Parliament passes Bill to tackle online falsehoods after lengthy debate spread over two days
Law Minister K Shanmugam addressed the MPs’ various concerns, including that the Bill could lead to the Government amassing more power and a chilling effect on freedom of speech in Singapore.
SINGAPORE: The much-debated Bill designed to tackle deliberate online falsehoods was passed in Parliament on Wednesday (May 8) with a majority of 72 to nine, with three Nominated Members of Parliament (NMP) abstaining.
The members of the opposition Workers’ Party (WP) voted against the Bill.
READ: New law deals specifically with online falsehoods, ‘preferable’ over amending existing ones, says K Shanmugam
The passing of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation (POFMA) Bill followed a two-day debate that lasted a little more than 14 hours ending past 10pm Wednesday.
Proposed amendments by NMPs Anthea Wong, Walter Theseira and Irene Quay to the Bill were voted against, with the WP members abstaining, during the second reading.
A total of 31 members spoke during the debate, with the majority of concerns voiced by WP MPs as well as the three NMPs, though a few People's Action Party MPs also raised suggestions and points of clarification.
WP MPs' CONCERNS
WP elder statesman Low Thia Khiang had said on Tuesday that the Bill comes with a “hidden agenda” that allows a minister to have “absolute power” to decide what are falsehoods and what punishments to mete out.
He also said the definition of falsehoods is too wide and ambiguous. "For example, if I say the Pioneer and Merdeka Generation packages are to buy votes, is this opinion or information?" said Mr Low.
Law Minister K Shanmugam rebutted these points in his wrap-up speech by pointing out that the Bill calls for transparency – one of the key tenets of the WP.
“You put up an article, Government says this is not correct. You carry a correction (and) let your readers judge. What's the problem? More transparency, the better,” Mr Shanmugam said.
On the chilling effect that Mr Low anticipated the new law would have, the minister pointed out that the WP MP had made the same argument three years ago when the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act (AOJPA) was passed in 2016.
“You were trying to frighten people unnecessarily saying that people in coffee shops now couldn't talk after the AOJPA was passed, and ISA and, you know, they could not sit there and have their coffee and talk about court cases. I said that was completely inaccurate,” Mr Shanmugam recounted.
“It’s been three years since then. Coffee shops, I think, have grown louder since then. I don’t think it has prevented talk. So, after all that talk of chill and fear, I can tell you that coffee shops in Yishun don’t even think of the AOJPA.
“So what Mr Low says about this Bill amassing power isn’t quite right and Mr Low must know that. Just as he would have known that what he said about the AOJPA actually was not accurate,” the minister said.
Mr Shanmugam also addressed the points made by Mr Low and WP secretary-general Pritam Singh on people having to bring their appeal against a minister’s directions to the High Court, and arguing that citizens would be reluctant to do so.
READ: ‘Very onerous’ process to challenge order on content deemed as online falsehood, says Sylvia Lim
He said the orders are, looking at the legal framework, likely to be primarily made against technology companies, and they can certainly challenge the Government.
He then pointed out a “very serious logical fallacy” in WP’s suggestion that the courts should be the arbiter of what constitutes a falsehood in relation to this point.
“The point that both of you make is that people don't want to go to court,” the minister said. “But what you're proposing will require people to go to court in every single case because you want the Government to sue them.
“So each time the Government wants to do something, somebody has to be sued.”
PAP MPS' CONCERNS
PAP MPs also aired their concerns.
Mr Murali Pillai revealed in his speech on Tuesday that he was originally concerned with the structure of POFMA leading to the appeal process, specifically that the appeal is made only after a minister has made a decision.
“The concern I had was that, ordinarily, it was for the Executive to make out a case first, as opposed to requiring the respondent at the outset to state why the Executive got it wrong without knowing the Executive's case,” he said.
However, he was “assuaged” on this point after listening to Mr Shanmugam’s explanation at the opening of the second reading for the Bill.
This is because the minister would have to “nail his or her colours to the mast” by stating the reasons for issuing the direction, Mr Pillai explained, adding that the direction will also have to be gazetted.
The lawyer went on to flesh out why NMPs Anthea Ong and Walter Theseira’s proposal to include something they called “Principles of Act” that would provide a guide to the exercise of power was unnecessary.
These principles include stating that “well-informed, free and critical speech is necessary for a well-functioning democracy, so the Act should be applied carefully to avoid chilling such speech”, said Associate Professor Theseira in his debate speech.
Mr Pillai explained that when a minister makes a statement at the second reading of the Bill, this goes into the corpus of the Hansard and will be factored into how the legislation is to be reviewed. This, he added, creates a “legitimate expectation”.
“When the court reviews the exercise of power against the legitimate expectations created, it can strike down a power which is used outside the legitimate expectations that has been created,” the MP said.
Despite the various views and concerns, the parliamentarians agreed on the point that deliberate online falsehoods is a serious problem that needs to be tackled head on.
Ms Rahayu Mahzam, who was on the Select Committee looking at this issue last year, said she was “heartened” that the Bill has taken into account the recommendations made by the committee.
“In my view, the Bill has captured the essence of the committee’s recommendation and has done well in calibrating the responses to online falsehoods,” she said.