POFMA: The G should “chill” too

In News Reports on May 10, 2019 at 4:04 am

So I asked the people on my Facebook timeline how they would interpret the word “activist”. Most of the 70-plus people who responded related it to championing for political or social causes or agitating for change of some sort. Of course, some pointed out that you could be a “green” activist, or even a “tennis” activist. There were also those who put in a requirement that activists should not just “talk” but invest time and energy to actively seek change in some way.

Is being labelled an activist a good or bad thing? Let’s just say from my sense of the feedback sought that an activist is not as good a label as “advocate”. I suppose we take our cue from the G and the MSM which sort people into various boxes. I am generalising here, but I think it’s more likely that those in trouble for their views or actions are more likely to be known as  “activists” than “advocates”.

I asked a second question, which is whether they would consider me an activist. Most of them said no. Those who said yes said I champion the cause of better journalism and transparency in governance. But there were also quite a few who said that I crossed the line from commentary into activism when I put up a petition template for people to write in to their MPs to ask for a delay in the passage of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill.  (Definitely didn’t work)

Why am I concerned about such labels? It’s because I teach part-time at the National University of Singapore as an Adjunct Professor. At a stretch, this former  journalism practitioner can be called an academic. And it’s also because I continue to report and write, sometimes copiously when I am seized with an issue, such as the proposals to amend the elected presidency in 2017 and the current POFMA fuss.  So I looked long and hard at what Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said about academic/activists when he joined in the POFMA debate in Parliament on Wednesday. He was referring to a letter signed by more than 120 academics both in Singapore and outside asking for assurances that their research work would not be compromised by POFMA.

An excerpt of what they said:

Wide dissemination of ongoing research—which may be considered “facts in dispute”—is a global public good facilitated by the borderless internet.  Our concern is that POFMA’s wide reach, both “in and outside Singapore”, its broad definition of Singapore’s “public interest” (e.g. covering matters deemed related to “Singapore’s friendly relations with other countries”), its holding “internet intermediaries” responsible for all items posted on their platforms, and its severe penalties of large fines and long prison terms for deemed violations, will discourage this for an indeterminately wide range of subjects and individuals. These provisions may have unforeseen consequences for Singapore’s ability to serve as a global hub of first-rate academic research and technological innovation.

Under these circumstances, POFMA is likely to make many academics hesitant to conduct or supervise research that might unknowingly fall afoul of POFMA, or refer colleagues or students to faculty positions in Singapore’s respected universities.

They suggested that the result would affect Singapore’s standing as an international hub for research and scholarship.

Academics have weighed in on other forums. Singaporean economist Linda Lim, a professor at the University of Michigan in the United States and a signatory to the letter, told University World News that academics had already asked the government to put protections for academic freedom in the law “but they have not done that”.

“The whole thing is very vague. The public interest is very broadly defined and it also applies to people publishing outside Singapore and putting it online,”  she added. “If it has relevance to Singapore that might damage Singapore’s public interest, it might not even be about Singapore – so it’s the broadest definition,” she said.

Dr Teo You Yenn, associate professor and head of sociology at Nanyang Technological University  in Singapore, had a commentary in the same publication asserting that academic work is “circumscribed by the government’s desires”. The G has multiple levers, including publicly shaming academics or by curtailing funding of research work, she said. Although her book, This is what inequality looks like, is a bestseller and she remains in academia, “none of this diminishes my anxiety about the future of my scholarship and that of others”.

“The social and political context which makes my book an anomaly has not changed,” she added.

Mr Ong’s response should lay some of their concerns to rest. He acknowledged that academic work goes through a rigorous process of peer reviews, empirical evidence and citations. There is a rigorous self-checking mechanism. Academic work would not even clear the first gate of “false statement of fact” under the law – unless the data used to support conclusions had been fabricated, much less cross into the second gate of public harm. Likewise, academic work which present theories and hypotheses are “opinions” which do not come under the Bill, said the minister.

He answered the point on challenges to academic conclusions based on “incomplete data” – a big bugbear of academics and which had led to a high-level rebuke for two academics in 2003. There was a difference between the G using POFMA against falsehoods, and disagreeing with academics’ opinions, he said. Academics must expect the G to come down robustly if it disagrees with them. In other words, academics shouldn’t be thin-skinned when their opinions (not facts) are challenged.

He also said there was a difference between research and activism and the two should not be conflated. He speculated that some of the signatories were more concerned about their activist role being stifled, than about being able to pursue their academic work freely. (I would like to add that that is his opinion, not a fact.)

“Academics are well-respected members of society. We hold academics to “conduct professorial” – high standards of integrity, in their teaching, their research, and the validity of their views put forward in public. This is especially so when they speak or make social media posts on current affairs while bearing the title of a professor in a publicly-funded local university.

