Open public consultations are a rarity under Singapore’s current administration. As such, when the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods solicited submissions from the public, we engaged in good faith.
We were concerned that responses to “fake news” could potentially infringe upon Singaporeans’ freedom of expression or trigger unintended negative consequences and thus made submissions to that effect. When invited to give oral evidence before the Committee, we did our best to accommodate the Committee despite multiple, sometimes last-minute, scheduling changes.
However, the hearings were hardly open or consultative.
- The Select Committee did not adhere to its own Terms of Reference.
The Committee’s Terms of Reference are to examine and report on:
(a) the phenomenon of using digital technology to deliberately spread falsehoods online;
(b) the motivations and reasons for the spreading of such falsehoods, and the types of individuals and entities, both local and foreign, which engage in such activity;
(c) the consequences that the spread of online falsehoods can have on Singapore society, including to our institutions and democratic processes; and
(d) how Singapore can prevent and combat online falsehoods, including:
(i) the principles that should guide Singapore’s response; and
(ii) any specific measures, including legislation, that should be taken.
Dr Thum Ping Tjin was questioned for six hours before the Select Committee over his work and expertise on Singapore history and whether there was evidence of a Communist United Front conspiracy in the 1950s and 1960s. Although he had made specific recommendations on measures that should be taken to combat online falsehoods, he was unable to address them during the session.
Ms Kirsten Han was questioned over an article she had written for an online news publication. It was suggested that she had presented a misleading picture within the article. It was not clear how this was relevant to the Select Committee’s Terms of Reference. The exchange ended with Committee member Edwin Tong issuing a veiled threat that Ms Han had “not yet” been sued or jailed.
The international NGO Human Rights Watch was first invited to give oral evidence on the issue of Deliberate Online Falsehoods. It was later told that it would have to defend its report on freedom of expression in Singapore, although this is not within the Terms of Reference of the Select Committee. The justification given was that submissions such as the one made by the PAP Policy Forum had alleged that the report was a “deliberate falsehood”. We note that the PAP Policy Forum’s entire submission was dedicated to discrediting the HRW report rather than discussing the measures that could be taken against deliberate online falsehoods.
- The Select Committee did not appear to be interested in soliciting our views.
Numerous leading questions were asked. Members of the Select Committee repeatedly insisted on yes or no answers to their questions, despite repeatedly being told of the importance of context and nuance.
Despite being questioned for six hours, Dr Thum Ping Tjin was not asked to address points in his written submission regarding deliberate online falsehoods.
Mr Jolovan Wham was made to wait for six hours before his session on behalf of the Community Action Network (CAN), which lasted less than 10 minutes. He was unable to expand on the views that presented in its written submission.
- Articles were presented and selectively quoted in ways that were sometimes misleading.
For example, Mr Edwin Tong quoted the first three paragraphs of an article (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2011/sep/20/mixed-results-blairs-dangerous-act) to question Ms Kirsten Han over the Freedom of Information Act. In those paragraphs, former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair described the Freedom of Information Act as “dangerous”.
However, the rest of the article presents a different picture. It is thus puzzling why the article was used in such a way; since it was meant to be a process of consultation, it would have been more appropriate to engage with the spirit of the article rather than use an unrepresentative portion of the piece to question a witness.
- Following appearances before the Select Committee, some submissions were grossly misrepresented within the official Summary of Evidence.In advocating for the introduction of a Freedom of Information Act, Ms Kirsten Han specifically stated that the government will still be able to argue for non-disclosure and the confidentiality of particular documents on legitimate national security grounds. However, the summary stated that “she was of the view that transparency should be valued, even if such legislation could compromise national security and waste resources.” Other points were also similarly misrepresented.
Mr Jolovan Wham was stated in the summary as having said that “there is no evidence of online falsehoods.” This is not true. What Mr Wham had actually said was that there was no empirical evidence that online falsehoods have a significant impact on Singapore society.
Complaints have been lodged by Ms Kirsten Han, Mr Jolovan Wham and Mr Terry Xu regarding the way their submissions have been represented in the Summary of Evidence. Despite this, the Summary of Evidence has not yet been amended.
We attended the open hearings to share our views and contribute to the body of evidence that the Select Committee should consider for their report. We did not expect to be harangued, harassed, threatened and misrepresented.
We are concerned that such proceedings would only serve to perpetuate suspicions that a decision has already been made and that the process was not genuine. This could potentially undermine public trust—a key factor in the fight against disinformation campaigns.
We reiterate our stance that measures to deal with this issue should not come in the form of further censorship or state regulation of content. Instead, we call for a more open and transparent society in which citizens are provided comprehensive media literacy and political education. We reiterate our call for the introduction of a Freedom of Information Act, and for current laws that curb freedom of expression to be reviewed.
Community Action Network
Thum Ping Tjin
Image source: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/tackle-deliberate-online-falsehoods-look-beyond-legislation-10070876