SDP fails in bid to have POFMA-linked case against Manpower Minister heard in open court

SDP fails in bid to have POFMA-linked case against Manpower Minister heard in open court

SDP Chee Soon Juan and John Tan at Supreme Court - POFMA case
The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP)'s Chee Soon Juan and John Tan leave the Supreme Court after trying to have their POFMA-linked case heard in open court.

SINGAPORE: Members from the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) on Thursday (Jan 16) failed in a bid to have their case against Manpower Minister Josephine Teo heard in open court.

Secretary-General Chee Soon Juan, chairman Paul Tambyah and vice-chairman John Tan arrived in court early on Thursday morning for the in-chamber hearing for the case that is linked to directions under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA).

Thursday's hearing had initially been set for a hearing in chambers, and was the party's next step after they failed to get correction directions from Mrs Teo cancelled.

The minister had rejected SDP's application to cancel correction directions she issued under the new Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) for three posts SDP had made online regarding local employment.

However, the party indicated that it intended to apply for its summons against Mrs Teo heard in open court, where the public can attend.

READ: POFMA court case: SDP argues for MOM to release data on local employment to prove the party's statements are false

Deputy Attorney-General Hri Kumar Nair told reporters outside the court that Justice Ang Cheng Hock had rejected SDP's application as he did not think there was "any special reason" for it to be heard in open court.

Senior Counsel Nair said the test for it to be heard in open court was not public interest, but whether there were any special reasons.

He explained that all originating summons - which the in-chamber hearing against Mrs Teo was meant for - are heard in chambers.

This is except for a specific list of originating summons, which today's POFMA case did not fall under.

Dr Chee told the media that the outcome was "very disappointing".

He said this case involves "Singaporeans' very survival", and said he had argued on the back of "survey after survey" on Singaporeans' employability, as well as "the fact that foreigners, especially foreign PMETs, are in Singapore in such numbers".

He referred also to the "immense public interest" in the case, which should be heard in open court.

"You will hear back and forth about statistics," he said. "MOM's case is that there are interpretations and opinions ... that being the case, the public should be able to attend and hear both sides," he said.

"The fact that MOM has not publicly stated its reasons for rejecting (our application) ... all the more the public should be able to hear for themselves."

SDP made three main arguments to have the hearing in open court: First, that the matter involved a government ministry and a political party contesting in the next election; that members of the public should be able to attend and listen to arguments for themselves as it is important that there be trust in institutions including the courts; and that there is legal precedence for the hearing to be heard in open court.

SDP's summons against Mrs Teo will now resume in chambers in the High Court on Thursday, with the AGC representing the ministry.

The case drew interest, with a small crowd gathering outside the courtroom on Thursday morning. They include The Online Citizen editor Terry Xu, social activist Jolovan Wham and veteran journalist Bertha Henson.

HOW IT STARTED

The latest episode in the saga stems from two Facebook posts and an article on SDP's website titled: "SDP Population Policy: Hire Singaporeans First, Retrench Singaporeans Last".

In the article, SDP claimed that its proposal came "amidst a rising proportion of Singaporean PMETs (professionals, managers, executives and technicians) getting retrenched".

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) in December instructed the POFMA Office to issue SDP with three correction directions for the "false statements made in two Facebook posts and a website article".

The office is part of the Infocomm Media Development Authority and oversees the administration of POFMA, which came into effect in October.

The ministry said a graphic contained in one of the Facebook posts showed a graph depicting plunging local PMET employment, which it said was wrong, as such employment had risen steadily since 2015 according to its Comprehensive Labour Force Survey.

It clarified that there was no rising trend of local PMET retrenchments, and said the figure for 2018 was the lowest since 2014.

In response, SDP called for Mrs Teo to retract the correction directions, standing by its posts and saying they were correct. 

It said MOM had accused it of “making statements that we did not make or cited different sets of data which it then used to accuse the SDP's post as false”, and alleged that the ministry was abusing POFMA for political-partisan purposes to stymie legitimate criticism of the PAP's foreign PMET policy.

SDP complied with the orders by posting correction notices, but added statements online to say it would be applying to have the correction directions cancelled.

Since POFMA came into effect in October last year, several correction directions have been issued.

These include: One to opposition party founder and lawyer Lim Tean by the Ministry of Education over the ministry's spending on local and foreign students;  another to Progress Singapore Party member Brad Bowyer by the Minister of Finance over issues including the independence of Temasek and GIC; and a direction by the Home Affairs Minister to the States Times Review.

Correction directions are issued to people who communicate falsehoods affecting public interest, and the order does not impose criminal sanctions, the POFMA Office previously said.

The laws under POFMA provide for penalties including jail terms and fines of up to S$1 million for varying offences.

Editor’s note: This story has been edited to correct a clerical error which listed Josephine Teo in public law notices as the party directly responding to SDP. The AG is responding to SDP on Mrs Teo’s behalf.

Source: CNA/ll(rw)

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