The potential for further legislation to regulate what is still a fairly amorphous problem set off alarm bells among more politically engaged citizens.

As Donald Trump made his unlikely ascent to the position of President of the United States, he also turned “fake news” — a vague, all-encompassing phrase he liberally applied to any piece of news media he didn’t like — into a worldwide phenomenon. All of a sudden, governments and companies seized upon the term and leapt into action, triggering concerns over the balance between combating falsehoods and upholding the right to free speech. This debate has now come to Singapore’s shores.

Speaking in parliament last year, Singapore’s Law Minister K. Shanmugam argued the need for new "fake news" legislation. In June 2017, he announced that new laws to tackle “fake news” would be introduced the following year.

K. Shanmugam

Credit: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Singapore’s Law Minister K. Shanmugam feels the threat of fake news deserves additional legislation.

This new legislation has not yet materialized; instead, Shanmugam introduced a Green Paper outlining the government’s concern over “fake news” — therein phrased more solemnly as “deliberate online falsehoods.” The paper cited cases of foreign players deliberately spreading untruths to interfere with a country’s democratic processes and sets out Singapore’s vulnerabilities as a highly-connected, multi-racial, religiously diverse society.

“As the experience elsewhere shows, the Internet and social media provide new and easy means through which falsehoods can be spread deliberately. Actors who wish to harm Singapore will find deliberate online falsehoods an effective way to undermine Singapore,” the paper asserted.

Freedom of speech concerns

The proposal to convene a Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods was unanimously voted through parliament. Members of Parliament were swiftly appointed to the Committee — with no indication of how the selection process had unfolded — and a call for written submissions from the public was issued with a deadline of Feb. 28.

Although the setting up of a Select Committee is a far more open and consultative approach than simply introducing new legislation — which, given the ruling People’s Action Party’s overwhelming majority is bound to pass — concerns still remain in relation to freedom of expression in the city-state.

As it is, free speech is already a controversial and contested issue in Singapore. An extensive report by Human Rights Watch documented multiple pieces of legislation and regulations that restrict or constrain citizens’ freedom of expression, while Freedom House’s Freedom of the Net report describes Singapore’s internet freedom status as only “partly free.” The potential for further legislation to regulate what is still a fairly amorphous problem set off alarm bells among more politically-engaged citizens, particularly as it was seen against the context of a shrinking of space for public political discourse.

“I can count at least 10 instances of tightening OB markers [topics permissible for public discussion] in the last year alone,” former mainstream media journalist Bertha Henson wrote on her blog. “This includes the contempt of court charges on Mr Li Shengwu [the nephew of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, whose father publicly fell out with the premier last year] for remarks about the judiciary intended for a circle of friends on [Facebook] and the worrying use of the Official Secrets Act because a journalist had tried to do legitimate journalism by checking on what her source told her.”

“We do not want a heavy-handed approach that will root out constructive, though at times, disagreeable voices,” said Nominated Member of Parliament Kok Heng Leun during the parliamentary debate over the Green Paper.

Singapore's sole fake news example

Kok, like Henson in her blog post, went on to point out that Singapore already has a wide range of laws regulating speech. Laws such as the Telecommunications Act, the Protection from Harassment Act, the Sedition Act, and Singapore’s defamation laws already cover scenarios that include the spreading of falsehoods or inciting disharmony or hostility between different community groups in the country. The Sedition Act was used in 2016 against a couple behind the website The Real Singapore, which was found to have perpetuated falsehoods for profit. The site was also ordered to shut down. This case was the only example listed in the Green Paper of the spreading of deliberate online falsehoods in Singapore.

Others have argued that these existing laws might not be up to the task. “In Singapore, existing laws to deal with the spread of such insidious information, such as the Sedition Act and the Penal Code, may be inadequate as they tend to kick in only after the deliberate falsehoods have been disseminated,” wrote Eugene Tan, an associate professor of law at the Singapore Management University, in an op-ed for The Straits Times.

The discussion about “fake news” has also triggered fresh calls for intensified efforts to promote media literacy education in Singapore.

“While institutions of higher learning are already offering courses on digital literacy and ‘fake news’ tools, more can be done in the younger age groups, from as young as preschool,” said media consultant and trainer Joon-Nie Lau. “While there are external training providers which offer talks and courses to primary, secondary schools and junior colleges, media literacy topics such as media discernment, safe surfing and online etiquette ought to be incorporated into the school curriculum as a life-long skill.”

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Editor: Morley J Weston