MPs pass fake news law with 72 ayes
All nine Workers' Party MPs vote nay, as Shanmugam stresses new law is aimed at protecting Singapore society from online falsehoods
The Workers' Party (WP) has not completely engaged with the key issues of the proposed law on online falsehoods and has not shown how it would chill free speech.
Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam made this point in stressing the need for such a law to combat fake news as he closed a marathon two-day debate in Parliament last night.
Parliament later voted to pass the Bill on the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act without amendments.
More than 30 ministers and MPs took about 14 hours over two days to debate the merits and criticisms of the law, which will empower ministers to issue orders to correct or take down online content that is deemed false and against the public interest, among other things.
WP chief Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) had called for a division - which means each MP's vote is recorded - at the second and third reading of the Bill.
A total of 72 MPs voted for the Bill while all nine opposition MPs voted against.
Three Nominated MPs - Dr Walter Theseira, Ms Irene Quay and Ms Anthea Ong - abstained after their proposed amendments were voted down.
Mr Shanmugam picked apart individual arguments made by the WP MPs and said their proposal that the courts should be the sole arbiter of what is false could not guarantee speedy action and would be a complicated exercise.
He said the opposition had not dealt with the point he made on Tuesday at the start of the debate that the proposed law would narrow the Government's existing powers and offer greater judicial oversight, compared with current laws.
In wrapping up the debate, Mr Shanmugam said: "They (WP MPs) pivot very quickly to the broad points on free speech. And that, with respect, overlooks completely the point that what we are talking about is falsehoods, turbo-charged by bots, trolls, fake accounts.
"So unfortunately, in this debate, for all the rhetoric, there has been no engagement on the key issues, on why there should be free speech in this area. What speech are you protecting?"
He added: "The real point... is whether we should act immediately to stop the flow of falsehoods and then be subject to the court, or whether it should go to court first.
"It comes down after these two days to that one difference really."
During his exchange with Mr Singh and Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera, Mr Shanmugam shot down the idea that a court order could be obtained within a matter of hours to break the virality of online falsehoods.
The Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods convened last year had recommended that the new legislation empower the Government to stop online falsehoods within hours.
Mr Singh, who sat on the committee, had signed off on this recommendation.
Mr Shanmugam, as well as Pioneer MP Cedric Foo, said the nature of the judicial process meant there would be numerous challenges even if there were provisions to allow judges to give orders based on prima facie evidence and without hearing from a defendant first.
Mr Foo said it was far-fetched to think the courts could be equipped to have the same capability, response time, experience and domain knowledge as the executive branch, which will be supported by some 135,000 civil servants.
Mr Shanmugam said it would be impossible to guarantee if a judge would be available in such short timeframes.
Mr Singh and Mr Perera argued it was conceivable that the capacity of the judiciary could be increased and processes be made simple to reduce lag time for when a minister seeks a court order.
Responding to questions by Mr Perera on the possibility of ministers using the new law to suppress embarrassing news reports or facts, Mr Shanmugam said with the potential for court appeals, ministers would be putting their personal reputations at risk every time they decide to give an order under the Act.
He added: "If (a minister) tried to suppress, and courts say this is not in the public interest or false, not many would survive... There is a sword hanging over (them), with the courts. We get it wrong, we will be publicly embarrassed."
Touching on suggestions that the Government may spread falsehoods, Mr Shanmugam told MPs to ask themselves to what extent this had happened and what damage had been done?
He said Parliament can question the Government if it is suspected of lying and expose it and demand a credible explanation. The Government will face the consequences if it does not have one, he added.
Refuting veteran WP MP Low Thia Khiang's claim that the proposed law is a power grab, Mr Shanmugam said: "What is the purpose of saying this because people listening to Mr Low can be misled."
He added that there was no political profit in allowing online falsehoods to proliferate and such lies would damage the "infrastructure of fact" and our institutions.
"Frankly, no mainstream political party will benefit from this," he said.
"This is not about the WP or the PAP. Today, it is about Singapore."
Academic research will not be hurt by POFMA: Ong Ye Kung
Academic research will not be negatively impacted by the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said in Parliament yesterday.
Referring to a letter of concern from 124 academics - both foreign and local - Mr Ong noted that the real worry about the law among some in the group was not over research.
He said: "They are worried that POFMA will be abused and used to stifle political discourse in Singapore. Because not all researchers are just researchers; they may also be activists."
Referring to the letter of concern by academics, Mr Ong said that to the best of the Ministry of Education's knowledge, 71 of the signatories were foreign academics based in foreign universities and 52 were Singaporeans. Among the locals, 25 are based in foreign universities and the rest work here with local universities.
Mr Ong said that even if academics express opinions in their role as activists, they need not self-censor.
He said the law treats all activists equally and does not target academics.
"Any activist will not be caught by POFMA if you express an opinion or hurl criticisms at the Government.
"You are as free as an ordinary citizen to comment on current affairs and critique the Government."
Mr Ong gave the assurance that as long as academics adhere to the principles of research - experiments, gathering data, testing hypotheses, having work reviewed by peers, and follow a strict discipline and process - they have nothing to worry about.
"The only way POFMA comes in is if the research uses false observations and data to start with, which prevents public discourse from taking place properly.
"In which case, such work cannot pass the professional standards of any decent university or research institute," he said.
Mr Ong stressed that even in the case of research that is based on opinion, philosophy or interpretation of history, POFMA cannot be exercised as it does not cover hypotheses, theories and opinions.
But, he added: "... in the interest of open debate and given your stature in society and position in a publicly-funded university, please expect government agencies - if we do not agree with you - to present the facts, our arguments and to convince the public otherwise.
"If that has a chilling effect, please chill," he added, to much laughter.
Mr Ong stressed that any activist - academic or not - who uses the online medium to spread falsehoods that harm society will not be spared under the law.
Mr Ong said: "The law offers no special shield to academics either."
Even with POFMA, Mr Ong said that the powers the Government will have, relative to the online capacities now available to those with malicious intent, is not large.
The Government can only call for a correction or a take down when the criteria is met, and is not "the omnipresent, draconian, infinite gauntlet snap, nuclear weapon that some people make it out to be".
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