High Court finds SDP deliberately made false post about 10m population, dismisses Pofma appeal

The court said it is clear that SDP had deliberately made the claim about the population figure "knowing it was false". ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

SINGAPORE - When the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) claimed during the 2020 General Election that Singapore was targeting to grow its population to 10 million by 2030, it knew the statement was false, the High Court said on Tuesday (May 10).

The opposition party had misquoted former Housing Board chief executive Cheong Koon Hean as saying that Singapore's "population density" would go up from 11,000 to 13,700 people per sq km by 2030, even though it knew that this was not true, the court added.

In doing so, it had "deliberately substituted 'living density' in Dr Cheong's statement for 'population density'", and "deliberately applied her figures" to wrongly deduce the total population, the court found.

In a judgment dismissing SDP's appeal against a correction direction under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma), which deals with fake news, the court said it is clear that SDP had deliberately made the claim about the population figure "knowing it was false".

As such, SDP was also ordered to pay the Attorney-General for the legal costs of $7,000 and other reasonable expenses.

The correction direction had been issued on July 4, 2020, to SDP, after the party asserted during the 2020 General Election that the Government was "toying with the idea" of having a population of 10 million people.

SDP chief Chee Soon Juan had made the claim during a TV debate on July 1 that year.

On July 3, SDP published a press release on its Facebook page misquoting Dr Cheong's comments on "living density" during an April 2018 Institute of Policy Studies lecture, and deducing that it meant the country's population would go up to nearly 10 million by 2030.

In its post, it had said that "the idea of Singapore increasing its population to 10 million did not originate from SDP".

The alleged population target was refuted by various ministers on multiple platforms with Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat stating unequivocally that Singapore's population is likely to be significantly below 6.9 million by 2030.

On July 4, the Pofma office was instructed to issue a correction direction to SDP.

SDP’s application to cancel the correction direction was rejected by the alternate authority for the Minister for National Development. During elections, ministers do not have powers to issue Pofma orders. They are issued by designated senior civil servants.

The party then appealed to the High Court to have the correction direction dismissed, arguing among other things that it was merely reporting what Dr Cheong had said, and that its deduction on the population target was an opinion that was not covered under Pofma.

In his judgment, Judge of the Appellate Division Woo Bih Li rejected SDP's characterisation of its claim as a mere report of Dr Cheong's comments.

He pointed out that while Dr Cheong had spoken about "living density", SDP had deliberately substituted her words with "population density", which is a different thing.

This is even though HDB had clarified explicitly in an April 2018 forum letter in The Straits Times that Dr Cheong had been speaking about "living density", which takes into account only the land for urban areas, and excludes land used for ports, airports, defence and utilities, among other things, he noted.

SDP's assertion that there was no "positive evidence" that it had known of the letter also cut no ice with Justice Woo, who noted that the HDB letter was one of the documents which SDP itself had referred to in its application to cancel the correction direction in the first instance.

The letter had also been cited in full in an article in The Online Citizen which SDP had cited to bolster its case. In rejecting SDP’s application to set aside the correction direction, the alternate authority had also specifically mentioned the letter. 

Despite all this, SDP had never said that it was unaware of the letter, he added.

Justice Woo said: "The court is entitled to infer and I do infer that SDP was aware of (the HDB) letter at all material times including around the date when it was published in The Straits Times and before SDP published the SDP article."

He added: "(The letter) showed that the SDP article had deliberately substituted 'living density' in Dr Cheong's statement for 'population density' in the SDP article. More importantly, that letter showed that the density in Dr Cheong's statement was based on urban areas in Singapore and not Singapore's total land area. Yet the SDP article deliberately applied her figures to the latter."

SDP had also argued that it was not obliged to take into account the letter. But Justice Woo did not accept the argument, saying that if SDP was purporting to be accurately reporting Dr Cheong's statement, it should have taken the letter into account.

This is particularly so because SDP's article had been premised on an earlier forum letter about Dr Cheong's comments, and the HDB letter was in response to that.

The court also rejected SDP's argument that its claim on the 10 million population figure was an opinion deduced based on Dr Cheong's comments, noting that the SDP article had opened with the line: "The idea of Singapore increasing its population to 10 million did not originate from SDP".

This showed that the objective behind SDP's post was to show that the idea of the 10 million population originated from the Government, not SDP, and thus could not have been an opinion of SDP, the court said.

As part of its appeal, SDP had also contended that the hearing on the appeal should be done in open court, as the issue was of public interest.

But Justice Woo said there were no special reasons for the case to depart from the Rules of Court, which state that all originating summonses shall be heard in the Chambers unless the court directed otherwise.

The fact that an issue was of public interest or raised a constitutional point alone did not constitute a special reason to have an open court hearing, he added.

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