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Singapore: Laboratory of Digital Censorship

Toh Ting Wei/AFP/Getty Images
A rare political protest in Singapore, against the walkover victory of Halimah Yacob in the republic’s presidential election, September 16, 2017

On May 8, Singapore’s parliament passed the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), with an audacious aim— to defeat “fake news.” The law outlaws disinformation, as defined by government ministers, and imposes stiff penalties, including imprisonment, for non-compliance.

To secure its passage, the government painted a grim global scenario showing how the widespread dissemination of lies erodes public trust in institutions, citing examples of foreign attempts to manipulate opinion and interfere with the electoral processes of the British vote to leave the European Union and the 2016 US presidential election. It published a position paper, set up a relatively rare bipartisan parliamentary select committee to hear oral testimony at which more than sixty expert witnesses spoke, and the committee considered written submissions from nearly two hundred individuals and organizations.

In addition to these hearings, which lasted a record eight days, government ministers reached out to their constituents, explaining why the law was necessary, and the combative yet polite minister for home affairs and law, K. Shanmugam, even appeared on a comedy show, reassuring the audience that the law would not harm legitimate criticism of the state. We are against bots and trolls, he later told parliament. His government’s primary concern was to prevent the undermining of trust in government institutions. But Cherian George, a Singaporean academic critical of the government, who has written extensively on free speech, is skeptical. Today, he teaches at Hong Kong Baptist University. He lost his job at a Singapore university after its leaders told him they were unable to award him tenure because of government objections. He agrees with the view that trust is being eroded, but said, “We cannot find trust if we are going to subject institutions to the wills of politicians.”

Singaporeans do not often mount protests against government policies, but some two hundred people gathered in late April at the Speakers’ Corner, the one location in downtown Singapore where peaceful demonstrations are permitted. Kirsten Han, a Singaporean journalist, wrote for The Nation: “For a ruling party that already dominates the mainstream media and has the power to set the national agenda, such a law is a handy weapon to add to the government’s arsenal of methods to suppress speech. It would allow … ministers to become the arbiters of truth… the implications for freedom of expression, press freedom and even academic freedom were clear.” The select committee report countered such criticism, saying: “The ultimate goal of these measures is not censorship, but the exact opposite—to ensure our freedom of speech can be meaningfully exercised, in a properly functioning ‘marketplace of ideas’ that is not drowned out by fake actors or false content.”

In a world inundated with disinformation and conspiracy theories, it may seem hard to argue with the premise of the law. Other countries have tried legislative and regulatory measures to address the issue. In May last year, Kenya passed such a lawUkraine, which is often a target of Russian disinformation, is considering one. The European Union has outlined an action plan to counter disinformation, and is embattled with one member-state, Hungary, which it accuses of disseminating “fake news.” In countries such as Poland and Myanmar, Facebook has taken down material from its site that it has determined to be spreading false information, including, in Myanmar’s case, the pages of Myanmar’s army chief. But Singapore’s law grants sweeping powers that few other governments, at least in nominally democratic systems, have.

The law, now passed by parliament, covers anything that appears online, including material posted on closed and encrypted platforms like Telegram and WhatsApp. The new law empowers any minister to demand corrections from anyone who has generated content that the minister believes is fake and to dictate the words and phrases of that correction; the government can also ask for the content to be taken down, and require Internet service providers or platforms to prevent access to it. Fearing regulatory overreach, tech companies argued that their own community guidelines were enough. Human rights organizations also protested. Earlier, in April, some 125 academics around the world who specialize in Southeast Asia had expressed their dismay in an open letter addressed to the government.  

All to no avail. On May 8, seventy-two members of parliament of the ruling People’s Action Party voted for the bill, and nine opposition MPs voted against it. Three MPs who had wanted to amend parts of the law but failed, abstained from voting. As democratic processes go, what Singapore did followed the rules, in a characteristically efficient, methodical manner. As a result, Singapore is now among the best armed, with one of the strongest laws to combat news from sources other than the government itself.

