Submission on the Singapore government’s plan to regulate fake news

The following submission was sent to the Select Committee in response to their call for views on the enactment of a law to combat “fake news”. 


On January 5, 2018, the Ministry of Law presented a Green Paper titled “Deliberate Online Falsehoods: Challenges and Implications”. This came amid strong hints from the Singapore government that it was planning to introduce legislation aimed at combating “fake news”.

The Community Action Network believes fake news is not a major issue in Singapore, and that there are enough safeguards in place to deal with potential problems. Rather than introduce more legislation, the government should grant Singaporeans the right resources and tools to identify fake news.

We would like to point out that Singapore’s mainstream media has been complicit in helping the government to perpetuate dubious allegations, which can count as “fake news”. For example, it parroted the PAP government’s position that there was a “Marxist Conspiracy” in 1987. This allegation has never been proven.

“Fake News” – A Genuine Scourge?

 According to the Green Paper:

“Around the world, falsehoods are being deliberately spread online, to attack public institutions and individuals. The aim is to sow discord amongst racial and religious communities, exploit fault-lines, undermine public institutions, interfere in elections as well as other democratic processes, and weaken countries.”

Examples raised focus primarily on events in the US and Europe, with Indonesia being the sole Asian country mentioned, other than Singapore.

The Green Paper asserts that we, as a nation, are vulnerable because we are one of the most open and globally connected countries in the world. We are also multi-racial and religiously diverse, and a “key strategic node international finance, trade, travel and communications, and a key player in ASEAN. The paper also cites the possibility foreign actors might wish to “destabilise” us.

CAN submits that the scenarios put forth are too diverse and haphazardly drawn together, and the definition of “fake news” too vague for Singaporeans to be convinced that we are facing a credible threat.  For instance, in point 78, two cases – the Singapore Herald and Eastern Sun –  are cited as examples of “foreign interference”. And yet, the paper doesn’t provide details on why the two publications were shut down, or explain that their closures were controversial. This is ironic, given the aim of the Green Paper.

The mainstream media still produces most of the news and information on Singapore. As it is controlled by the government and the ruling party, any misinformation can be easily dealt with. Indeed the mainstream media often carries rebuttals and clarifications by the government prominently in all of its reports. Concerns about not being able to tackle falsehoods have no basis in reality. Therefore, there is no credible evidence that new laws to tackle fake news is necessary.

The case of The Real Singapore was also raised as an example of how online publications can spread fake news. However, we note that owners of The Real Singapore were prosecuted and dealt with, and the site no longer exists. Furthermore, no similar problems have since arisen, it is logical to conclude that existing laws are sufficient in dealing with “fake news”.

In any case, we believe that the argument against so-called “foreign influence” is a superfluous one. It assumes that Singaporeans are gullible and easily manipulated. This cannot be the case, given our world-class education system, and the fact that we are a globally connected city.

Moreover, our government is arguably more susceptible to “foreign influence” than ordinary citizens. The recent case in which we agreed to not cane alleged robber David Roach because of pressure from the United Kingdom, is an example.

Finally, we note also that in the US, President Donald Trump has used the label “fake news” to discredit credible news outlets. We urge the government not to go down the same route.

More transparency needed

 In March 2017, socio-political news website The Online Citizen (TOC) ran a report regarding a complaint it had received, that police had accused a reader’s 80-year-old wheelchair-bound father of stealing a motorcycle. The Singapore Police responded a day later claiming that TOC had made “false allegations” against the SPF.

However, in response, TOC said it had written to the police two months earlier, and had received no reply. It added that had it received a response, it would have included that in its article. (

CAN is of the opinion that the Singapore Police Force jumped the gun in accusing TOC of creating “false allegations”. Any misunderstanding could have been avoided with a timely response to TOC’s enquiry. Writing to parties accused of bad behavior, is after all, standard practice for any credible news organisation. The police, and indeed all government bodies in Singapore, should understand that the best way to combat fake news is to treat all such queries as legitimate, and respond in an open, transparent manner.

Existing laws already regulate free speech. 

1) There is sufficient legislation in Singapore to deal with online falsehoods. Indeed some of these laws are oppressive and impede free speech. For example, owners of The Real Singapore were successfully prosecuted under the Sedition Act.

2) The Telecommunications Act makes it an offence for any “message” which the person knows to be fake to be transmitted.

Section 45 of The Telecommunications Act says:

  1. Any person who transmits or causes to be transmitted a message which he knows to be false or fabricated shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction
  2. a) In the case where the false or fabricated message contains any reference to the presence in any place or location of a bomb or other thing liable to explode or ignite, to a fine not exceeding $50,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 7 years or to both; and
  3. b) in any other case, to a fine not exceeding $10,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 years or to both.

