Singapore's law against fake news has been used for the first time, with Progress Singapore Party (PSP) member Brad Bowyer being asked to correct false statements he made about investments by GIC, Temasek and other government-linked companies (GLCs).
A Nov 13 Facebook post he made "contains clearly false statements of fact, and undermines public trust in the Government", the Ministry of Finance (MOF) said yesterday.
In particular, Mr Bowyer had implied that the Government controls Temasek's and GIC's commercial decisions, which is false, the Government said on its fact-checking website Factually.
Mr Bowyer, who was born in Britain but is now a Singaporean, was issued a correction direction yesterday under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma).
By late morning, he had put up a note at the top of his post stating that it "contains false statements of fact", along with a link to the correct facts.
Pofma, which took effect on Oct 2, gives ministers the power to act against a piece of online falsehood when it is in the public interest to do so. They can order that it be taken down or ask for corrections to be put up alongside it.
Critics had said that it could have a chilling effect, but the Government said it would resort to take-down orders only in the more egregious cases.
In the latest case, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat had instructed the Pofma Office to issue a correction direction, which requires that Mr Bowyer put up in full a correction note along with his post, which remained online.
Mr Bowyer told The Straits Times that he had no issue with the correction direction.
He later added in a second Facebook post that he had based his opinions on public facts and "details I have access to".
He also said: "I feel it is fair to have both points of view and clarifications and corrections of fact when necessary."
Mr Bowyer, who had previously been a People's Action Party member before he left to join the People's Voice Party, and eventually PSP, also said the incident would not deter him from being vocal about social and political issues.
In his Nov 13 Facebook post, he had criticised GIC and Temasek for certain investments that he said would rack up huge financial losses.
He also said the Government had a "fiduciary responsibility" to account for the losses.
Describing these statements as falsehoods, the Government said on its fact-checking website Factually: "Mr Bowyer implies that the Singapore Government controls Temasek's and GIC's commercial decisions. This is false."
In the article providing corrections and clarifications to the falsehoods, it also said Mr Bowyer had used "false and misleading statements to smear the reputation of Temasek and GIC".
The Factually article said that the investment company and sovereign wealth fund are run on market principles, independent of the Government.
"The Government's role is to ensure that Temasek and GIC have competent boards, which ensure that their respective mandates are met. The Government also holds the boards of Temasek and GIC accountable for their respective overall performances," said the article.
The MOF, echoing this, said that Temasek and GIC have made positive returns over the long term and have contributed significantly to the national budget, contrary to Mr Bowyer's claims.
In a third Facebook post, Mr Bowyer said he had merely been asking fair questions about the Government's oversight of GIC and Temasek, given that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is the chairman of GIC and his wife Ho Ching is chief executive officer of Temasek.
He wrote: "I feel we should all do our best to comment factually and responsibly. However, when questions arise, just asserting something is false or giving irrelevant information does not answer valid questions."
For Pofma to apply, two criteria must be satisfied: There must be a falsehood, and it must be in the public interest for the Government to act.
"With a general election round the corner, I suppose there is the concern that public debate on Temasek, GIC and the GLCs will be on the basis of incorrect information if a clarification was not made," said Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan. "This is especially so because Mr Bowyer is a member of an opposition party that has said it will campaign on a platform about these issues."
The PSP declined to comment, saying that Mr Bowyer had posted the comments in his personal capacity.
Light shed on how law is used
The approach taken for the first case under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma) has shed light on how the law will be used, said Singapore Management University Associate Professor of Law Eugene Tan.
Commenting on the first invocation of the fake news law, he said: "I think (people) can see that Pofma, properly invoked, doesn't seek to quell dissent or to shut out opposing views."
A correction direction was issued by the Pofma office, which administers the law, to Progress Singapore Party member Brad Bowyer over statements he posted on Facebook on Nov 13.
This was done yesterday under instruction from Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat.
Mr Bowyer was required to run a correction note in full alongside his post, and also include a link to the correct facts.
In passing the Pofma Bill in Parliament in May, the Government had said that ministers who are domain experts in these areas are in the best position to decide when to act.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Finance said that the ministry, along with other government agencies, had carefully reviewed the contents of Mr Bowyer's post after it was first published.
When it was determined that it contained false statements of fact, she added, "the Government decided that it was in the public interest to issue a correction direction... to post a notice to address the false statements of fact in his original post".
He also had to add a link to an article on the Government's fact-checking website Factually that corrected the falsehoods in his post using publicly available information.
Prof Tan, noting that Mr Bowyer's post remains available online, added that this case showed clearly that while people are entitled to their point of view, they are not entitled to inaccurate facts.
Those who do not agree with a minister's decision can challenge it in court.
An appeal can be heard in the High Court as early as nine days after a challenge is first brought to the minister. Such a challenge could cost about $200.
A correction direction is among the remedies available under the law, designed to give the Government the tools to deal with falsehoods on the Internet.
Websites, social media platforms and individual users can also be asked to take down the false information completely. In serious cases, people who are found to have spread falsehoods intentionally to destabilise society can be charged.