“So you can put out an opinion that Singapore’s growth model has failed, meritocracy has failed, that the education system is elitist, our social welfare does not work and it does more harm than good. POFMA will not apply to you because that is your opinion. But 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 put out the data, put out our arguments, and to convince the public otherwise. If that has a chilling effect, please chill.”

So it is precisely because academics have stature and their views will be well-regarded by members of the public that they should expect a more robust response from the G when they use their scholar credentials to move into political territory. In other words, there will be no change to the status quo with POFMA. The G will give as good as it gets.

I would like to add that the G has to chill too, because what any G member opines in public could have a far greater impact than any quiet correction order. The G may assert all it wants about not having a hand in the appointments or career progression of academics in Singapore’s autonomous universities, but it’s a rather big pill to swallow given its omnipresence in every part of Singapore life.

Dr Teo said this in her commentary: “Among academics in Singapore, it is an open secret that work is circumscribed by the government’s desires. At conferences and workshops, academics awkwardly and regularly ‘joke’, tilting their heads to glance over shoulders, about their remarks being heard by ‘the government’. Students and younger scholars regularly ask if they should avoid certain topics because of ‘sensitivities’.”

I can testify to this. I would go further and posit that foreign academics are rather more afraid than locals about contravening those unseen OB markers.

I think the right way for journalists and academic activists to handle POFMA is to stand their ground if they believe they have the facts. So correct  or clarify them because you have to, but append a note like news agencies do, if you have cause to feel aggrieved.

And if the facts are incomplete, keep bugging the newsmaker, usually the Government agencies, to release them if they don’t want to go through the trouble of issuing corrections. Or, if you’re desperate enough, get your MPs to file a question in Parliament. You’re supposed to get your answers there.

I think the G should expect that there would be more, not fewer, requests for information in this POFMA age. Too many corrections to fill in information gaps don’t look good on it either.

As for public disagreements with academics over opinions, I would like to think academics are made of sterner stuff than laymen. Their scholarly work and intellect should be their shield against the “chilling effect”. Take it as engagement in the political discourse, not a shaming or a rebuke. Make it an argument between equals. Remember that the G isn’t so stupid as to alienate members of the intelligentsia.

Oh dear! Did I just cross into activism?


















About the fake news Bill (Oops! I mean law)

In News Reports on May 9, 2019 at 3:27 am

While I was sleeping, the Protection against Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill was passed. I thought the debate would enter into its third day, but no. Our tireless parliamentarians sat till 10.20pm. So the legislation went through its second and third readings and a division vote was called which had all People’s Action Party MPs saying aye, all Workers’ Party MPs saying nay. There were three abstentions – the Nominated MPs who had tried in vain to amend the legislation to include, among some things, principles that would make clear that “material” falsehoods only were being targeted.

I am disappointed, to put it mildly.

I had hoped that the G would  delay the legislative process with a Select Committee to scrutinise the text of the Bill to insert more checks and balances. Instead, more details would be put into subsidiary legislation.

I wasn’t in the public gallery watching the marathon debate all the time, but I caught some of it that made me upset with the PAP MPs. Almost no one had any reservations about any part of the Bill. You wonder about how firmly the Whip was in place. But while there were the usual stock phrases in the PAP echo chamber about Singapore’s vulnerability and variations of “fake news is bad”, there were a few who actually advanced the case for the Bill quite well.

MP Murali Pillai, for example, noted that when  it came to a dispute over a minister’s correction or take down order, the courts would look at subsidiary legislation as well as the primary legislation to come to a decision. So those who believe that the judiciary’s hands will be tied by the wording of the main law shouldn’t worry, he said.

He didn’t, however, move on to the  point made by the Nominated MPs that it is the G who writes subsidiary legislation – and can re-write them without Parliament oversight. (Nominated MP Walter Theseira had quipped that the US Environment Protection Agency’s position on climate science depended on who the President is.)

May I will now humbly suggest to the Ministry of Law that it makes public such regulations when they are ready so that everyone can have a look before the law is enacted. Not everyone monitors the government gazette.

Mr Murali, a lawyer,  was quite compelling when he argued that the  access to judicial review is a guard against the oft-heard argument that the Bill allows a rogue government to exercise its powers willy-nilly. He also responded to opposition MPs who had argued that the legal burden was on the person who wrote the offending statement to prove that it was not false, not the minister who issued the correction order. He noted that the minister had first to give his reasons for the order (which will be in subsidiary legislation), and that this would be open to public scrutiny.  Even when a person is compelled to comply with the order, there is nothing to stop him from going public about what he deems is a “wrong” order, he said.

So you can still argue, but whether you have the courage to do so is a different matter. This has been a key plank in the Workers’ Party outright rejection of the Bill: That people wouldn’t want to risk saying anything for fear of crossing some red line under a broadly-worded law.