3) The Media Development Authority’s (MDA) Licensing Framework allows the government to order news sites to remove content it deems objectionable. Online news sites which report an average of at least one article per week on Singapore news and current affairs over a period of two months, and are visited by at least 50,000 unique IP addresses from Singapore each month over the same period of two months have to remove content which is in breach of content standards within 24 hours and post a performance bond of $50,000.

4) For acts that incite racial unrest, or harms religious feelings, there is the Sedition Act and Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act.


  1. Encourage more transparency from all arms of the government.
  2. Legitimate queries from news organisations should be answered promptly, and treated in good faith.
  3. Address falsehoods propagated by the government, such as the “Marxist Conspiracy”.
  4. Enact a “Freedom of Information Act” so citizens can have access to information, and be empowered to ask questions.
  5. Review the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act – unshackle the mainstream media and allow for genuine competition so that information flows are not monopolised by entities controlled by the government.
  6. Teach media literacy skills. The best way to combat fake news is to encourage critical thinking.




Amendments to law enhance government’s power to detain without trial

Extension of the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act (CLTPA) for another five years.

Function 8, Community Action Network and Think Centre oppose the extension of the CLTPA for the 14th time under the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) (Amendment) Bill No. 5/2018.

The CLTPA was  enacted in 1955 when Singapore was partially independent. It was meant as a temporary measure “to strengthen the law against those who seek to overthrow the lawfully elected Government by violence, or who seek to subvert the minds of the people by intimidation, away from genuine democracy and constitutional advance to self-government, to the rule of fear and to ultimate Communist domination.” (Chief Secretary, Mr W A C Goode).

At the time of its enactment Mr Goode said:

“These measures, we think, are necessary during a period of immaturity in understanding and practising democracy to safeguard us from the dangers that beset us on the path to maturity. We hope, therefore, that they will no longer be needed after that period and, accordingly, all these various matters have been put together into this one Bill which, by sub-clause 2 of clause 1, is to remain in force for a period of only three years. As the title of the Bill indicates, these are temporary additions to our criminal laws.” (Legislative Assembly debates 21 Sept 1955).

It is regretted that under the PAP government, Singapore has remained a politically immature country for the past 52 years. The government continues to rely on this draconian law to govern and indeed, over the years had deemed it fit to extend its power over ordinary crimes which are already taken care of by the arsenal of legislation existing today.

The CLTPA has serious consequences for the people of Singapore. The amendment bill has even more serious implications for law abiding citizens. From its original intent of dealing with alleged communists, its application has been extended to criminal activities of secret societies, unlicensed moneylending and drug trafficking after it was no longer possible to use the communist threat as a reason. By this amendment, the application of the law will extend to human trafficking, robbery with firearms, murder, gang rape, kidnapping, organised crimes (under the Organised Crime Act 2015) and attempt to carry out, abet or being a party to all the aforesaid named crimes (see Fourth Schedule). For each of these crimes, there are already existing laws – Penal Code, Kidnapping Act, Public Order Act, Firearms and Ammunition (Unlawful Possession) Act etc.

Similar to the Internal Security Act, the CLTPA allows indefinite detention without trial under the hand of the minister with the consent of the public prosecutor. Under the amendment bill, anyone who is arrested and imprisoned indefinitely will be deprived of his right to pursue judicial review before the High Court. We take strong objection to the deprivation of this right.

We oppose judicial power being given to the minister and public prosecutor in the guise of being “satisfied that it is necessary that the person be detained in the interests of public security, peace and good order”. (section 30(1)(a) of the CLTPA.)  We believe in the separation of powers as guaranteed by the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore. The power to order detention should only be exercised by our judiciary after a full open trial. Our judges should also have the power to conduct judicial review of abuse of power by the executive.

We are utterly dismayed that our government, despite its decades of experience in governing Singapore has deemed it necessary to punish the people of Singapore in this abusive manner by continuing to retain this unjust temporary law and indeed, by making it even more detrimental with the various amendments it enacted in the past and this amendment.

We call upon all members of parliament to oppose this amendment bill and to propose the abolition of the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act for the reason that Singapore today has more than sufficient laws to take care of all offences under the CLTPA  and that judicial powers should only be exercised by our judiciary and not the executive.

We urge Singaporeans to scrutinise the proceedings of parliament and demand that parliamentary debates be live-streamed so that everyone can know what is happening in parliament starting from the debate of this shameless amendment bill.

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Repeal the Films Act and Withdraw the Proposed Bill: CAN & F8

A draconian piece of legislation like the Films Act enacted in 1981 has no place in any first world country, let alone one that hopes to position itself as a hub for the arts. It criminalises filmmakers, entertainment owners and organisations who make “party political films” and documentaries. It affords no distinction between these filmmakers and those who make obscene films.

