Singapore: Fake news law passed after 2 days of debate

  • After a two-day debate, Parliament passed a comprehensive piece of legislation on 8 May 19 to combat fake news. Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said that the proposed law is not a political tool for the ruling party to wield power, but is about shaping the kind of society that Singapore should be.
  • Summing up the often-fractious debate on the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, he painted a picture of a society in which lies are kept out and there are honest debates among people based on truth and honour.
  • The Bill was passed with 72 member of parliaments (MPs) saying “yes”, and nine WP MPs saying “no”, with three Nominated MPs abstaining.
  • Workers’ Party (WP) chief Pritam Singh, whose party had strenuously objected to the new law for giving ministers too much power, had called for a division in which each MP’s vote is recorded. It accused the Government of creating a self-serving law that can be abused to quash critics. WP said it wanted the courts to be the arbiters of falsehoods.
  • Rebuttals came from many of the People’s Action Party MPs as well as Communications and Information Minister S. Iswaran, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung and Mr Shanmugam, who stressed that a minister’s decision under the new law is subject to court appeal and judicial review.
  • The new law is designed to give the Government the tools to deal with falsehoods on the Internet that can go viral in a matter of minutes and cause untold harm, said Mr Shanmugam who spent much of his speech addressing WP MPs’ claims, adding that there was no way to guarantee that the courts would be able to respond within hours every single time a falsehood needed to be dealt with. He also stressed that the Bill narrows the scope of the Government’s powers.
  • “There is no profit of any sort including political profit in trying to allow these lies to proliferate and damage our infrastructure of fact. It will damage any party that wants to consider itself mainstream and credible. You’ve seen what happens in the US, you’ve seen what happened in the UK; the centre gets hollowed out, it’s the extremes that benefit,” he said.
  • MPs had asked for clarifications on technical aspects, such as how the law defines falsehoods and public interest, and also raised practical concerns like whether people who inadvertently forward fake news will run afoul of the law.
  • On that, Mr Shanmugam stressed that orders to put up corrections or remove content would mostly be directed at technology companies.
  • Meanwhile, during the debate on 8 May 19, Mr Ong addressed the concerns of academics, some of whom had sent him a letter in Apr 19 about their concern that the law would be abused to stifle political discourse “because not all researchers are just researchers, they may also be activists”, and assured them that criticism based on facts and not falsehoods would not come under the new law.
  • Mr Iswaran, meanwhile, spoke about how the Government was fighting the fake news scourge from other fronts, such as working with technology companies on a code of practice that will prevent their platforms from being misused to ramping up media literacy through education.
  • “Ultimately, our first and most important line of defence against online falsehoods is a well-informed and discerning citizenry, equipped with the tools to combat online falsehoods,” he said.

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