Parliament: Fake news law necessary to prevent crisis of trust that has hit other countries, says Shanmugam

A commuter walking past a poster warning about fake news at an MRT station.

SINGAPORE - Singapore's proposed law against fake news is aimed at preventing the loss of trust in the government and institutions that has taken root in many Western societies, affecting the very foundations of democracy, said Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam on Tuesday (May 7).

Describing this trust deficit as a fundamental problem in many countries, he urged Members of the House to pay heed to this bigger picture, to understand why Singapore needs the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill.

The minister spent much of his two-hour long speech setting out the rationale for the proposed law, that has come under fire by some segments who feel it is too elaborate and far-reaching.

Casting his eye on developments around the world, he said there has been a serious loss of trust in governments in Europe and in the United States.

At the same time, trust in important public institutions such as the media and medical and legal professions has also been eroded.

This creates a vicious circle that could lead to populism, he warned, adding that in the end, society suffers and everyone suffers.

While Singapore is doing well compared to other countries, with trust in the Government and the media still relatively high, he added, "we cannot ignore the global risk, and we are likely to be impacted by the same forces".

He singled out four factors that he said Singapore must guard against: rising inequality, failing political systems, media abuse of power and new media being abused.

When inequality is high, and standards of living stagnate, people lose faith in democracy and governments, he said.

Add to this a media that aligns itself with partisan interests, new media is weaponised to spread falsehoods, and the net effect is a destruction of trust, free speech and the infrastructure of fact, which are the foundations of democracy, he added.

Citing countries such as the US, Australia, Britain, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Sweden, among others, Mr Shanmugam said that the percentage of people who say it is "essential" to live in a democracy has fallen significantly, especially among the young.

"The desire for an upending of the status quo can lead to serious consequences and destabilisation, with global effect," he added.

The crisis of trust has in turn opened the doors to the dangerous and destructive politics of populism in many countries, making it harder for governments to fix problems, he said as he set out the context under which the Bill was proposed.

"It will be very unwise for us to watch and do nothing because it can sweep us over very quickly. I believe we are at one of those crucial turning points in history," he added.

"This Bill is an attempt to deal with one part of the problem. The serious problems arising from falsehoods spread through new media. And to try and help support the infrastructure of fact and promote honest speech in public discourse. It is an important part - even as we work on other aspects."

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