Legislation essential to tackling spread of fake news to manipulate opinions, elections: PM Lee

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the 29th Inter-Pacific Bar Association conference on April 25, 2019.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the 29th Inter-Pacific Bar Association conference on April 25, 2019.ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

SINGAPORE - Legislation is an essential part of the solution to the spread of fake news by malevolent actors who set out to manipulate opinions and influence elections, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Thursday (April 25).

To this end, Singapore's Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill will hold online platforms accountable and empower the Government to issue correction orders when false statements of fact are published, he added.

Take-down orders will be issued in serious cases, the prime minister said to participants of the Inter-Pacific Bar Association Meeting and Conference held at Raffles City Convention Centre.

In a 15-minute speech, PM Lee emphasised the importance of upholding the rule of law, saying Singapore, as a small, open and vulnerable country, is conscious of the need to nurture it both internally and externally.

No matter the provenance of a country's legal system, he said a common thread that runs through almost every modern society is a system of rule of law premised on society being governed by impartial and objective laws which are clear, passed following due process, and published for all to see.

The laws also have to be enforced fairly, free of fear and favour.

Laws must also be administered by impartial courts that are independent of the executive, and deliver judgements that are reasoned and open to criticism, he added.

"These are all necessary conditions for people to feel that they are treated equally before the law, and that no one is above or immune from the law," said PM Lee.

 
 
 

Over the years, Singapore has built upon the English common law system inherited from the days of colonial rule to develop a legal system that fits its unique circumstances, he said.

He cited the draft law on online falsehoods as an example of how the country has updated its laws to address broader trends that affect many countries, in this case the spread of fake news due to the proliferation of technology and social media. The Bill was introduced in Parliament on April 1 and the House is due to debate it in May.

PM Lee also listed two other broad trends that have required a rethinking of laws around the world.

One is the need to craft laws to prevent terrorism and radical incitement based on the intent to do harm, rather than after a crime has been committed. To do so, countries have had to contemplate the trade-offs between personal liberties and collective security, he said.

The other is the need to consider how taxes should apply to online transactions, given the rapid growth of e-commerce, which has led to tussles between governments about who should collect or keep the taxes, he added.

In dealing with these issues, there will not be universal solutions that work for all countries, but it is important to understand one another's points of view to work out common rules where possible to allow for meaningful engagement.

 
 
 

He noted that Singapore is a strong proponent of international law, which is vital to a stable and constructive international order.

"We take very seriously all our international treaty obligations, and will only enter into an agreement when we fully intend to honour it," he said. "Similarly, we expect others to honour fully agreements they sign with us."

"We support dispute resolution through institutions such as the International Court of Justice and the Permanent Court of Arbitration. We have on several occasions referred issues to the ICJ and PCA for adjudication, and have always respected and abided by the outcomes, even when they are not in our favour."

PM Lee also pointed to how Singapore has contributed to the development of rule of law internationally, most recently during the negotiations on the UN Convention on International Settlement Agreements Resulting from Mediation.

This convention was adopted by the UN General Assembly last December, and it decided to name it the Singapore Convention on Mediation, said PM Lee. Singapore will host the signing ceremony for the convention on August 7.