It was April Fool’s Day when it was finally tabled for its first reading in Parliament, but the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill (POFMA) is no laughing matter.
Described by the Asia Internet Coalition as “the most far-reaching legislation of its kind to date,” the Bill will allow any government minister to issue directives for content be removed, corrections issued, or even for internet service providers to block access. This can apply to any material that is available over the Internet to at least one end-user in Singapore.
Anti-fake news legislation has been on the cards for Singapore for quite some time. (People’s Action Party) PAP ministers first brought up the possibility in 2017, and in 2018 Parliament convened the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods to solicit feedback from the public and other stakeholders before making recommendations to the government. The Select Committee’s report, published in September 2018, was swiftly accepted by the PAP government. The Bill, also commonly referred to as POFMA, is the fruit of this labor.
But the introduction on 1 April 2019 of this Bill — which is practically guaranteed to pass in Parliament, given the ruling PAP’s supermajority — comes amid other crackdowns on online speech. It’s a reality that activists and opposition politicians feel especially keenly.
For instance, it took just a short Facebook post comparing Malaysian judges with their Singaporean counterparts for civil-rights activist Jolovan Wham to see yet another addition to his already long list of investigations and charges. Apart from charges for allegedly organizing illegal assemblies, vandalism, and refusing to sign police statements, Wham is now also waiting on the court to hand him a sentence for scandalizing the judiciary, a type of contempt of court offense. Opposition politician John Tan, who made a Facebook comment on the action taken by authorities on Wham, has ended up being similarly charged and convicted.
Meanwhile, Leong Sze Hian, who was once the head of a local human-rights group, is being personally sued by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for sharing an article — later debunked — that claimed that Lee had become a key target in investigations into Malaysia’s controversial 1MDB fund. The fact that Leong had merely shared a link without comment has so far done little to help him. And while Leong is only one of many who shared the article, he seems to be the only one on the receiving end of a lawsuit.
Even social media posts that weren’t originally accessible to the wider public can come under fire, and even when they are made by someone related to Singapore’s higher-ups. When Li Shengwu, the prime minister’s nephew, shared an article summing up an ongoing feud between his father and aunt and their powerful brother, he’d set the post to “friends only.” In his comments accompanying the article, Li mentioned that the Singapore government is “very litigious and has a pliant court system.”
A screenshot of the post later circulated online. The Attorney-General’s Chambers then decided to take action, and Li, an assistant professor of economics at Harvard University, soon found himself embroiled in a contempt of court case.
Li is now effectively exiled from the very country that recognizes his grandfather, Lee Kuan Yew, as a “founding father.” If he returns, he could find himself potentially facing not only a fine, but a custodial sentence.
“One wonders how much state resources have been spent going after myself and my mother?” Li mused — publicly, this time — on Facebook, referring to his own case, as well as a complaint lodged with the Law Society against his mother, lawyer Lee Suet Fern.
Against this backdrop, POFMA is thus likely to be yet another weapon in the PAP government’s arsenal against its critics. It also promises to be a very effective one; while it might be impractical to monitor all online chatter and issue correction or takedown orders in each and every instance, the legislation is worded broadly enough to give government ministers the option of wielding it selectively against particular targets. The Bill also gives ministers the power to exempt anyone they want from the law, and that has triggered fears that the government itself might not be able to be held to account.