On October 2, 2019, Singapore’s fake news law came into effect amidst much controversy. Against a backdrop of growing viral misinformation around the world, the country’s government authorities have repeatedly emphasised the need for the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill (POFMA). ‘POFMA enhances, and not diminishes, democratic public discourse’, declared Minister Ong Ye Kung in Parliament. Yet, opposition politicians and activists have raised concerns about the law’s potentially chilling effect and ability to curb dissent. In this blog post, I consider both perspectives. An analysis of POFMA’s application thus far suggests that it is more likely a force against, not for, democracy in Singapore.
What exactly does POFMA cover?
In essence, this law pertains to ‘false statements of fact’ on matters of ‘public interest’. Government ministers from any agency may assert, in their judgement, that a particular statement is false and that it is in the public interest to act on it. Through issuing a formal direction, they can then mandate the author to publish access to the accurate information and/or to remove the original post.
While POFMA largely pertains to the internet and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, it also covers closed platforms such as private chat groups.
Why was POFMA introduced?
Singapore’s Parliament passed POFMA in May 2019 following a 2-day long marathon debate. The largest opposition party, the Workers’ Party (WP), staunchly opposed the legislation, arguing that it vested too much power in Ministers. Nonetheless, the passing of POFMA was never once in doubt. Singapore’s ruling party People’s Action Party (PAP) has dominated Parliament since 1959, gaining a supermajority in every election since 1968. They currently hold 83 out of 93 seats, easily allowing the party to pass legislation and constitutional amendments.
Pointing to the rise of fake news and declining trust in governments globally, the PAP framed POFMA as a defence of democracy. ‘Pernicious misinformation … [undermines] trust in the Government and institutions, ultimately eroding the practice of democracy,’ said Senior Minister of Law Edwin Tong at a forum in 2020. Indeed, separating fact from fiction or opinion has never been more challenging with the explosive growth of social media platforms. Around the world, misinformation has dangerously shaped voter choices and election outcomes as seen in Brexit, the 2020 U.S. election, and Ferdinand Marcos Jr’s recent victory in the Philippines. Even in a highly educated society like Singapore, digital and information literacy are generally low; an alarming seven in 10 Singaporeans admitted in a recent study that they have unknowingly shared fake news before. Therefore, concerns about online falsehoods are undeniably justified. But is POFMA the right tool to address them?
The dangers of POFMA
Opponents fear that POFMA can be used to further suppress criticism in a country where free speech is already heavily curbed. Public assemblies without a police permit are prohibited in Singapore, and even a one-person peaceful protest may constitute an illegal ‘assembly’. Moreover, civil defamation suits against activists and critics are not uncommon, arguably resulting in a climate of political intimidation and self-censorship. In March 2021, for instance, the high court ordered government critic Leong Sze Hian to pay Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong USD98,825 in damages for reposting—without comment—an article on Facebook that was judged to be defamatory. Notably, Leong was not the original author of the article nor the only person who had shared it. Moreover, his repost had received only 45 reactions before the national media statutory board directed him to take it down.
While the PAP has verbally emphasised that POFMA excludes satire, parody, opinions and criticism, they rejected proposed amendments for the Bill to state this explicitly. ‘By definition, once [POFMA] talks about fact, then it excludes satire and comedy,’ explained Minister for Law K Shanmugam in Parliament.
Yet as critics have pointed out, the line between fact and opinion is often blurred. Take, for example, this statement: ‘The government uses budget packages to “buy” votes.’ In 2019, amid speculation that the next general elections could be held soon, the Singapore government announced a comprehensive set of financial perks for Singapore citizens born in the 1950s. Political analysts pointed out that the package could contribute to stronger support for the PAP; opposition parties also implied its announcement may have been ‘pungently timed with the election cycle’. However, ministers from the PAP flatly refuted these claims. In such a scenario, would the original statement be perceived as opinion or a falsehood?
Given these ambiguities, POFMA essentially enables ministers to be arbiters of truth, at least initially. Whilst POFMA directions can be challenged in court—it is Singapore’s judiciary that has the final say on whether a statement is false or not—authors who receive a direction still have to comply first or risk facing criminal prosecution. Appeals can also be costly in terms of time and money, not to mention rarely successful. As of May 21, 2022, there have been 96 recorded uses of POFMA so far but fewer than 10 appeals. Only one appeal has been allowed, and only partially; the Court rejected the rest.
How has POFMA been used so far?
Whilst POFMA came into effect in October 2019 before COVID-19, much of its praise has been centred on its ability to tackle pandemic-related falsehoods. Anecdotally, the government has said that being able to take ‘swift action’ helped to ‘build trust about vaccines, and allowed [Singapore] to achieve high vaccination coverage’. In several cases, POFMA also enabled the government to clamp down on false rumours quickly and minimise public alarm, such as when a post on a local online forum erroneously claimed a 66-year-old man in Singapore had passed away due to COVID-19 in January 2020, at the start of the pandemic.
However, it appears that only half of the uses of POFMA so far have been COVID-19 related. The first four applications of POFMA, all in November 2019, were targeted at opposition politicians and parties—merely an ‘unfortunate coincidence’, according to then-Minister for Communications and Information Mr S Iswaran. POFMA was most frequently used in July 2020 during Singapore’s general elections, largely against speech critical of the PAP. This was then followed by a long period with no recorded uses of the law, despite ongoing concerns about misinformation.
A graph showing the use of POFMA by month from November 2019 to May 2022
Even taking the pandemic into account, it is worth questioning whether the use of POFMA was truly necessary in some cases. For instance, in March 2020, a Minister employed POFMA on Facebook posts which claimed that a dinner event linked to a large COVID-19 cluster had been organised by a government statutory board. Was this really a matter of urgent public interest? Would it have sparked immediate danger if not for POFMA? As journalist Kirsten Han writes, a law like POFMA with such broad powers ‘should not be used merely to help government institutions protect their reputations’.
POFMA and Democracy
Be it mere ‘coincidence’ or deliberate targeting, the disproportionate use of POFMA in political contexts highlights the inherent risks in fake news laws in enabling governments to stifle free speech. With the rise of misinformation worldwide, the design and use of POFMA in Singapore has deep implications beyond its borders. Countries like Nigeria have already modelled similar legislation and we are likely to see more to come.
Ultimately, the line between protecting and eroding democratic institutions is an extremely thin one. Looking at the track record of POFMA so far, I argue that it exacerbates Singapore’s culture of self-censorship and calibrated political participation, setting a dangerous precedent for Singapore and beyond.