SINGAPORE: The People’s Action Party Policy Forum (PPF) has slammed a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report which described Singapore as a “repressive place” that imposed criminal penalties for peaceful speech.
The group, an arm of the People's Action Party that engages Government leaders on policy issues, called the report as a “type of deliberate falsehood” in a written submission to the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods on Friday (Mar 23).
It said the report is “an example of how false and misleading impressions can be created by a selective presentation of facts, designed to promote an underlying agenda”, which is to change the society in Singapore.
The report, released last December, presented examples of what it said were restrictions on peaceful assembly and online media. It cited the imprisonment of the then 17-year-old Amos Yee for making offensive remarks against Christianity and posting obscene images online.
But the PPF said the report suppresses the truth.
The group said the report “glosses over” the actual hate speech that Amos was charged for, instead focusing on his “irrelevant” criticisms of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
The report also mentioned how socio-political website The Real Singapore (TRS) was charged with sedition, “although none of the posts for which they were prosecuted encouraged any sort of public disorder, much less incited violence or overt discrimination against any particular religion or ethnic group”.
But the PPF said it failed to mention that the website's founders had fabricated “sensational falsehoods” against foreigners to generate advertising revenue.
“The TRS case is a classic example of deliberate online falsehoods, which can seriously undermine societal trust, social peace,” it wrote. “Does HRW seek to perpetuate such deliberate online falsehoods by using them as reference points?”
The PPF also criticised the report’s methodology, calling it “biased and flawed”.
It said the report was largely based on interviews with 34 individuals, whose words were used to “offer injunctions and prescriptions to an entire country”. There was also no explanation, the PPF added, on how these individuals, some of whom do not appear to be Singaporeans, were selected.
Furthermore, the PPF pointed out that the report failed to include relevant, reputable third-party studies, given its claims that Singapore’s Government suppresses dissent and criticism.
For instance, the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer Index showed that in Singapore, trust in the Government stood at 65 per cent, while trust in the media stood at 52 per cent. In comparison, the figures for the United States stood at 33 per cent and 42 per cent, respectively.
“It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the HRW report deliberately omitted material that was inconvenient to its views,” the PPF said.
Stressing that the spread of deliberate falsehoods is harmful to society, the PPF said the report “can be easily put online, and circulated, with or without attribution” and that it “can influence opinions”.
Testifying before the Select Committee on Friday, PPF member Vikram Nair suggested the possibility that Singaporeans could take the report seriously, pointing out how fake news had influenced elections in countries like the United Kingdom, Germany and Italy.
“I don’t think that we are any more sophisticated (than them),” he said. “Even I was taken in by fake news more than once.”
HRW INVITED TO GIVE EVIDENCE
Meanwhile, Select Committee chairman Charles Chong revealed that it had on Mar 5 invited HRW to give oral evidence at the hearings on any of the eight hearing dates.
On Mar 8, HRW replied that it was willing to send a representative to be present on Mar 23.
The Parliament Secretariat asked on the same day if HRW could appear on Mar 27 instead, to which HRW replied that its representative would only be available to give evidence on Mar 23.
On Mar 13, the Parliament Secretariat confirmed that Mar 23 was available and informed HRW that its representative should be able to deal with questions that might arise, including those on HRW’s report.
But the next day, HRW said its "staff member best able to address these issues has made other travel plans that cannot be changed". HRW also offered to submit written evidence, or to meet Government officials in Singapore or London.
The Parliament Secretariat replied on the same day to reiterate the offer of appearing on any of the hearing dates.
When HRW on Mar 15 again indicated its unavailability, it was told that video-conferencing could be arranged on any of the hearing dates so its officers would not have to travel.
"It was also pointed out to HRW that the Select Committee had received a submission which was highly critical of the HRW report and considered the report to be full of falsehoods," the committee said in a statement.
And the next day, the Parliament Secretariat sent another email offering to fund the cost of flying in HRW’s representative, Mr Chong said.
However on Mar 19, HRW maintained that it was unable to participate. It also did not take up the offer of video-conferencing.
"For the record, our invitation to HRW still stands should HRW decide that it is willing to give oral defence to defend its report," Mr Chong said.
The Law Ministry also weighed in, calling HRW's refusal to appear before the committee "disappointing".
"The Ministry of Law notes that serious allegations have been made to the Select Committee, against HRW and its work," it said in a statement. "Appearing before the Select Committee would give HRW the chance to vindicate itself and set out its views."
The ministry suggested that HRW had chosen not to come to Singapore to publicly defend its views because it knows that its report would not withstand scrutiny.
"HRW, by its conduct, has shown that it cannot be taken seriously as a commentator or interlocutor on issues relating to Singapore," the ministry said.