Parliament: House votes unanimously to form committee looking into fake news

Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said the committee will examine the causes and consequences of deliberate online falsehoods. PHOTO: YOUTUBE/GOV.SG

SINGAPORE - Parliament has voted unanimously to form a select committee to examine the causes and consequences of deliberate falsehoods online, following a vigorous debate on the topic.

With all 80 House members present voting yes, the committee will canvas for public feedback and consult widely in open public hearings once it is formed, with the goal to recommend countermeasures against the threat.

In proposing the motion on Wednesday, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said Singapore is "highly susceptible" to the threat of fake news.

The 10-MP committee will examine the causes and consequences of deliberate online falsehoods, said Mr Shanmugam. It may also call for public feedback, and is to consult "as widely as possible", he added.

After considering countermeasures needed to prevent and combat such falsehoods, it will present a report with recommendations to Parliament.

With a select committee, dialogues can be held with specified groups, Mr Shanmugam said. This process will allow for wider dialogue, and for Singaporeans to hear directly from experts, as well as voice their own concerns or suggestions.

Eleven MPs who spoke yesterday all agreed that the proliferation of falsehoods online is a problem. Some warned against "heavy handed" use of legislation to deal with the issue, with many calling for more education to help the public discern between genuine and fake news.

In his opening speech, Mr Shanmugam spoke of how countries around the world have become the subjects of "organised, deliberate disinformation campaigns". Both state and non-state actors disseminate such falsehoods so to interfere with democratic processes, undermine confidence in institutions, and destabilise societies.

The Government has been studying this problem for a while, he added.

With 91 per cent of Singaporean households having Internet access, and with the multiracial and multi-religious country being a financial hub for the region, it is a "highly susceptible" target, the minister said.

Noting Singapore's position as a key player in Asean, he added: "If we can be influenced, swayed - foreign interests can be advanced through us."

Technology has added a new dimension to the problem as well, he added.

Giving an example of how fault lines could be exploited here, Mr Shanmugam said false rumours surfaced last June on social media that cat and dog meat were mixed into the marinade of satay in a Geylang bazaar.

If left unchecked, deliberate online falsehoods could undermine Singaporeans' trust in institutions and the country's social cohesion, he said.

"A wide spreading of falsehoods can drown out the facts, can cause people to be disillusioned, (and they) can be manipulated to create rifts and damage social cohesion," said Mr Shanmugam.

The select committee will be chaired by Deputy Speaker Charles Chong. It will comprise another seven MPs from the People's Action Party, one opposition MP and one Nominated MP.

The Government last set up a select committee to examine policy issues 22 years ago, in 1996. Such committees can also be set up to consider proposed legislation.

Mr Shanmugam said last June that new legislation is likely to be introduced this year to tackle fake news. But last week, the Government announced that it would form a select committee to gather public feedback.

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