meant that it would use a number of methods to deal with falsehoods instead of just POFMA, Pritam noted that it could arguably be used for partisan political purposes.

He referred to Lim Tean's case, the leader of the opposition People's Voice party.

Lim claimed that the "PAP spends S$167 million on grants & bursaries for Singaporeans, but S$238 million on foreign students."

POFMA was invoked, and the Ministry of Education rebutted that this was not a fair comparison, as in fact S$13 billion was spent on subsidising education for Singaporean students at all levels.

However, Pritam said that in his view, the clarification was partisan.

Instead of comparing grants and bursaries to the entire education budget, he felt that the more appropriate comparison would be to compare bursaries and aid for foreign students to Singaporean students, at all levels.

This would establish a like-for-like comparison. Added Pritam:

"Information for both categories must surely be in the government’s hands. Why do we have to accept the subjective opinion of the Minister as to which is the appropriate comparison?"

He also said that if Singaporeans perceive POFMA as being used for political purposes, this would have grave implications for the trust between Singaporeans and the government.

Edwin Tong's arguments

Tong was a prominent figure in the debate leading up to the passing of the Act in Parliament.

Speaking at the same forum, Tong laid out the government's position on falsehoods, in a copy of his opening remarks as seen by Mothership.

He pointed out that the Select Committee that he and Pritam both served on delivered a report on the problem of falsehoods that was unanimously agreed-upon by all members of the Committee.

Not all falsehoods go viral quickly, slow drip ones also cause damage

While it was true that POFMA was intended to be used against falsehoods that go viral in a short amount of time, those aren't the only kind of falsehoods that could cause damage.

Tong cited examples in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and India, where viral falsehoods spread online led to violence and loss of life.

However, he mentioned a second type of falsehood, which is "long-term, pernicious, and no less damaging to society."

He mentioned that the parties responsible for spreading these falsehoods play the long game, citing the Brexit campaign as one such example.

These falsehoods engender discord and undermine trust between the government and the public, which not only impacts law and order, it also impacts free choice.

After all, one cannot make an informed decision if that decision is based on inaccurate information.

Tong cited examples on which POFMA has been used in Singapore:

  • The claim that prisoners are executed in a brutal fashion.
  • The claim that the police arbitrarily arrest people.
  • The claim that the government favours foreign students more than Singaporeans by spending more on them.

He said that these false claims gravely affect public interest as they were designed to undermine public trust in the government and its institutions, such as the police force.

POFMA designed for both speed and accountability

Tong pointed out that the design of POFMA was carefully considered by the Select Committee.

Firstly, it needed to empower the authorities to respond quickly.

Secondly, Parliament debated if the initial assessment should be made by the courts or the executive (the government).

Tong gave three reasons why the government argued for the latter, in the interest of speed:

  • Each Minister and office-holders are more familiar with issues pertaining to their specific domain, and they can respond more quickly.
  • A hearing in court would take time, and parties may ask for more time to hear submissions, like the SDP did in its court case.
  • Some falsehoods would cause public unrest, such as the claim of a serious contamination in Singapore's water supply, and the government would be able to respond faster than the courts.

But Tong said with speed came accountability.

Once a Minister intervenes by using POFMA, an explanation is released to show why the offending statement is false.

So that Minister is nailing his colours to the mast immediately and publicly, and is being open about why POFMA needs to be used.

Tong also pointed out that the aggrieved person could challenge the POFMA order in court, through a process that is quick and inexpensive. If the court decided that the direction is wrong, the Minister would be bound by that decision.

Original post still stands

Tong then spoke of the "fundamental feature" of POFMA, which is that even if a Correction Direction is ordered, the original post is allowed to remain up.

The post is not amended, censored or deleted. The requirement is that the post is flagged as containing a falsehood, and must include a link to the clarification.

Tong said this was a rebuttal to the argument that POFMA represents a "chilling effect" on free speech, and said that it adds to public discourse instead of taking anything away.

Tong added that the public could see both sides and then decide for themselves, which helps make for a more critical and discerning citizenry in the long term.

Top image from Workers' Party's website.