Religious groups step up efforts against online falsehoods, call for more public education

Representatives from religious groups suggest that general religious studies in schools could be beneficial for preventing religious misinformation, at the first public hearing on deliberate online falsehoods on Wednesday (March 14). VIDEO: GOV.SG
A fake Facebook account with Archbishop William Goh's name and photos was set up asking for donations.
A fake Facebook account with Archbishop William Goh's name and photos was set up asking for donations.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Archbishop William Goh found himself the victim of a deliberate online falsehood last week when a fake Facebook account with his name and photos was set up asking for donations.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese wrote to Facebook to have the page taken down, and moved to quash any misunderstanding on the Archbishop's official page, and on www.catholic.sg/check/, a page it set up to warn its congregation of online fabrications.

On Wednesday (March 14), its communications director Andre Ahchak gave this as an example of the steps religious groups take to counter deliberate online fabrications.

"It's a continuous battle, day in and day out. Many of us in my team do not sleep until about 11pm," he said to laughter, during the first public hearing on deliberate online falsehoods. "We close our eyes and think peacefully that things will be fine, but we wake up the next morning to find something has cropped up over the night."

Representatives of the National Council of Churches Singapore (NCCS) and the Singapore Buddhist Federation told the Select Committee set up to look at ways to tackle online fabrications that their communities too hope to do more in that regard.

Reverend Ngoei Foong Nghian said the NCCS encourages its local churches to advise their pastors and leaders to be more vigilant, and is thinking of working on an advisory to its churches, as a result of the discussions on fake news.

Meanwhile, the Singapore Buddhist Federation's representative Kweh Soon Han noted that a suggestion has been for his community to set up a platform where it can clear doubts or misunderstandings sowed by online falsehoods.

 
 
 

During the hearing, the four representatives of religious groups, including Dr Roland Chia of Trinity Theological College, called for more public education to counter the spread of fake news, which could deepen fault lines between different communities.

This sparked debate about what programme could work in Singapore, with Senior Minister of State for Education Janil Puthucheary wondering if religious education in schools could be too sensitive to be feasible.

His colleague on the Select Committee, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam, agreed. "We actually get a lot of pushback from parents when this idea is broached," he said, noting that some are concerned about their children being exposed to teachings from other religions.

The four witnesses, who appeared before the community together, agreed there were "potholes" to watch, and reservations to consider, but stressed that there must be space and programmes to help Singaporeans learn about one another's beliefs.

They noted that the trust between the different races and religions here has been hard-won, acknowledging how government policies, along with efforts by the various groups to bond and get to know one another have helped foster these close ties.

They also affirmed the value of the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, which came into effect in 1992 and aims to maintain religious harmony and ensure that religion is not exploited for any political or subversive purposes in Singapore - a sentiment echoed later by another witness, lawyer Shriniwas Rai.

Public hearings to fight online falsehoods: Read the submissions here.