Singapore just showed the world how it plans to use a controversial new law to tackle what it deems fake news — and critics say it’s just what they expected would happen.
The government took action twice this week on two Facebook posts it claimed contained “false statements of fact,” the first uses of the law since it took effect last month.
One offending item was a Facebook post by an opposition politician that questioned the governance of the city-state’s sovereign wealth funds and some of their investment decisions. The other post was published by an Australia-based blog that claimed police had arrested a “whistleblower” who “exposed” a political candidate’s religious affiliations.
In both cases, Singapore officials ordered the accused to include the government’s rebuttal at the top of their posts. The government announcements were accompanied by screenshots of the original posts with the word “FALSE” stamped in giant letters across them.
When introducing the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) earlier this year, the Singaporean government said it was necessary to stop dangerous disinformation and hateful content. Critics said it would lead to increased censorship and official overreach in a country where freedom of expression is already under pressure. This week’s events suggest those fears may be justified.
“This is the start of the downward slide for what little remains of political and press freedom in Singapore,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
‘False and baseless’ assertions
In his original Facebook post, Brad Bowyer, a member of the city-state’s opposition party, criticized sovereign wealth fund Temasek for investing in what he described as a “debt ridden” restaurant company. His post also questioned investments made by GIC, Singapore’s other wealth fund.
The Singapore government called those assertions “false.” It also complained that Bowyer implied officials had influence over how the sovereign wealth funds made “commercial decisions.” Rather, the government said it helps appoint the funds’ boards and holds them accountable for their performance.
Speaking to Business, Bowyer — who updated his post to comply with the official order — said he was “puzzled” by the government’s decision.
“It is within their remit but using it like this, and first time out, is not so encouraging,” he said, adding that his post received little traction when it was first published. “It will certainly raise eyebrows locally and around the world.”
In another Facebook post, Bowyer said he had no problems following the law, and said he thought it was fair to have both sides of an argument available for review.
“That does not mean that I agree with the position they are taking or admit to any false statements on my part,” he added.