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#49: It's all about what we can/can't say this week

Thank you to everyone who reached out about the primer (and the two follow-up emails)!

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Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill

Be warned: I’m going to be pretty fixated on this Bill until it either gets amended (hahaha my optimism!) or passes (my reality!) because I’m simply gobsmacked by the level of state overreach this legislation contains, and I really do believe it is a Very Bad Idea that we should all be concerned about.

For this section, let’s take a look at the two main claims the government has made to reassure us about this Bill:

1: It only covers statements of fact! Not opinion, or satire; only fact!

Sure, it might be a small relief to know that The Onion and Singapore’s New Nation might be safe from this Bill, but the proposed legislation also says that “a statement is false if it is false or misleading, whether wholly or in part, and whether on its own or in the context in which it appears”.

Now let’s take a look at what this could mean in practice:

As Cherian George points out in this post, the PAP government had previously accused Reuters of fabricating a headline. The PAP has also labelled Human Rights Watch’s report on freedom of expression in Singapore as a “deliberate falsehood”—not because of specific factual errors, but because the report hadn’t included arguments or points that the PAP felt should have been put in.

Last year, I wrote a story about migrant labour in Singapore and how the abuse and exploitation means that many workers face conditions that might fulfill indicators of human trafficking. The Ministry of Manpower wrote to my editor and said: "The article alleged that the trafficking-in-persons (TIP) situation in Singapore is far more prevalent than reported and exploitation of migrant workers is commonplace in Singapore. This cannot be true. An independent survey by the Migrant Workers Centre would not have shown that about 9 in 10 foreign workers were satisfied working in Singapore."

How would such situations work out once the Bill is passed?

2: The government is not the final arbiter of the truth!

In a video clarifying the Bill, Law Minister K Shanmugam insisted that the government will not be the final arbiter of the truth. (This video is reportedly being pushed as a sponsored post by pro-PAP pages like Fabrications About the PAP.)

Sure, the government won’t be the final arbiter of the truth—that’s the courts. But to get to the court, you have to first appeal to the Minister who gave the order. It’s only if you fail that you can go to the High Court, and that’s not going to be cheap (plus, if you lose, you might get ordered to pay the other party’s costs).

So the government might not be the final arbiter of truth, but they certainly are in the first and second instance, and that’s likely to be about as far as most people will get. How many people do we realistically think will take it all the way to the courts?

Also read: another post by Cherian that lays out a highly plausible test case. This BBC article also ends with a good punch: “No government is perfect, but Singapore's approach may depend far too much on the benevolence of those in power.” And of course, read the Bill yourself.

Hate speech and offensive speech

Apart from tabling the anti-fake news Bill, Shanmugam also made a ministerial statement in Parliament on Monday about hate speech, in which he defended Singapore’s laws. As it stands, our legislation is far from what one would usually define as hate speech, i.e. speech that actually incites hatred and violence. In Singapore, we’re still at the “spreading ill-will” and “wounding feelings” level. But that’s important, says Shanmugam, because offensive speech creates an environment for discrimination.

Funnily enough, this didn’t seem to occur to the PAP when they’re talking about keeping S377A, or when, back in 2007, a Nominated Member of Parliament actually said—in the Housethat gay sex is like “shoving a straw up your nose to drink”. And don’t even get me started on all the racist stuff Lee Kuan Yew used to say!

About the neighbours…

Here’s a beautifully written personal essay by Xuyen Nguyen about how her family escaped from Vietnam and how she went back to visit the Thai refugee camp—now a military barracks—where she’d been born.