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#50: Still plenty of chatter about POFMA

I’d planned to write this during the day on Friday while sitting in the Huggs Epigram Coffee Bookshop as their author-in-residence for the day, but that didn’t happen at all because there was an almost endless stream of people who wanted to say hello, chat and ask questions. I had to duck out for about three hours in the middle of the day, but apart from that I was talking to people about Singapore, about New Naratif and about the “fake news” bill pretty much non-stop from 10am - past 7pm! Thank you all for your kindness and support.

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More talk about “fake news”

Yup, still leading with the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill. What can I say, this stuff is important, and there’s still plenty about it in the news and on social media!

For those who want to take it from the top with background, I did a quick run-through of the developments that brought us POFMA today:

PJ Thum and I have also put together an FAQ on the Bill for those of you who would like a breakdown. For those on Facebook, CAPE has also made some great infographics.

Members of the PAP government have come out to defend the Bill. The Ministry of Law has claimed that allowing ministers executive discretion first, then going to the High Court later is more cost efficient, but Law Minister K Shanmugam also talked about a “fast”, “simple” and “relatively inexpensive” court process. NOTE: this process is not specified in the Bill, nor have we seen subsidiary legislation that lays out what this process might look like. Shanmugam says that it could be like the simplified process that he would like to propose for the Protection from Harassment Act, but we haven’t seen what that looks like either.

Shanmugam has also said that the law only targets those who spread “fake news” deliberately. That’s true if you’re only looking at Part 2 of the Bill, which talks about criminal penalties for those communicating statements “knowing or having reason to believe that” they’re false and against public interests. But other parts of the Bill, such as Part 3, specifically say that directives—like correction orders and takedown orders—can be issued even if there was no deliberate intent to spread falsehoods. See:

This is why it’s important to read the actual Bill for yourself rather than just relying on media reports of minister statements and comments.

While on the topic about statements from ministers, over the past week Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong met Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad for the Leaders’ Retreat between the two countries. During the press conference, a Malaysian reporter asked about “fake news” legislation, given the different stances of both countries. While the PAP is seeking to pass legislation, the Pakatan Harapan government is trying to repeal their Anti-Fake News Act (the Malaysian Parliament has voted to repeal, but it’s currently held up at the opposition-held Senate).

The responses from both leaders are worth watching, as are their facial expressions. Not going to spoil it for you, so just watch the clip:

There’s also been plenty of commentary on the Bill, so here’s a selection: Sudhir Vadaketh has written a series of posts on free speech in Singapore, including questioning if the PAP government has themselves spread misinformation. Both the Washington Post and the Financial Times have editorials against the Bill (although you might run up against their paywalls). Allie Funk has an analysis in Just Security. I wrote about the Bill too, for the Lowy Institute. Teo You Yenn warns about the impact this Bill could have on academic freedom, although the PAP government has since come out to say that it won’t affect academic work, “regardless of what view the work presents.” (What do they call the six-hour grilling of PJ Thum and the attempts to discredit his academic credentials and qualifications, then?)

On politics and (by-)elections

Tan Cheng Bock’s Progress Singapore Party has been officially registered, and it now has a logo. My friend had the best take:

That said, despite talk of the possibility of a Tan Cheng Bock-led opposition coalition in the next election, nothing has come of it so far. It remains to be seen how the different opposition parties are going to cooperate (if not collaborate); at the moment there are so many small-small parties I’m not entirely sure if this is really the most effective way moving forward. And I think it has a lot to do with an important point, tangentially brought up in a profile of Brad Bowyer, about male ego. God, yes, this a thousand times.

Separately, the Court of Appeal has ruled that there is no obligation to call a by-election in Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC, which has been short of one MP ever since Halimah Yacob stepped down to eventually become the only candidate to qualify to be President.

Migrant workers and nutrition

Also read this story in the South China Morning Post about construction workers in Singapore who are provided horrific standards of food. In a city that prides itself on being a “food paradise”—and actively markets itself for tourist dollards—it is a national disgrace that the men who build the malls and attractions that tourists flock to are treated so appallingly.

About the neighbours…

The Indonesian presidential elections are coming up on 17 April, so here’s some of New Naratif’s election coverage: we’ve got an illustrated explainer for those of you who aren’t familiar with the process. Indonesia’s Ahmadiyya community say they face an uncertain future; they already face marginalisation and discrimination in the country. An umbrella organisation for the country’s indigenous peoples say they aren’t endorsing either Jokowi or Prabowo this election; they’re disappointed in both candidates for neglecting the needs of indigenous communities. Meanwhile, Prabowo is trying to woo voters in North Sulawesi by emphasising his own Minahasa blood, but it’s not clear how far he’s getting with that—he didn’t fare well in that area in the last election.