I believe in the “chilling effect”, no matter how many times ministers and MPs dismiss it. They say that the fear is unfounded because only false statements that harm public interest is targeted. But this debate has been all about what is a false statement and what is the public interest. The fear might be unfounded, but it is real.

Methinks the chilling effect is a by-product of the society we have become: one which treats the G as so all-powerful that it can solve any problem, quash any opponent and can rely on establishment players to do the needful (or  extra) even without having to tell them to. Like sack someone or put him in “cold storage”.

This might be unfair to the G. I myself have never been on the whacking end of the G stick but I have also always wondered if anything I write will earn a ferocious comeback that will scare the living daylights out of me, as well as the people associated with me. We’re remarkably thin-skinned, as I have said before.

So there’s another point in the debate that is worth elaborating on:  The difference between fact (which will come under POFMA) and opinion (which the G doesn’t have to agree with). POFMA will be used against “false” statements, and it must first be clear that the statement is indeed false. The education on what is fake new is really more needed on the government end, so that ministers and their ministries do not confuse opinion with fact, or label statements as untrue when they are merely disagreeable.

NMP  Theseira’s checks on how ministries consider the term “fake” in the G portal, Factually, is illuminating. In his speech yesterday, he said that there were 10 cases when ministries used language to dismiss statements as untrue when there were really disagreements about conclusions. For example, someone had said that the rise in ComCare assistance reflected the “worst poverty results” officially recorded, but the Ministry of Social and Family Development countered that this was “untrue”. It was due to more generous social welfare policies, the ministry said.

He advised that ministries exercise more caution in the words used because of the new powers that the Bill confers on them. He also made this point that sometimes, people have only partial information and not the full nor relevant information that the ministries’ hold.

WP chairman Sylvia Lim also referred to this in her speech, when she brought up the case of two economists in the Nanyang Technological University  who were castigated by then-Manpower Minister Ng Eng Hen in 2003 for saying that most newly created jobs went to foreigners. Their conclusion was based on information that was public available. But it transpired that the ministry had more data that led to a different conclusion. Dr Chen Kang and Dr Tan Khee Giap were labelled as “irresponsible” and “unprofessional”.

Both Ms Lim, NCMP Daniel Goh and NMP Theseira asked if the two would have been tagged with correction orders should POFMA have been in place then. Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said no. They had incomplete data. They didn’t fabricate data, which would have brought POFMA down on them. As for the stern rebuke from Dr Ng at that time, Mr Ong said disagreeing with the academics was “not equal” to running foul of POFMA. “It cannot be that just because it’s a research piece, we all have to shut up,” he said. He conceded, however, that the G should exercise more discipline in its choice of words. (Come to think of it, it might be better to  get the facts wrong and have them quietly corrected with more info than to get involved in a public disagreement over opinion with the G!)

And this brings me back to whether we have enough information or facts in the first place to say anything meaningful.

Calls for a Freedom of Information Act made by MP Louis Ng were turned down by Law Minister K Shanmugam who warned about ministries being deluged with absurd requests. Such a law would privilege some people more than others, he said, as it would be lawyers, businessmen and journalists (!) who ask for data. (He forgot academics).

He said MPs, including NMPs, can ask for any information they want.

I am really hoping that he was reported wrongly because I can see all sorts of walls being put up by ministries to requests for information. All they need to do is refer to what he said. It cannot be that ministries only respond to MPs’ queries and public discourse can only take place meaningfully in Parliament. The institution of the media, for example, has a big part to play in creating the infrastructure of fact. Academics need access as well or there would be a replay of what happened in 2003.

I recall NMP Theseira’s speech during the Budget debate when he spoke about strengthening institutions by, among other things, making information more available. He noted that half of last year’s 698 parliamentary questions were requests for data, and three-quarters were answered. “These answers show that much information held by the Government is of public interest, is readily available, and by release, poses no significant sensitivities.”

But that’s a column for another day.

For now, I just want to know if the law will be applied “retroactively”, that is, to fake news now currently floating around or have been floating around for years. I better go double-check my own stuff.























Shan’s case for fake news Bill: narrower, sharper, faster

In News Reports on May 7, 2019 at 1:43 pm

Here’s how Mr K Shanmugam argued the case for fake news laws: What are you grumbling about? Don’t you know the Telecommunications Act and the Broadcasting Act already let the minister or regulator penalise you for transmitting falsehoods? In fact, the law can kick in even if your statement is true. The Broadcasting Act can block you off because you said something  “objectionable” and against the public interest. And, guess what? Contravening the Telecoms Act can make you a criminal!

Okay, that wasn’t how the Law Minister said it but the frustration in his voice was palpable when he called on everyone, as well as MPs, to be “better informed” before knocking the Protection against Online Falsehoods and Manipulation (POFMA) Bill which was  debated earlier today.