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One highlight of the select committee hearings was a six-hour encounter between Minister Shanmugam and Oxford-affiliated academic Thum Ping Tjin. Thum, a former Rhodes scholar and Olympian who was the first Singaporean to swim across the English Channel, is today a historian known for challenging Singapore’s official narrative. A focus of his study is an episode known as Operation Coldstore, when, in 1963, the Singapore Government arrested more than a hundred people, charging them with being Communists. Many were jailed, others went into exile.

Thum’s research into British intelligence archives of that period shows that the arrested Barisan Sosialis politicians and others were PAP’s political rivals, not insurgents. The crackdown came about because Southeast Asia at the time was convulsed with fears of the “domino effect” and a spread of Communism, anxiety that was fuelled by the war raging in Vietnam. But how real was a Red Menace in Singapore? Thum says,“Declassified documents have proven this to be a lie.”

With the opposition cowed in the early 1960s, Singapore’s People’s Action Party under Lee Kuan Yew consolidated power. Lee was a UK-trained barrister who became Singapore’s prime minister in 1959 and led the PAP to eight successive electoral victories, until his resignation in 1990. (He continued to be active in the governments that followed, and died in 2015.) Under his strict “soft-authoritarian” rule, Singapore opened its economy and prospered, becoming eventually one of the world’s busiest ports and among its most business-friendly jurisdictions.

In the annals of elected governments, Singapore’s history is exceptional for its duration of one-party rule: since it first came to power in 1959, when Singapore had limited self-government while still a British colony, the PAP has won all elections, including in 1965, when the republic gained independence, after separation from the Malaysian federation. The first opposition parliamentarian was elected only in 1981. The tight political control the PAP exercises and the sustained economic growth that has occurred under its leadership have both contributed to this political dominance.

There are two main reasons for the opposition’s poor showing at elections. First, Singapore’s electoral system strongly favors the dominant party: once it secures a plurality of votes, regardless of the overall proportionality of the popular vote, it is assured an overwhelming parliamentary majority. Second, the government has used all the legal and administrative means at its disposal to attack credible opposition candidates—suing them for defamation and alleged violation of campaign laws or campaign finance rules, driving some to bankruptcy (which disqualifies them from running for office for a period), and over the years, a number of opposition politicians and dissidents have felt compelled to leave Singapore and live abroad in exile.

Today, the city-state has an excellent rate of literacy and, with that educated work force, a highly developed economy. Thanks to Singapore’s open economy and business-friendly environment prosperity has spread, and poverty has largely been eliminated, though economic inequality certainly persists. Given Singapore’s being a multilingual and multireligious society, as well as a regional financial and trading hub, its leaders have long argued that stability overrides individual freedom of expression, which, they argue, can cause panic or incite violence. The government’s arsenal of legal powers already includes the Sedition Act, Public Order Act, Protection from Harassment Act, Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, Internal Security Act, Telecommunications Act, together with some of the world’s sternest defamation laws. 

In particular, Singapore has a long record of controlling the media. Local publications toe the government line, and over the years, foreign publications that have criticized the government have often been sued—and courts have handed out damages running into millions of dollars. Among the foreign publications Singapore has restricted or sued successfully are The Wall Street Journal, my former magazine the Far Eastern Economic Review, The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune (now The New York Times International Edition), and The Economist. Singaporeans mind what they say in public, especially in the presence of foreign journalists.

This culture of constraint and self-censorship has been eroded by the new freedoms offered by digital connectedness. The online sphere of social media posts, memes, blogs, podcasts, and videos has created a new forum for anonymous gossip, rumor, and comment. Today, the city-state’s leadership is concerned that the free-for-all nature of the Internet makes it harder to micromanage the media. And Singapore’s tech-savvy citizens do use blogs and posts on social media to critique the government. The state-owned broadcaster and pro-government newspapers and magazines of the dominant Singapore Press Holdings appear tepid and docile in comparison.