Under the current act, the wording is broad and virtually anyone sharing any filmed material that might have a political message can be penalised. The penalties are exceptionally severe ranging from $100 per film to $100,000 and imprisonment. We question the intent of legislature in imposing such punishments.

In justifying the restrictions, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Information, Communications and Arts said this in May 2005:

“Party political films’ are disallowed because they are an undesirable medium for political debate in Singapore. They can present political issues in a sensational manner, evoking emotional rather than rational reactions, without affording the opportunity for a meaningful rebuttal or explanation to audience and viewers.”

The explanation made no sense then, and continues to make no sense today. Singaporeans are not irrational beings, incapable of discernment – the law is an insult to our people’s intelligence.

The proposed amendments to the Films Act expands the definitions of terms, enlarges the scope of work of film censors, increases the types of offences, and empowers IMDA officers to raid premises (a job which we doubt such officers want to be burdened with).

There is nothing in the proposed amendments to assure the public that these officials are well qualified to review and rate films independently. Furthermore, raids should be carried out by police officers in possession of a proper warrant, not civil servants.

We are also appalled that the government is exempted from the provisions of the law (both in the original Act and in the proposed amendment). In today’s context, we are literally a one-party state. Under the law, the ruling party will thus be free to make party political films without fear of infringing the law. This is totally unacceptable and against public interest.

The proposed amendments to the Films Act appoint the minister as the final arbiter of   disputes especially those that allegedly concern “national security”. The minister represents the government and is clearly not an independent person. He has more important functions to perform than to be involved in policing films.

We urge the government to withdraw the proposed bill and repeal the Films Act 1981. By all means, categorise films fit for children and adults but let Singaporeans make up their own minds about party political films.


Community Action Network

Function 8

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Art is Not a Crime – Joint Statement by CAN and Function 8


Police arrest artist Seelan Palay following a peaceful performance outside Parliament House. Photo courtesy of TOC

Function 8 and Community Action Network (CAN) are deeply troubled and saddened by the arrest of artist Seelan Palay outside Parliament House on Sunday, 1 Oct 2017. He has been released on police bail since yesterday and is subjected to severe restrictions including restrictions on travels.

Seelan Palay was merely practising his profession as an artist when he demonstrated how a free mind cannot be constrained by space such as Hong Lim Park. The video at illustrates his free spiritedness when he started his performance in the muddy park of Hong Lim and walked along South Bridge Road to his destinations at City Hall (now National Gallery) and Parliament House where he was arrested.

All along the way, there was no agitated crowd or violence. Artist Seelan Palay’s demeanour throughout his journey was that of a serious art practitioner. He did not indulge in words except to briefly explain his art and answer questions posed to him by police officers.

Article 14 of our Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, expression, assembly and association. We do not see any harm or damage that can be caused to Singapore by artist Seelan Palay’s performance. Indeed his artistic performance contributes to the making of Singapore as a city of art and culture. His performance definitely does not warrant his arrest.

Further, bystanders watching artist Seelan Palay’s performance and ultimate arrest were intimidated and harassed by police officers who demanded their personal identity card particulars. This is totally illegal and should cease immediately as Singapore is not at war or under a state of emergency.

We call upon the Singapore police to cease harassment and intimidation of activists and release artist Seelan Palay from all restrictions.

Function 8 and Community Action Network

Police should stop harassing civil society activists

On 12 July 2017, a group of Singaporeans organised a candlelight vigil to mourn the impending execution of Malaysian citizen Prabagaran, who was scheduled to hang at dawn the following morning. Prabagaran was convicted of trafficking drugs into Singapore. The family of Prabagaran was also at the vigil and supporters were there to be in solidarity with them.
The gathering that night, which was held outside Changi Prison, had about 10 participants . It was a peaceful event. Participants put up photos of Prabagaran and lighted several candles. However, 15 minutes later, a police contingent of approximately 10 interrupted the vigil and told the group to cease their activities. They complied immediately and obtained permission from the officer to stay in the area to chat. The rest of the night went by without incident.
On Sunday 3 September 2017, police visited the homes of the participants in the morning and handed notices which said that they might be “acquainted with the facts and circumstances of the case” involving” taking part in a public assembly without a permit.”
We are disappointed that the police have decided to investigate a small gathering which was not a threat to public order. Singapore’s constitution guarantees its citizens freedom of speech and assembly. We have also been informed by some of the participants that they are not allowed to leave the country because of alleged offence.
While it is understandable that maintenance of public order is necessary, harassing participants of a peaceful vigil almost two months after the event is an overreaction. It is clear that the purpose of the investigation is not to ‘maintain ‘public order’  but to clamp down on civil society activism.  We urge the police to cease the investigation.

