SINGAPORE - After a marathon two-day debate that stretched late into Wednesday evening (May 8), Parliament passed a comprehensive piece of legislation to combat fake news.
The proposed law is not a political tool for the ruling party to wield power, said Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam, but is about shaping the kind of society that Singapore should be.
Summing up the often-fractious debate on the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, he painted a picture of a society in which lies are kept out and there are honest debates among people based on truth and honour.
“(Debates) should be based on a foundation of truth, foundation of honour, and foundation where we keep out the lies, that’s what this is about. It’s not about the Workers’ Party or the PAP or today, it’s about Singapore,” he said responding to the 31 MPs who spoke during the debate on the draft law aimed at protecting society from fake news that harms public interest.
Around 10.20pm, the Bill was passed with 72 MPs saying “yes”, nine WP MPs saying “no”, and three Nominated MPs abstaining.
Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh, whose party had strenuously objected to the new law for giving ministers too much power, had called for a division in which each MP’s vote is recorded.
The opposition party wanted the courts, instead of the ministers to be the arbiters of falsehoods, and accused the Government of creating a self-serving law that can be abused to quash critics.
Rebuttals came from many of the People’s Action Party MPs as well as Communications and Information Minister S. Iswaran, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung and Mr Shanmugam, who stressed that a minister’s decision under the new law is subject to court appeal and judicial review.
The new law is designed to give the Government the tools to deal with falsehoods on the Internet that can go viral in a matter of minutes and cause untold harm, said Mr Shanmugam who spent much of his speech addressing WP MPs' claims.
There was no way to guarantee that the courts would be able to respond within hours every single time a falsehood needed to be dealt with, he added.
He also stressed that the Bill narrows the scope of the Government’s powers, instead of broadening it.
“There is no profit of any sort including political profit in trying to allow these lies to proliferate and damage our infrastructure of fact. It will damage our institutions and, frankly, no mainstream political party will benefit from it. It will damage any party that wants to consider itself mainstream and credible. You've seen what happens in the US, you’ve seen what happened in the UK; the centre gets hollowed out, it’s the extremes that benefit,” he said.
MPs had asked for clarifications on technical aspects, such as how the law defines falsehoods and public interest, and also raised practical concerns like whether people who inadvertently forward fake news will run afoul of the law.
Mr Shanmugam stressed that orders to put up corrections or remove content would mostly be directed at technology companies.
The man on the street who does not purposely manufacture falsehoods to undermine society need not fear, he added.
During the debate on Wednesday, Mr Ong addressed the concerns of academics, some of whom had sent him a letter last month about their fears that academic work would be caught under the law.
He said their main concern was that the law would be abused to stifle political discourse “because not all researchers are just researchers, they may also be activists”, but assured them that criticism based on facts and not falsehoods would not come under the new law.
Mr Iswaran, meanwhile, spoke about how the Government was fighting the fake news scourge from other fronts, such as working with technology companies on a code of practice that will prevent their platforms from being misused to ramping up media literacy through education.
“Ultimately, our first and most important line of defence against online falsehoods is a well-informed and discerning citizenry, equipped with the tools to combat online falsehoods,” he said.