Independent bloggers have raised probing questions about all kinds of issues: the death penalty that still applies in Singapore, the colonial-era law that criminalizes same-sex relationships among consenting adults, the safety and performance of public transport, how the republic’s pension fund and foreign reserves are managed, and the death toll of men doing mandatory national military service. Although this kind of criticism has become more normal and visible in Singapore, there has not yet been a corresponding surge in electoral support for the opposition. But the authorities fear where such challenges to its carefully curated official narratives might lead.

“The government wants to protect its privilege of controlling the narrative against the encroaching of social media, which is enabling democratization and allowing some voices to be heard that were earlier not being heard,” Thum Ping Tjin told me, on a short visit to London in June. “The law allows ministers to define the truth in the first and second instance and places barriers in front of people before they can reach adjudication in the courts.”

Besides his academic work, Thum edits a web-based magazine named New Naratif, which publishes long-form essays, reports, and comics about Southeast Asia. His short videos and podcasts on Singapore’s history are appealing to younger audiences and sometimes go viral. But Thum now fears that his own content may be targeted under the new law—whatever the government says about safeguarding free speech.

“This has been the PAP pattern—of creating extremely broad laws that allow them to arbitrarily define what’s right or wrong and say, ‘we will use it responsibly,’” Thum said. “Criminalize everything and then target people selectively: people who criticize the government or are political opponents. On paper, there are mechanisms to contest the law, but they are so difficult to activate and are designed such that the barriers of finance and time are enormous.”    

A recent Human Rights Watch report criticized Singapore’s bleak record on freedom of expression. “Singapore promotes itself as a modern nation and a good place to do business, but people in a country that calls itself a democracy shouldn’t be afraid to criticize their government or speak out about political issues,” said the group’s deputy director for Asia, Phil Robertson. “Direct and indirect restrictions on speech and public protest have long stifled debate on matters of public interest in Singapore.” The parliamentary select committee asked HRW to testify, but HRW declined to take part—a decision that Singapore criticized. In a statement, HRW said: “We determined that it was not a good faith inquiry so decided not to legitimize it by participating.”

The law does not spare the big tech companies either. Google, Facebook, and Twitter all use Singapore as their regional headquarters, employing more than 2,000 people in the city-state. The tech giants are surely aware that Singapore ranks 151st out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index prepared by Reporters Without Borders, but probably hoped that they themselves could skirt restrictions and avoid government scrutiny.

Singapore’s new law won’t spare them, though. The companies criticized the law when it was being drafted and expressed dismay after it was passed. Google said it would stifle innovation, and Facebook remained concerned over the law’s reach. Shanmugam had a testy exchange with a Facebook representative during the hearings, in which the government minister—citing the fallout from the Cambridge Analytica controversy—expressed skepticism about the voluntary measures the company said it would take to stop disinformation.

The fact that Facebook has since 2017 been the venue for warring posts in a long-running dispute between Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (Lee Kuan Yew’s son) and his siblings, Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling, over their father’s estate can hardly have pleased the Singapore government. Lee did not play a prominent role in championing the law, letting Law Minister Shanmugam lead the campaign, but in April he did say that the law may be used against those who spread “fake news” during elections. While neither the government nor its critics directly referred to the Lee family feud during the hearings and drafting of the new law, it is possible that the legislation will make it harder for the prime minister’s siblings to use social media in future to criticize the government’s part in the affair—since ministers are now empowered to order any posts they determine to be “fake” to be taken down.

The implications of Singapore’s law, however, go far beyond a family row and even the governance of Singapore itself. Around the world there are plenty of governments that would love to wield such powers. They will be watching how Singapore uses its new law—with keen interest and considerable envy. The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act will not only have “a chilling effect on Internet freedom,” says Phil Robertson of HRW, but will also “likely start a new set of information wars as [other governments] try to impose their narrow version of ‘truth’ on the wider world.”