While Singapore is a country highly lauded for many positive and progressive traits, opinion in relation to the city-state and the concept of freedom of speech is often divided. It’s a country where a licence is required for assembly and protest - so, though it remains a first world country, some may argue that, in some ways, it discreetly serves to limit the people’s expression. Often, however, this is overlooked by many Singaporeans - they feel that the country is taking an entirely justifiable, conservative, and rational approach to the matter. Indeed, there is little to complain about for people in a country so developed and well resourced.
Aptly, some bills serve to maintain the complacency of Singaporeans such as POFMA (Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act), enacted in 2019. As a law, it enables authorities to identify and eliminate what they deem to be fake news or misinformation. Section 2 of the act defines fake news as “false or misleading, whether wholly or in part, and whether on its own or in the context in which it appears", without mention of comedy, satire, or parodies. POFMA also includes statements made on social media platforms like Facebook, Google, and chat groups, public or private.
POFMA came about in 2017 when the Minister of Law and Home Affairs, Kasiviswanathan Shanmugam, ordered that the current laws on fake news were reviewed. His argument was that fake news could spread alarm and worry amongst Singaporeans, waste public funds and damage reputations. By April 2019, POFMA was active in parliament as potential legislation and, on the 2nd of October, the bill came into effect.
The use of this law has been varied, but it was prominent during the Covid-19 pandemic when the government wanted to combat misinformation and falsehoods that circulated online. While its use in correcting fake news can be incredibly important, POFMA has also come under fire since its creation. Since its enactment, various politicians linked to the PAP’s opposition party have faced POFMA violations and asked to feature “misinformation banners” on their posts. In late 2019, politician Lim Tean was ordered to correct his post about foreign students getting more funds than local students - but he defended his post and argued that POFMA was being used by the “government ahead of the upcoming [general election] to silence its opponents…”.
The law has received marked criticism, namely from human rights groups and Western critics that argue it is a breach of freedom of speech and legalises government suppression of dissenting voices. Human Rights Watch denounced POFMA, branding the bill “wholly intolerant of peaceful protest,” while Reuters found the law to be one that could “ensnare government critics.” This is because, per the law, ministers can deem a statement to be false and order its removal. If the offender seeks an appeal, it goes to the High Court where judges determine the truth of the statement.
Regardless of how it fits with one’s ethics, POFMA remains enforced. The question is: will Singaporeans in power eventually see a problem with it.