From The Gallery

Fake news and its real consequences

One MP's moving speech acts as reminder that real lives are at stake in war on fake news

When race riots broke out in Singapore and Malaysia in 1969, Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) was just eight. But she had no trouble understanding what her mother meant when she said that Ms Lee's newborn baby brother may have to be "left behind".

Ms Lee grew up on a rubber plantation in Malacca. In the tense days after the 1969 general election in Malaysia - when the opposition made big strides - false rumours of violent attacks between races triggered actual attacks, and soon escalated into a full-scale race riot.

The clashes spilt across the Causeway, taking four lives here and injuring another 80, over seven senseless days.

Ms Lee said: "Those who are my age or older will remember the terror and bloodshed of those few days."

Her family were gathered at a neighbour's house for the night - to seek safety in numbers - when she had that fateful conversation.

"I remember my mother telling me, 'If the Malays come tonight, we will all have to flee quickly into the forest. We have to leave xiao didi (little brother) behind,' " she recounted in Parliament yesterday, her voice shaking with emotion.

Presumably, the baby's cries would have exposed their whereabouts - risking more lives.

MPs drew on examples from the pre-Internet era to show that the concept of fake news is not novel. They also cited more recent ones, to highlight how the exponential rise in the speed of communications has made the task of countering it much more complex.

She continued: "I knew what my mother meant, and felt very helpless. All I could hope for was that the moment to leave didi behind would not come."

Ms Lee was among 13 MPs who spoke during the debate on whether to form a Select Committee to deliberate and make recommendations on how best to tackle online falsehoods.

In a moving speech that was the highlight of the 41/2-hour sitting, Ms Lee's personal story drove home the potentially devastating consequences of fake news.

MPs drew on examples from the pre-Internet era to show that the concept of fake news is not novel. They also cited more recent ones, to highlight how the exponential rise in the speed of communications has made the task of countering it much more complex.

Ms Sun Xueling (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) recalled a fake report of a roof collapse at a Housing Board block in her constituency. The 2016 hoax was posted on the website All Singapore Stuff and taken down just 30 minutes later. But in that time, "many things happened".

She said: "I was on the phone in seconds, calling up my town council, calling up my grassroots leaders to rush there as soon as they could, while I drove there from another part of town.

"SPF, SCDF dispatched vehicles and manpower. Residents congregated at the scene. Other residents texted to say they were rushing home.

"This might be someone's idea of a joke, but it wasn't a very efficient use of time and resources," she said.

Her story is significant because of the involvement of first responders - the police and civil defence. They could have been attending to other, more urgent matters.

But, more importantly, it is a scenario that can be used by terrorists (as has happened in other parts of the world) either to distract first responders before carrying out an actual attack somewhere else or to lure these responders in so as to target them.

Among the 13 MPs who spoke were ministers K. Shanmugam and Yaacob Ibrahim, seven People's Action Party (PAP) backbenchers and four Nominated MPs.

The nine Workers' Party MPs, who were all in Parliament, chose not to speak - a somewhat unexpected decision, since they weigh in during most debates - whether on Bills or motions.

It is perhaps because the WP avoided stating its view that Mr Shanmugam, who as Law Minister tabled the motion on forming a Select Committee, decided to call for a division at the end of the debate. This requires each MP in the chamber to cast a formal vote, instead of voting by voice.

Explaining why he wanted one, Mr Shanmugam said: "This is an important motion on an important issue. I think it is good to have on record the position of members."

The motion was carried by all 80 MPs present, including eight of the nine Workers' Party MPs. Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) had left by the time of the vote.

But not speaking up was probably a missed opportunity for the WP to steer the debate. That said, there will still be occasion for the opposition party to articulate its position: One Workers' Party MP will sit on the Select Committee, and Workers' Party MPs can also debate the committee's report and its proposals.

Yesterday, it took a People's Action Party MP - Ms Lee - to speak up for the silent opposition.

Even after warning of the clear dangers posed by fake news, she expressed two concerns: "Will (future legislation) impede freedom of speech online? Will it be used against opposition parties or government critics?"

Ms Lee was not the only one who called on the committee to consider the matter carefully, and not to rush headlong into proposing knee-jerk or harsh legislation.

Nominated MP Kok Heng Leun noted that the successful prosecution in 2016 of the founders of the fake news site The Real Singapore showed that "existing laws and provisions have been effective". Other MPs suggested non-legislative options, like forming fact-checking bodies and raising media literacy.

A few MPs also said it was important that the definition of fake news did not implicate all and sundry - such as those who were not malicious in forwarding messages received from others, or those who held biased, poorly founded opinions.

Parliament's Committee of Selection must now decide which MPs will be on the Select Committee.

After her impassioned speech yesterday, eyes will be on Ms Lee to see if she is picked. But even if she is not, the Select Committee will not easily forget the story of her baby brother.

It is a poignant reminder that real lives are at stake in the war on fake news - and that if things come to a crunch, it may well be the weakest and most vulnerable who take the first hit.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 11, 2018, with the headline 'Fake news and its real consequences'. Print Edition | Subscribe