SINGAPORE: It will be “impossible” for academics to run afoul of the proposed Protection Online Falsehoods and Manipulation (POFMA) law if it is passed, said Education Minister Ong Ye Kung in Parliament on Wednesday (May 8).
He said he decided to speak on the Bill although the ambit of this law "has little to do" with his ministry after receiving a letter signed by 124 local and foreign academics who were “concerned” that the proposed legislation could curb their research.
The letter detailed concerns from the academics that conjectures or hypotheses assumed under research purposes, which may turn out to be false or misleading, could violate POFMA when scholarly discussions take place online.
The academics added that much of academic work is to dispute “apparently established facts”.
In response, the minister said that to be penalised under POFMA, falsehoods must pass through three “gates”.
One, statements put up online must be a statement which is false. Two, it must cause public harm. Lastly, the person disseminating the falsehood must have knowledge that it is false and harmful.
When the first two conditions are met, the authorities may order for the falsehood to be corrected or removed. This would not be a criminal punishment, Mr Ong said.
“For there to be criminal liability, a third gate has to be crossed, which is that the propagator of the falsehood must have knowledge that it is false and harmful so there is malicious intent,” the minister said.
Those found guilty can be fined up to S$100,000 and face a jail term of up to 10 years.
Researchers conducting experiments, gathering data, testing hypotheses, publishing their findings, having their work reviewed by peers follow a strict discipline and process, Mr Ong said.
Those in fields that conduct empirical-based research such as engineering and medicine and are “questioning truths all the time” will not see their research criminalised even if their theory or body of knowledge gets disproved later.
“Any attempt to apply POFMA to empirically based, natural sciences research will fail at the first gate. What is the first gate you ask? Is there falsehood? No, because researchers use real data and observations to draw their conclusions,” said Mr Ong.
Even if the data is not accurate because the experiment was not well conducted, or the data collected is not reproducible, there is no falsehood as defined by POFMA, he added.
“Second gate, is there public harm? I don’t believe good, honest research can cause public harm," Mr Ong said.
Similarly, those who engage in research that is based on opinion, philosophy, interpretation of history, cultural bias, geographical context also cannot be subject to the law even if they are controversial, highly debatable or offensive to some.
“In fact, they won’t even reach the two gates of POFMA. Their conclusions are in the form of hypotheses, theories and opinions that are not covered by the Bill," Mr Ong said, adding that the Bill is about the truthfulness of "facts".
GALILEO GALILEI WON'T RUN FOUL OF POFMA
Mr Ong gave the example of 17th century scientist Galileo Galilei, who was penalised for challenging the prevailing belief of a heliocentric model of the universe with the sun revolving around the earth. The belief was central to the power of the Church and the Roman authorities, he said.
The Roman authorities did not take kindly to Galileo's challenge despite it being rooted in empirical methods and his observations.
"What if something like this were to happen today, involving a question to which we have no answers, or we thought we had an answer, and a researcher comes up with something that challenges deeply held views or shared realities?" said Mr Ong.
"In our context, I can assure the House, that if it is empirical research, we will stay true to science and empirical evidence. We have always been, sometimes to a fault. And if it is an opinion-based research, we will have a rigorous public debate. Under both scenarios, POFMA does not apply in such a discourse," he added.
The only way POFMA will come into play is if the research uses false observations and data to start with, which prevents public discourse from taking place properly. Such work will not even pass the professional and academic standards of any decent university or research institution, he said.
Academics who uses the online medium to spread falsehoods that harm society will not be offered any “special shield” either, the minister said.
“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,” Mr Ong said.
He noted that in economics, the post Global Financial Crisis debate continues, on the efficacy of fiscal, monetary policies and quantitative easing.
Researchers are also questioning the causal relationship between unemployment and skills gap, and if a nation’s success should include measures beyond GDP, such as ecological sustainability and social equity, he added.
"These works challenge existing beliefs in far more profound ways than any memes, any blog post, or opinion piece in the newspapers shared online. They are on-going, welcomed and embraced," he said.
Giving an assurance, the minister said: "If any of our researchers make such a breakthrough in our understanding of the world, rather than being persecuted ... they are more likely to be celebrated and may even be accorded a National Day award!"
RESEARCH BY ACADEMIC-ACTIVISTS
Mr Ong said ”not all researchers as just researchers; most researchers may also be activists”.
“It is in their activist role that some of these academics are voicing their concerns about POFMA,” he said adding that they are worried that the law will be abused and used to stifle political discourse in Singapore.
“Let me put it quite plainly. Any activist will not be caught by POFMA if you express an opinion or even hurl criticisms at the Government. The law treats all activists equally, whether you are an academic or a man or woman on the street. It does not target academics,” he said.
“You are as free as an ordinary citizen to comment on current affairs and critique the Government."
They can put out an opinion that Singapore’s growth model, meritocracy or education system has failed, or does more harm than good without invoking POFMA, but should expect Government agencies to respond if it does not agree with the opinion, Mr Ong said.
"If that has a chilling effect, please chill," he quipped.
The same standards will apply to Cabinet ministers, he added, to ensure that whatever is said is “well thought out” and is "in the best interest of our people”.
“Deliberate lies, connivance, impersonations, incitement of unrest and societal anger and turmoil. This is the world of online falsehoods and manipulations that this Bill is targeting,” the minister said.