Singapore GE2020: Correction notices to news portals an inappropriate use of Pofma, says SDP's Paul Tambyah

SDP chairman Paul Tambyah during a walkabout in Bukit Panjang on July 6, 2020. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

SINGAPORE - The Singapore Democratic Party's (SDP) Professor Paul Tambyah described as inappropriate the use of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma) over comments he made regarding the Covid-19 situation in foreign worker dormitories.

A joint statement by the Manpower and Health ministries said five correction notices were issued in total to The Online Citizen Asia, New Naratif, Channel News Asia (CNA) and the National University of Singapore Society (NUSS) over comments made by Prof Tambyah last Friday at an NUSS forum.

All five parties have complied with the correction direction.

Speaking to reporters during a walkabout yesterday, the 55-year-old, who is contesting in Bukit Panjang SMC, described the development as a "complete distraction".

"What I said was from a circular from MOM (Ministry of Manpower)," said Prof Tambyah, referring to an e-mail advisory sent to employers.

"It was sent out by MOM. It was not sent out by MOM and MOH (Ministry of Health)."

He added that the advisory was signed by only an MOM official and not anybody from MOH.

"Frankly, that seems to me an inappropriate use of Pofma."

The joint statement had quoted the SDP chairman as saying that the MOM e-mail advisory to employers on testing of migrant workers was made without advice from public health medical professionals.

It also said Prof Tambyah had added that the "advisory stated employers would lose their work pass privileges if they brought their workers for Covid-19 testing", and that the ministry "actively discouraged" the testing of workers. These allegations are false, both ministries had said.

But Prof Tambyah denied making the statements, adding that there have been "so many Pofmas since July". "Frankly, trying to decide who signed a circular is not going to cause racial and religious strife, whether it (e-mail advisory) came from MOH or MOM, or whether it came from MOM alone," said the SDP chairman, who is contesting in the single-member constituency against Mr Liang Eng Hwa of the People's Action Party.

Prof Tambyah said SDP has been trying to focus on the issues that matter to Singaporeans, such as jobs, income security and the response to Covid-19. "This Covid-19 is not just a medical problem; it's also an economic problem," he noted.

The events surrounding the e-mail were clarified by the two ministries in a joint statement on Sunday. They said Changi General Hospital had informed MOH on Feb 8 that an employer in the construction industry was sending all his workers to the hospital to be tested for Covid-19 although the workers exhibited no symptoms and were well.

The employer had also asked the hospital to certify the workers fit and that they were not infected with Covid-19.

The hospital was concerned this would result in a flood of healthy workers being sent to accident and emergency departments, which would distract it from the care and treatment of ill patients who required its attention.

On Feb 12, the two ministries and other agencies jointly issued an advisory to the industry, saying there was no need to prevent workers who were residing in dormitories from working if they were not sick.

Another advisory was sent out on Feb 19 to advise employers not to send workers who were healthy for testing, so as to ensure that medical facilities and resources were focused on patients who needed medical treatment.

In the advisories, MOM did not say employers could not send their workers for testing. Neither did MOM actively discourage the testing of workers.

National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the Covid-19 multi-ministry task force, had separately refuted Prof Tambyah's statement claiming that the e-mail advisory was made without advice from public health medical professionals.

Describing the allegations as "baseless and false", Mr Wong said the task force has always relied on scientific evidence and the advice of medical experts in coming up with decisions.

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