POFMA challenge: SDP presented no direct data to support statement, says AGC as judge reserves verdict
SINGAPORE: A judge reserved his decision over the Singapore Democratic Party's (SDP's) appeal against correction directions by the Manpower Minister under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) on Friday (Jan 17).
This was after the Deputy Attorney-General, who is representing the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), began and finished his arguments charging that SDP's statements in the three offending online posts are false, that they misled readers, and "cherry-picked" data to present a narrative.
Deputy Attorney-General Hri Kumar Nair pointed out in his submissions that the opposition party has presented no direct data to support its allegation that local PMET (professionals, managers, executives and technicians) employment had gone down.
He also argued that the burden of proof was on SDP to prove that its statements were true, as they are the party bringing the court action, he said in his submissions to court.
SDP had made two statements labelled as false by MOM: That local PMET retrenchment has been increasing, and that local PMET employment has gone down.
The opposition party had made its submissions to court on Thursday and Friday morning.
READ: POFMA court case: SDP argues for MOM to release data on local employment to prove the party's statements are false
COURT WILL DETERMINE IF STATEMENT IS TRUE OR FALSE
Speaking to the media outside the courtroom, SC Nair refuted a statement made by SDP that the meaning of its offending article was "up to the minister".
"That's not correct," said SC Nair, adding that the court will determine if a statement is true or false.
SDP told media it had presented arguments in court saying that it referred to a specific time period - from 2010 to 2018 - to say that there is a rising trend of local retrenchments.
However, in the article, they did not state this time period, and any reasonable person reading it would understand it to mean the purported trend is recent, SC Nair said in his submissions.
The specific line in the article reads that SDP's proposal to reform Singapore's immigration policy comes amid a purported "rising proportion of Singapore PMETs getting retrenched".
The sentence does not expressly identify what exactly it is that the number of local retrenched PMETs is in proportion of, SC Nair argued, according to his submissions.
SDP had relied on articles in The Straits Times and Yahoo!, but has not produced these reports, nor referenced them in the offending article, he added.
"In any event, it is clear from the SDP's affidavit that the Straits Times report states clearly what proportion it is measuring," said SC Nair.
"This is completely absent from the SDP article, and the SDP has not explained why it has cherry-picked from the said report and presented a different narrative in the SDP article."
"Knowing that it cannot sustain its assertion that the number of retrenched local PMETs have been increasingly recently, the SDP has contrived to rely on data going back to 2010," added SC Nair.
"This is simply disingenuous."
NUMBERS SHOW NO RISING RECENT TREND OF LOCAL RETRENCHMENTS
The facts show that there is no recent rising trend of local retrenchments, the senior counsel said.
In directing SDP to correct its posts, MOM had cited data from 2015 to 2018 to show that there was no rising trend of local PMET retrenchments and that employment of local PMETs has instead risen steadily since 2015.
"The SDP's contention that a reasonable reader would understand the statement as referring to a trend going back to 2010 is plainly absurd," said SC Nair, according to his submissions.
"The subject statement that 'local PMET retrenchment has been increasing' ... is plainly false," he charged.
"Both in terms of absolute numbers, as well as proportion of retrenched local PMETs to employed local PMETs, the facts are directly contrary to any assertion that there is a rising trend in local PMET retrenchment."
He cited figures from MOM's reply affidavit to show that the number of retrenched local PMETs decreased from 2016 to 2017 and further decreased from 2017 to 2018; and that the proportion of retrenched local PMETs against all local PMET employees has been declining from 2016 to 2018.
BURDEN OF PROOF IS ON SDP
SC Nair argued that, legally, the burden is on SDP to prove that its interpretation of the statement was true.
If the party fails to do this, and the minister's interpretation was a reasonable one in legal terms, SDP's appeal to set aside the correction directions issued for its article and two related Facebook posts must fail, the senior counsel said.
"It is insufficient for the SDP to establish that another interpretation is true," said SC Nair in his written submissions.
He elaborated further in his submissions that the words in the offending posts are to be interpreted "according to the effect they would have on an ordinary reader, or on a reasonable person to whom the words are published, and not according to the sense or meaning in which the words were understood by the plaintiff".
"What is relevant is the broad impression created, and not a meticulous analysis of the publication," said SC Nair.
STATEMENT IS FALSE UNDER POFMA AS LONG AS A MEANING IS FALSE OR MISLEADING
Addressing SDP's arguments that there were several possible interpretations from the same set of data, the Deputy Attorney-General said a statement can be regarded as false under POFMA in four ways, and extend to a misleading and incomplete interpretation.
"In other words, a statement would be false under POFMA as long as one of the meanings it is capable of bearing is false or misleading," said SC Nair.
SC Nair added that "the overarching objective of POFMA is to prevent the communication of online falsehoods, in order to guard against the public's loss of trust in the Government or institutions and the serious consequences that might ensue from such loss of trust".
Justice Ang Cheng Hock allowed SDP up to Wednesday next week to file reply submissions and engage a lawyer for this if needed.
SDP Secretary-General Chee Soon Juan had been making arguments in chambers on the party's behalf, after failing in a bid to have it heard in open court.
Justice Ang did not state whether his judgment would be issued in written form, or indicate when it is expected to be released.