Singapore’s newly proposed anti-fake news legislation, The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, follows in the footsteps of several countries, such as France passing a law last year regulating anonymous political messages on online platforms. According to an article on CNBC, the law would require websites to run “corrections” alongside false online claims and redirect readers towards government or third-party sites considered legitimate by the government. The law would also allow the government to “take-down” content and make the process of filing court complaints easier for companies and individuals. After the proposed legislation was publicized, Singapore’s Minister of Law, K. Shanmugam, assured that the “legislation deals with false statements of fact” not or “viewpoints however reasonable or unreasonable.”
The supposed purpose of the law is to take action on falsehoods that undermine democracy through false information. On the surface, there seem to be benefits of such legislation considering the rise of sensationalist news easily swaying public opinions of politics. The criticism and fear of limiting civil rights, however, are hard to ignore, and the international community will only raise their eyebrows more at the democratic backsliding of a country with somewhat “favorable democratic credentials” (Varol, 2015). Swept away by the city’s lavish economic development and its high standard of living, it is easy to forget that Singapore’s progress towards civil liberties, such as LGBTQ+ rights, lags behind much of the developed world. The country should not be able to sustain this level of conservatism in an increasingly globalizing world; yet, the effects of this potential anti-fake news law could be a tipping point that sets off Singapore’s backsliding from a flawed democracy to a hybrid regime (terms gathered from the Democracy Index 2018).
Censorship As A Norm
This isn’t the first time the city-state has sought to imposed limits on free-speech. Under the guise of protecting the spirit of the country and the statute of the government, Singapore frequently cites “scandalizing the judiciary” penalizing those who speak critically of the government or the courts, according to a 2017 report by the Human Rights Watch. Interestingly enough, the proposed law would ban this very report as a reliable source because the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) claim the report is an “example of how false and misleading impressions can be created by a selective presentation of facts, designed to promote an underlying agenda” of changing Singapore’s society. Such a statement only demonstrates how it is impossible for the government to impartially distinguishing ‘facts’ from ‘falsehoods.’ Varol (2015), describes this form of censorship as stealth authoritarianism, where such legal mechanisms are in place for anti-democratic outcomes. Singapore is cited in this article as an example of libel laws used to protect the government. The result of such heavy censorship is not only to instill fear in citizens for speaking against the government but also to enforce a culture of self-censorship. This undermines the public and the media’s ability to act as watchdogs that effectively punish or reward politicians for their actions (Varol, 2015).
As a government, Singapore has been successful at shaping people’s opinion to favor their executive actions, as exemplified in this op-ed by the High Commissioner of Singapore to the UK. The lack of discourse due to censorship shaping social ideas is uncommon to democracies. In How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, the United States demonstrates the importance of a democratic culture. If a country fails to foster such a culture by continuing to limit public knowledge, democracy begins to backslide as the government undermines the unwritten rules.
Authoritative Dominance of the People’s Action Party (PAP)
The future of this bill is clear: despite public concern, it will be voted and passed in Parliament within the next couple months with little resistance. This is because the PAP, also the party of current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, holds a supermajority (80% of the seats in Parliament). Passing the law reflects another systemic issue of Singapore’s democracy –– the power of authoritarians to institute legislation that works to their advantage as the only major party. In Singapore, political parties do not serve as guardrails against unreasonable political candidates, so the party mostly governs as they please.
What is also concerning is that this has been the case since Singapore’s independence in 1965. Although procedurally a multi-party system, the government takes considerable action to maintain their stronghold in politics and as a result, is able to exert substantial control over domestic media. The PAP has managed to take control of the process before elections by bankrupting opposition politicians through defamation suits or jailing them for public protest. This puts the “game of democracy,” where two-parties must continue to respect the rules and each other’s choices in order to continue playing, in jeopardy (Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2018). Singapore has never had a change of power, so it has yet needed to demonstrate its commitment to rules of mutual toleration and political forbearance.
What are the Future Consequences of Press Regulation and Democracy?
In Norris (2017), she writes that backsliding does not happen in actual democracies but in hybrids regimes, which fall into a grey zone of neither full democracies or autocracies. In theory, since Singapore does hold free and fair elections, the country upholds democracy. In reality, the expansive government control on political parties and content regulation manages to circumvent our academic definitions of hybrid regimes. By inhibiting dissent before it can happen, the citizens conform through censorship, and this proposed bill will only perpetuate the issue. While Singapore may be able to sustain this model of governance and information control, it is indeed a slippery slope. When will veneer of protecting democracy through regulating fake news eventually erode? Is there a line for the government between facts and persuasion? Perhaps it is too soon to say; nevertheless, the push for further censorship in the country will only stifle the potential for a democratic culture to form and threaten Singapore’s international credentials as a legitimate democratic ally.
Image Credit: Photo By Wong Maye-E, AP Photos. The original source of the image can be found here.
- Varol, Ozan. 2015. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review. 100(4): pp. 1673- 1742. Parts I, II and III.
- Levitsky, Steven & Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. How Democracies Die. New York: Crown. Chapter 1, 5, and 6.
- Norris, P., 2017. “Is Western democracy backsliding? Diagnosing the risks.”