Complaint to UN Rapporteur on free speech filed on behalf of Li Shengwu

The Community Action Network has filed a complaint to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, on behalf of Li Shengwu, grandson of the late Lee Kuan Yew. The complaint was made in response to the Attorney General’s Chambers applying to the High Court to begin proceedings for contempt of court against Mr Li over a Facebook post he published on July 15 in which he said that the Singapore government is “very litigious” and has a “pliant court system”

Before beginning proceedings, the AGC asked Mr Li to delete the post, and publish an apology on his Facebook page. This is despite the fact that the comments Mr Li made on the court system was a “friends only” post which was subsequently re=published by various online media outlets without his permission.

The Special Rapporteur is an independent expert appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a country situation or a specific human rights theme. It also communicates complaints made by claimants to the Singapore government for a response. A summary of the complaints is then presented to the Human Rights Council where a representative of the Singapore government will be present.

In 2015 a group of activists started a campaign “Don’t Kena Contempt” on social media to raise awareness of the arbitrary and draconian aspects of the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill. The campaign was concerned that the law gave the government too much powers to determine contempt, and the lack of clarity would lead people to opt for the safety of silence, rather than risk falling foul of the law.

Concerns that private conversations among friends may also run the risk of contempt were raised by the activists and members of parliament; the bill has yet to be gazetted into law, but the government’s clampdown on Li Shengwu’s private Facebook post has proven those fears to be justified. The government has initiated similar clampdowns against other individuals such as film maker Lynn Lee, activist Han Hui Hui, blogger Alex Au cartoonist Leslie Chew and lawyer Eugene Thuraisingam. 





Power, politics and fear: when sorry is not the hardest word

Donald Low’s apology to Singapore’s Law Minister K Shanmugam is another setback for freedom of expression and will reinforce self-censorship. In a facebook post last month, the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public policy academic criticized the Minister’s remarks, reported in Today, that penalties for crime need to reflect public opinion. The Minister had said that if penalties do not reflect the weight of public opinion and people do not find them fair, the law would lose its credibility and would not be enforceable. In his post, Donald Low wrote that public opinion can be “ignorant”, “ill informed” and “excessively emotional” and the Minister was wrong in his view.

This provoked a rebuttal from the Law Minister and he chastised Donald Low for “seriously misconstruing” what he said. He clarified that while public opinion was important in deciding criminal penalties, it was not the only determinant. He ended his admonishment by implying that Donald Low had damaged his own credibility and brought ill repute to “an institution which carries Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s name.”

The following day, Donald Low wrote a facebook apology to the Minister for having caused “any trouble or offence.” But it seems as if this wasn’t enough to satisfy the Minister because a few days later, another more ingratiating one was posted.

I realize my first apology was insincere. I am therefore writing now to apologize unreservedly…I have let the LKY School down…Many do not know this, but when I was out of a job in 2012, it was Minister Shanmugam who spoke with me and offered his help. He then put in a good word for me with LKYSPP, and gave me a recommendation. I decided that I should come clean about someone who had in fact helped me, and I should set out the facts in public”

This is not the first time that someone has had to apologise to the Law Minister. In 2015, activist Sangeetha Thanapal wrote a similar one after she accused him of being an “Islamaphobic bigot who thinks Malay-Muslims are a threat.” Mr Shanmugam denounced this characterisation of him and threatened to report her to the police. Faced with such pressure most people would have little choice but to acquiesce.

In Donald Low’s case, Shanmugam mentioned that he welcomes criticism and that academics have a right to comment on issues of public importance. One would expect the matter to end with a simple rebuttal. However, the apologies which followed show that it was no longer just a public exchange of views. Donald Low probably thought twice about where he stood in relation to the all-powerful Minister and it had to be written in as humiliating a way as possible.

Networks of power are so far reaching and deeply entrenched in Singapore it is easy for any politician of the PAP, especially a senior one to wield his influence. As Donald Low himself admitted, Shanmugam put in a good word to the LKY School of Public Policy. The backing of a minister can be beneficial but things can also sour pretty quickly.

Spaces for civil society resistance have either been obliterated or co-opted. There hasn’t been any public support or solidarity from fellow academics for Donald Low.  A chicken has been slaughtered and the monkeys are scared.

Crippling defamation suits which have destroyed the livelihoods of those who are critical of the regime are a hallmark of PAP politics and one of the most shameful characteristics of the regime. Petty threats of reports to the police by a powerful political figure, and remarks which result in a critic having to capitulate not once but twice in apology should not happen in a free, open and democratic society.

Public and academic discourse in Singapore already suffers from a high degree of self censorship and there are many who fear that being too critical will cost them a promotion or even their jobs. But boundaries cannot be pushed and ideas cannot flourish when there is no tolerance for transgressions. When a public exchange of views results in an obsequious apology, academics, activists and journalists can only view this latest saga as yet another cautionary tale in the politics of fear.