Singapore’s POFMA Corrections Over Ho Ching’s Salary Raise Uncomfortable Questions

Singapore’s POFMA Corrections Over Ho Ching’s Salary Raise Uncomfortable Questions
Photo Credit: Reuters/TPG Images
What you need to know

Taiwanese media sparked public debate about the salary of Ho Ching, Singapore’s First Lady. The Singapore government swiftly attempted to shut down debate with its “anti-fake news” law.

The Singapore government accused several people of making false claims about the salary of the prime minister’s wife, Ho Ching, on April 19.

Ho is the chief executive of Temasek Holdings, one of Singapore’s government investment firms. Her salary became topic of public discussion in Singapore after Taiwan’s EBC News (東森新聞) reported her annual salary to be US$69.8 million on its talk show. 

The Singapore government invoked its “anti-fake news” law, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), to shut down speculation. Although the discussion of Ho’s salary seems trivial, it threatens to raise questions about the relationships between the First Family of Singapore and their management of the state’s investment firms. 

Photo Credit: Screenshot from forums.hardwarezone.com.sg
The POFMA correction notice affixed to a post on the Singaporean online forum, HardwareZone. Image captured April 23, 2020.
Singapore’s “anti-fake news” law

Singapore’s Ministry of Finance issued “correction directions” to two people and two media groups under POFMA for posting about the EBC talk show. 

The four who have been targeted are opposition politician Lim Tean from Peoples Voice, a user on one of Singapore’s forum pages HardwareZone, darksiedluv, as well as the publication The Online Citizen and a Facebook page The Temasek Review

The correction order requires the offenders to attach a government-imposed statement to their posts declaring their posts as falsehoods. 

Under POFMA, only ministers from the country's ruling party, the People's Action Party (PAP), can decide what constitutes a falsehood. Individuals who do not comply with the correction orders can be liable to fines of up to US$14,000 or a jail term of up to 12 months. Individuals found guilty of spreading falsehoods can also be fined up to US$34,975 and jailed up to 5 years. 

Although individuals can appeal POFMA injunctions, they are required to first comply with the order. It often takes several days or weeks for the court to hear their challenge. The High Court (the lower division of the Supreme Court) only heard a challenge early this year by opposition party Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) two weeks after the appeal was filed. This appeal was dismissed, leaving the POFMA order intact. 

EBC News, the original source making claims about Ho’s salary, has not received any correction order from the Singapore government. 

When the government enacted POFMA, its remit included people outside of the country. Singapore did attempt to enforce the law earlier this year against a human rights group in Malaysia, Lawyers for Liberty. However, the move backfired as Lawyers for Liberty sued Singapore's Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam in Malaysia’s High Court for issuing the order.

The Singapore government has taken to heart the lesson that its laws can be challenged overseas. In place of censuring EBC News, it seems that Singpoarean individuals and media have been made scapegoats. The four accused were not the only ones to share the EBC News report on Ho’s salary. Thousands have shared the posts on Facebook. The widespread sharing of the EBS News report shows the arbitrariness of how the Singapore government’s censorship is enforced.

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Photo Credit: Reuters/TPG Images
An executive prepares to take the stage during the annual Temasek Review in Singapore July 7, 2016. REUTERS/Edgar Su 
It’s not just about Ho’s exorbitant salary

Neither the Ministry of Finance nor Temasek Holdings has revealed how much Ho earns despite having refuted the claims regarding her salary.

As The Online Citizen pointed out last year, Temasek Holdings was made an “exempt private company” under the Singapore Companies Act, and it was therefore not required to provide information on Ho’s salary. The company is also exempt from disclosing financial statement audits in spite of it using public funds for investments. 

But the discussion around Ho’s salary has only hinted at the structural causes that allow her to manage such vast resources.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is the chairperson of Singapore’s other investment firm, GIC. This means that the First Family of Singapore has effective control over the city-state’s investments. 

Temasek Holdings receives funds from the Singapore government for its investments, such as the initial US$248 million it received when it came into being in 1974. It also has access to Singapore’s reserves, which is supported by the Central Provident Fund (CPF) retirement monies of Singaporeans. 

One must not lose sight of the human consequences of this virtually unchecked control over Singapore’s state investment firms. As of 2018, retirees age 70-79  in Singapore’s CPF retirement system received only US$290 in average monthly CPF Life retirement payouts, and 74 percent of retirees received payouts of less than US$500. 

Single, elderly households require at least US$975 for a basic standard of living in the city-state. Those who are receiving only US $250 are only able to cover about 25 percent of their basic needs. 

Under Singapore’s authoritarian regime, there is little recourse for Singaporeans to find out the salary of the CEO of government investment firm Temasek Holdings, much less do something about the hold on the country’s wealth by its First Family. It has taken the Taiwanese press to fan the flames for the issue, leading to yet another persecution of Singapore’s activists and opposition.


READ NEXT: Coronavirus: How Effective Is Singapore’s Anti-Fake News Law? 

TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty, Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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