The real concern among some academics over the fake news law is the potential impact on political discourse in Singapore, said Education Minister Ong Ye Kung, as he explained why it is impossible for academic research to run afoul of the proposed legislation.
Speaking at the debate on the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill (Pofma) in Parliament yesterday, Mr Ong assured the House that the Government will not apply the laws to academic research.
He was responding to a letter he received last month from 124 academics, of whom slightly more than half were foreigners, which raised concerns that the Bill could lead to self-censorship.
The minister said the Government will stay true to science and empirical evidence, and engage in vigorous public debate over opinion-based research. "Under both scenarios, Pofma does not apply in such a discourse," he said.
The only way the law would be invoked is if the research is based on false observations or data, preventing public discourse from taking place properly. "In which case, such work cannot pass the professional standards of any decent university or research institute," he said.
But Mr Ong pointed out the real concern of academics is that the law will be used to stifle political discourse in Singapore, noting that "not all researchers are just researchers, they may also be activists".
The law treats all activists equally - whether you are an academic or a man or woman on the street. It does not target academics. You are as free as an ordinary citizen to comment on current affairs and critique the Government.
EDUCATION MINISTER ONG YE KUNG, who said no activist will be caught by the law if he criticises the Government.
While emphasising that research cannot be conflated with activism, Mr Ong said no activist will be caught by the law if he criticises the Government.
"The law treats all activists equally - whether you are an academic or a man or woman on the street," he said. "It does not target academics. You are as free as an ordinary citizen to comment on current affairs and critique the Government."
Conversely, any academic - activist or not - who uses online platforms to spread falsehoods that harm society will not be spared under the law, he added.
He noted that public discourse is becoming more rigorous, and it is in this area where the views of academics would be regarded differently. They could say, for example, that Singapore's growth model or meritocratic system has failed, and the laws will not apply because these are opinions.
NOMINATED MP ANTHEA ONG
"The concern is, with such an overreaching scope coupled with the broad and subjective definition of 'fact' and 'false', that any criticism of the Government could be considered a statement that would diminish public confidence... When does a statement cross the threshold from inconsequential personal expression to a threat to public confidence? Would someone opining that the Government is incompetent on Facebook be subject to a correction direction if their post gains enough shares or likes to be considered capable of influencing public confidence?"
NOMINATED MP WALTER THESEIRA
"An academic whose scientific findings are the subject of a direction would not be able to communicate them online without risk of contravening the direction. She might have to write to scientific journals to ask for a retraction or correction. The journal would ask why. If our Government is not able to answer to the satisfaction of international experts, it would bring scientific condemnation on our country."
DR INTAN AZURA MOKHTAR (ANG MO KIO GRC)
"May I also suggest that an academic and research advisory panel be set up to review academic or research work or publications that may be deemed to publish 'false statements of facts'. This may be similar to the Singapore Medical Council. The purpose of the panel is to have oversight and decide on academic or research work or publications that would otherwise need to put up appeals to the courts. Hence, long-drawn court appeals that may result in high costs or extended appeal durations can be avoided."
NOMINATED MP IRENE QUAY
"Many civil groups harbour genuine concerns over this Bill, as evident by the 170 written representations from individuals and organisations submitted to the Select Committee... Hence, it is our moral obligation to give constructive criticism and proposals to fine-tune this Bill in the best interests of Singapore.
If left unrevised, this Bill may have long-term repercussions on freedom of expression and speech, impede the development of an engaged and intellectual public, and erode the trust in our Government."
"But in the interest of open debate and given your stature in society and position in a publicly-funded university, please expect government agencies - if we do not agree with you - to present the facts, our arguments and to convince the public otherwise."
"If that has a chilling effect, please chill," he added to laughter from the House.
He added that the same or even higher expectations apply to him and his Cabinet colleagues, and whenever one of them puts out a view in public, those who disagree with them will speak up and the ministers would have to re-evaluate their position.
He cited some events that shape a nation, like the Holocaust in Germany and communist threats Singapore faced after independence. Researchers may continue to interpret these events, but they cannot deny they happened, he said.
"Only by holding onto certain truths are we able to continue to collectively identify the issues that are important to us... and decide the way forward, without the lies and manipulations," said the minister, whose speech ended in applause from the House.