It is a recent argument that has surfaced in favour of POFMA – that it is narrower in scope than other laws, calibrated in approach and you can appeal over the head of the minister to the judiciary. That’s judicial “oversight”, more than the judicial review that is applied to other laws.

I recall that in 2013, when the G wanted to introduce the licensing of news sites which cover local developments, it made a similar argument about the Broadcasting Act, noting that all websites come under an automatic Class Licence which can be revoked if the internet code of conduct was breached. So what was the big deal about licensing websites and issuing take down orders to them? The G didn’t even think it needed to amend the law for this, just new regulations will do.

That argument was, ahem, ignored by everyone, but it’s likely that the G will now place it front and centre in its defence against criticisms that POHMA gives the G too much discretion to decide between truth and falsity.

It’s true that there hasn’t been much grumbling about the current laws that touch on speech which are more draconian and wider  than POFMA.

My own take: I think it’s because the laws have seldom been used and are pretty ancient tools.  If they were introduced  or amended in some way today, I should think that more noise will be emitted. Over time, however, they have gone under the radar. There’s also an implicit understanding that they won’t be used frequently, because it’s like wielding a nuclear weapon.

POFMA, however, is in vogue. Fake news is being dealt with the world over in many different ways and involves not just governments but tech companies, publishers and end users. POFMA is perceived as dealing with anything said, intentionally or not, by anyone online. Hence, the immense public interest. As I wrote earlier, it’s about giving ministers hand guns to stun or wound, not a nuclear missile to obliterate you from the surface of the earth. I would like to add here, however, that getting stunned or wounded would still hurt. 

So why the need for a new law when the G could simply amend the old ones? He said the G wanted a law to deal specifically – and speedily – with online falsehoods, and actually tied its own hands by extending judicial oversight over executive decisions. To placate those who complained about delays and court expenses, he went into great detail on the timelines imposed for ministerial appeals and court action that would go into subsidiary legislation. You can read about it here.

Score 1 to Mr Shanmugam. Now it remains to be seen how many handguns will be fired at how many people. And whether making a racket would make people pipe down (cue chilling effect)

He didn’t go into detail about what constituted a “false statement of fact”, beyond pointing out that the phrase was in the Telecommunications Act too (!) and lawyers and judges have a great deal of experience in this area. Instead he reiterated that the Bill works not just on the basis that statement is false but also whether the public interest was affected.

In fact, a large chunk of his speech was devoted to the contentious (f) clause on public interest, regarding whether the false statement diminishes “public confidence in the performance of any duty or function of, or in the exercise of any power by, the Government, an Organ of State, a statutory board, or a part of the Government, an Organ of State or a statutory board”.

He went round the world and back, with real-life examples, numbers and academic work, to show that online falsehoods attack the “infrastructure of facts” which underpin  democratic public discourse. This, in turn, destroys trust in institutions thereby allowing the growth of populist politics and fracturing society into opposing groups with their own version of reality.

His rendering was near-apocalyptic, although he was also quick to say that in Singapore, trust in the G was still high, as Edelman’s annual Trust barometer has consistently shown.

He also gave “real life” examples of the difference between fact and opinion, which isn’t covered by the Bill.

He didn’t give names but you might recall that there was some fuss over whether celebrity vlogger Nas Daily had obtained a Public Order permit for his meeting with fans at the Botanic Gardens last month.

Police said he needn’t as his event wasn’t “cause-based”. Instead he got a Public Entertainment Licence because recorded music was being played.

Mr Shanmugam said that if someone had accused police of having double standards because there were different permits for different events, that would be considered opinion. But it would not if the accusation was about how police were biased in choosing who to give the same permit to. That is, the police had different standards for the same permit regime. It would be considered a false statement of fact, he said, and should be remedied by a correction.

According to news reports at that time, the police said it was aware of false claims that “double standards applied for the granting of permits”.  “These allegations which suggest that the police have been biased and shown favouritism are untrue and baseless, and maliciously seek to undermine confidence in public institutions.”

It seems that the language of the Bill is being used. Not only are the police saying that the statement is false, but they had also thrown in the “public interest” factor of diminishing confidence in public institutions”. If things go according to the Bill, freelance journalist Kirsten Han would be given a Correction order to comply with.

True to form, Mr Shanmugam was hard on those whom he thought had misled people about the Bill. He said one academic had told Civicus, an international NGO, that the Bill was tautological – allowing the G to decide what was false based on its definition of public interest. The academic had conflated the two separate points. You can read the interview here. The academic was one of several local and foreign academics who signed a letter stating that the law, if approved, would affect academic work. He said that if a local academic could make such a basic mistake, it’s understandable if foreigners did so too.


The debate continues tomorrow.