SINGAPORE: A dozen Members of Parliament took to the floor on Wednesday (Jan 10) to debate the issue of deliberate online falsehoods, and what areas the Select Committee appointed should consider when examining it.
The motion was eventually passed with 80 MPs voting for it, with no abstentions and opposition.
Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam had earlier on Wednesday moved a motion to appoint a Select Committee to examine this issue, laying out reasons such as the country’s diverse social make-up and high Internet penetration rate for why Singapore is “highly susceptible” to this problem.
His motion was supported by Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim, who said that while public education remains the country’s first line of defence, it is not enough. He suggested an inclusive approach to address the issue holistically, and a broader national conversation to be had so everyone has a “shared understanding” of the threat.
MP Seah Kian Peng, who is also CEO of NTUC FairPrice, referenced an expression used in popular TV series Game of Thrones to say that "winter is coming" when it came to the problem of online falsehoods. He brought up examples when his organisation had to quell online falsehoods, and still do to this day, to highlight how “a lie can travel half way around the world before the truth gets out of bed”.
One of these examples is the 2007 "halal" pork incident, when FairPrice had to file a police report after a picture of a packet of pork bearing a halal sticker was circulated online, with allegations that it was sold at its supermarkets. It was so widespread that MUIS had to carry out physical checks, Mr Seah recounted.
“It went viral again in 2011 and again in 2014, and FairPrice had to respond publicly that this was a 2007 hoax that had resurfaced,” he said. “Even today, 10 years later, I still get messages asking me about this.”
Similarly, Ms Sun Xueling, an MP of Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, recounted the time in November 2016 when reports of a roof collapse at Punggol Waterway Terraces were circulated. She quickly rushed down to the site only to find out it was a hoax.
Still, she activated grassroots helpers to check for cracks just to be safe. “It was not a very efficient use of time and resources,” Ms Sun said.
MP for Nee Soon GRC Lee Bee Wah also shared her personal recollection of how rumours helped fan racial tension in Malaysia and Singapore in 1969.
“My family lived in the countryside of Melaka then, lived in a rubber plantation … At that time, my third brother was just born,” she shared. “I remember my mother telling me that if the Malays came, we must all escape to the jungle, but we must leave our little brother behind.
“I was only eight years old then; I was shocked to hear that.”
LEGISLATION NOT THE ONLY SOLUTION
Amid these accounts, the MPs stood in support of the motion to appoint a Select Committee to look into deliberate online falsehoods, although some were keen to reiterate that enacting new laws may not be the only way to tackle this problem.
Public education, in particular, was mentioned by MPs such as Ms Sun, Ms Rahayu Mahzam as well as NMPs like Mr Kok Heng Leun, Mr Ganesh Rajaram and Mr Mahdev Mohan.
Mr Mahdev, for one, suggested that more can be done to reach out to the elderly and the young. He suggested that a volunteer group be formed to meet with these seniors and vet their WhatsApp messages of any disinformation.
As for the young, Mr Rajaram pointed out that several tertiary institutions have introduced and modified courses that aim to equip students to fact check and identify fake news. While he lauds the efforts, this education can be introduced at an even younger age – when they are in pre-school.
“If you go to any restaurant or hawker centre in Singapore today, toddlers watching content on iPads and mobile phones are the norm,” the NMP said. “In this digital age, parents and teachers need to teach kids about the difference between what’s fake and what’s true. It’s akin to teaching our children not to speak to strangers,” he explained.
Mr Kok, too, called for the Select Committee to look at how to further media literacy efforts and to consider if there can be sustainable programmes introduced to encourage this. These efforts should not be limited to schools, but include workplaces, community and grassroots sites as well, he added.
Mr Seah did note the importance of having laws, regulations and due process.
"Being vigilant doesn’t mean being undemocratic. We need to educate the community, let them know if the news comes from a certified source, and equip them to decide whether to read or share it," he elaborated.
"At the same time, we owe it to them, to ourselves to ensure that the environment under which such decision making takes place is as uncluttered with falsehoods as possible."