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Singapore’s ‘Fake News’ Law: An Exchange

Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images
Visitors at the Merlion park, Singapore, August 13, 2019

In response to:

Singapore: Laboratory of Digital Censorship,” NYR Daily, July 19, 2019

To the Editor:

If Salil Tripathi’s claims in his essay were true, it would scarcely be possible for the piece to be accessible in Singapore. But NYR Daily is freely available in Singapore, as are many other global publications.

Indeed, as Tripathi himself notes, many leading global media and technology companies have made Singapore their base in Asia—including the BBC, Bloomberg, Google, and Facebook. Surely that might have suggested to him that the portrait he paints of Singapore was not accurate.

Singapore’s Protection From Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (or POFMA), which Tripathi characterizes as “digital censorship,” enables the government to direct the correction or removal of a false statement of fact that affects the public interest. Both conditions have to be met before the act can be used: one, a statement of fact has to be false; and two, the falsehood has to affect the public interest.

Determining what is or is not a fact, and what is false or misleading, is defined by well-established jurisprudence. Opinions, no matter how critical of the government, are not covered by the act. The act was passed after a long and thorough examination in Parliament, with court oversight built into the legislation to serve as an avenue for recourse against a government’s directive.

In most cases of falsehoods, a correction will be asked for, to be juxtaposed with the alleged false statement. The public will be able to access both the alleged falsehood as well as the correction, and come to its own conclusions as to what is the truth. Only in some more serious cases will a takedown be required.

Singapore’s deep concern about online falsehoods is shared with many countries around the world. Some have taken measures that are more sweeping than Singapore’s. But our law is not meant as a model for the rest of the world.

We are an open, English-speaking, multiracial, multi-religious city-state in a rapidly changing region. Online falsehoods have the potential to cause great harm to our society. The legislation that we have decided for ourselves is a solution designed for Singapore’s circumstances.

Ashok Kumar Mirpuri
Singapore’s Ambassador to the United States, Washington, D.C.

 

Salil Tripathi replies:

It is good to know that my piece is accessible in Singapore, as Ambassador Mirpuri notes. I would have been surprised if it were not, for its coverage of the controversy surrounding the act presents the views of the law’s proponents and its critics, as it is to be expected. I was a correspondent in Singapore for a local newspaper and a regional magazine for eight years, and I do remember a time in Singapore when the circulation of publications that took a critical view of Singapore was restricted to a small number of copies or not at all. So there has been some progress, which is good. 

Singapore indeed has a long tradition of attracting multinational companies to set up regional headquarters in the city-state, and the organizations that Ambassador Mirpuri cites—the BBC, Bloomberg, Google, and Facebook—are among them. But what attracts them is Singapore’s excellent infrastructure and relative ease in hiring talent from abroad to work at and run those operations, when compared with regional alternatives. They are there despite Singapore’s relatively poor ranking in international press freedom indices, not because of it. 

As I note in my piece, Google has been critical of POFMA, and those who followed the recent developments would recall that Facebook had a difficult time at the public consultations on the proposed law. Regardless of the presence of media organizations in Singapore, the government remains wary of peaceful public protests in any form. When staff (including journalists) at Reuters in Singapore decided to pose for a photograph last year protesting the detention of their colleagues Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo in Myanmar, Singapore police took note of the demonstration and reminded the public that such gatherings without police permit were illegal.

Ambassador Mirpuri points out the two conditions under POFMA by which the government aims to get false statements corrected or have them removed from the online space, when the statements affect the public interest. As POFMA’s critics have pointed out, the public interest hasn’t been defined properly, and as its critics told me, the decision on whether a particular statement is false is made by a politician or government official—and what criteria would be applied is not known. Ambassador Mirpuri says “well-established jurisprudence” would define that, and statements of opinion won’t be covered by the act. I hope he is right: past Singaporean jurisprudence of some libel cases involving commentators who have written critical opinions about Singapore in the international media suggests a less rosy conclusion. 

Ambassador Mirpuri adds that POFMA was passed after a long and thorough examination in Parliament, and he mentions the safeguards that are built in, which are all noted in my piece. He also lays out the reasonable steps the government says it would take in seeking to correct false statements. The law’s critics do not share his point of view, and they draw on the experience other critics of the government, both Singaporeans and foreigners, have had in this regard. As I mention in my piece, Singapore already has a formidable array of laws to regulate free speech, laws that the government has not hesitated to use over the years. As a former correspondent of Far Eastern Economic Review based in Hong Kong and Singapore, and a contributor to The Wall Street Journal over the years, I have some familiarity with those episodes. 

Ambassador Mirpuri also states that Singapore’s law is not meant as a model for the rest of the world, and he is right to note that online falsehoods can harm or disrupt Singapore’s multiracial and multicultural character. Nobody who wishes well for Singapore would want the city or its people to be harmed. But fake news is a nebulous term. There will be genuine curiosity among governments around the world about how Singapore implements POFMA, because Singapore’s efficient use of laws is a matter of significant interest among many countries that would indeed like to replicate the Singapore model.