SINGAPORE: The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) does not disadvantage the opposition but instead "encourages greater democracy", said Minister for Law and Home Affairs K Shanmugam.
Mr Shanmugam was speaking to host Diana Ser for the programme In Conversation on Sunday (Jun 21) and was asked about POFMA and the upcoming General Election.
The much-debated Bill was passed in May last year and came into force on Oct 2, making the upcoming General Election the first in which POFMA will be in place. Ms Ser had asked for Mr Shanmugam's response to critics who say that POFMA disadvantages the opposition.
“You can be as hard as you like on the Government policies, on the Government in your viewpoints. You can offer counter policies. POFMA cannot apply to any of that,” said Mr Shanmugam.
“It’s only when you say that ... specific facts are not true or you put out lies, then you’re required to carry a health warning. I don’t see that as an issue.”
POFMA correction directions require recipients to put up a notice alongside the claim, stating that what has been said is untrue. The original message and the claims are not required to be removed, allowing readers to compare both the original statements and the correction notice.
“The POFMA orders require you to put up a health warning that what you have said is untrue. So it doesn’t disadvantage you,” said Mr Shanmugam, noting that the warning will have a link to the facts. “People read what you have written. People read what the Government says. And they decide for themselves.”
Mr Shanmugam said this “actually encourages greater democracy” because it encourages more information.
“You can argue censorship only if your article is taken down,” said Mr Shanmugam. “But your article is there. So what are you embarrassed about?”
Authorities can issue POFMA take-down orders in extreme cases, although none have been issued so far. Most of the POFMA orders issued have been correction directions.
People also have the right to challenge POFMA orders in court, said Mr Shanmugam, adding that “we need to encourage people to argue based on policies, on facts”.
READ: National Times Singapore issued correction direction over false POFMA statements in Facebook post
Among members of opposition parties, Brad Bowyer from the Progress Singapore Party was directed to correct a Facebook post in November last year, in the first use of the law in Singapore.
Citing Mr Bowyer’s case, Mr Shanmugam said that some people may be embarrassed they have to put up a correction notice, and that such people “don’t like being exposed”.
“They want to be able to say untrue things, make people angry, without being pointed out,” he said. “So if that is wrong, then these people should ask themselves, why do they need to deal in lies.”
When asked about potential voter backlash due to their perception of POFMA, Mr Shanmugam said he believes that the majority of people will understand the need for the law.
"There are some who genuinely don’t know enough and are therefore concerned, and that’s a small minority. And there are some who know full well, but are cynical and cynically trying to put out further lies about POFMA," said Mr Shanmugam.
“(But) by and large, the voters know that now that POFMA has been in operation for a while and the orders have been made, they have seen how they operate. They see that the original articles are up there,” he said.
READ: Government orders Facebook to disable Singapore users' access to National Times Singapore Facebook page
Mr Shanmugam said that POFMA has been “reasonably effective” in curbing falsehoods about the COVID-19 outbreak, highlighting that half of POFMA orders issued involve coronavirus disinformation. A few dealt with rumours of closures, community cases and deaths related to COVID-19.
Mr Shanmugam said POFMA has helped people educate the public and warn off would-be perpetrators of fake news.
“We cannot rely on the goodwill of the Internet platforms anymore,” he added. “Governments have to take action.”
Moving on to how the COVID-19 pandemic has stressed fault lines in society, Mr Shanmugam said the number of online race-related attacks in April was the highest in many years.
Mr Shanmugam described these attacks as “verbal spats” on the Internet between the major ethnic groups of Chinese, Malays and Indians. He did not provide exact figures.
“The stress of the (COVID-19) situation, and the economic stress, physical stress, the pressure, in every society, has created serious issues,” said Mr Shanmugam, in response to a question on whether COVID-19 had brought out the ugly side of Singaporeans.
READ: COVID-19: Action to be taken against man who posted 'nasty' tweets insulting Indians, says Shanmugam
He also said that every country has an ugly side, although only a minority take it “to extremes”.
In Singapore, he noted, people started posting anti-Chinese sentiments after COVID-19 broke out in China. When migrant workers started getting infected in large numbers in Singapore, the negative sentiment turned towards Indians.
“What are the fault lines in every society? Race, religion, anything that can differentiate one group from another group. And here, race, religion incidents shot up in April, and the anti-foreigner sentiment too,” Mr Shanmugam said.
“We’ve got to deal with it and apply the law equally whether you’re white, brown, yellow, whatever,” he added. “You are whatever colour, whatever nationality, whether Singaporean, non-Singaporean, the law is the same.”
Racist or xenophobic comments have also been found on online posts showing alleged breaches of COVID-19 rules, and Mr Shanmugam said online vigilantes who overdo it can “seriously damage” people.
He cited the case of the woman who was caught on video without a face mask several times and proclaiming “I am a sovereign” in Shunfu. Vigilantes had wrongly identified the head of a tech company as the perpetrator.
“Sometimes it’s like a mob attacking you anonymously online, putting up your pictures and saying all sorts of nasty things about you,” he said. “Sometimes they even get the wrong person. So that can destroy careers, it can ruin mental health, it can seriously damage people.”
Mr Shanmugam said people who report potential breaches directly to the authorities are doing the right thing, as professionals will conduct a proper investigation. Those found to be innocent will be let off, he said, while those who broke the law will be dealt with and be a lesson to others.
LAWS IN PLACE
Nevertheless, Mr Shanmugam said anti-harassment laws prevent vigilantes from going overboard, adding that authorities have to enforce those laws to ensure people remain responsible. “You don’t take the law into your own hands,” he stated.
Likewise, Mr Shanmugam said Singapore has a “very tough framework” of laws that prevent people from attacking or speaking bad about another race or religion.
READ: MHA to look into 'racist, xenophobic' remarks by religious teacher over coronavirus: Shanmugam
“I completely disagree with some people who in the name of, say, freedom of speech will say, ‘Oh, we should be allowed to say whatever we like about the Chinese, Malays and Indians, and allow different ways of approaching this’,” he added.
“No, the way it works out in reality is hate speech increases and anger increases, and that then fuels racism. So we have a very strict framework of laws, and our people have for many years accepted it.”