In the recent reversal of both the Correction Direction under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) and the access blocking orders to the East Asia Forum (EAF), Singapore’s approach to law and governance has come under scrutiny.
First, let’s distinguish between two key concepts: the “rule of law” and “rule by law”.
The former represents a society where no individual, regardless of their status or power, is above the law. Laws serve not just as tools but as guiding principles ensuring fairness, transparency, and protection of human rights.
In contrast, the latter describes a situation where those in power manipulate laws to sustain or increase their control.
In the EAF incident involving POFMA, several elements hint that Singapore might tilt towards “rule by law”.
The EAF article was allegedly filled with “false statements”, prompting a Correction Direction that included directives such as placing correction notices atop webpages, a requirement the EAF didn’t meet. EAF was later issued with an access blocking direction for not complying with the Correction Direction’s directives.
However, instead of pursuing the legal penalties outlined in the POFMA legislation, the Singaporean authorities, specifically Ms Indranee Rajah who issued the Correction Direction, appeared to be appeased once the article was withdrawn and the author issued a public apology.
This approach brings forth a myriad of concerns:
Instrument of Control: The rapid deployment of POFMA suggests it might be used as a tool to steer public discourse.
While its utility in combating misinformation, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, is clear, the manner in which the EAF article’s author retracted his work and apologized (notably through state media) echoes tactics seen in nations with stricter media oversight.
Does the withdrawal of the correction direction and associated penalties following a public apology send a veiled message to academics about expected conduct?
Selective Enforcement and Discrepancy: Why was EAF exempted from penalties despite evident non-compliance, when a domestic publication could have faced harsher consequences?
While POFMA allows the Minister (Ms Indranee) to instruct the POFMA office to issue a Part 3 Direction (Correction Direction/Access Blocking Direction), she can also vary or cancel the Part 3 Direction at any time.
However, there appears to be a lack of provisions that permit the Minister to dismiss any offence resulting from non-compliance.
Such non-compliance carries a severe fine penalty associated with the issued direction. Individuals may face fines of up to S$20,000, imprisonment for up to 12 months, or both for non-compliance with a POFMA Correction Direction, while entities could be fined up to S$500,000.
It gives the impression that the Minister and the Attorney General’s Chambers are overlooking the oversight, essentially giving the foreign publication a free pass.
Such inconsistency can erode trust in the legal system and spur allegations of bias or preferential treatment.
Ambiguities in Application: The selective use of POFMA against certain foreign publications, while merely offering public rebuttals against others, breeds uncertainty.
For example, instead of issuing a POFMA correction direction against an article by The Economist, which allegedly questioned the independence of Singapore’s anti-graft agency, the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) — citing its hierarchical reporting structure as it reports directly to the Prime Minister — Singapore’s High Commissioner to the UK, Mr Lim Thuan Kuan, strongly rebutted the allegations via a letter to the Editor which was publicised via the Singapore state media.
In a previous incident, The Online Citizen (TOC) reported claims made by a Taiwanese media outlet alleging that former Temasek CEO, Ho Ching, earned S$100 million annually. A POFMA correction direction was issued against TOC and not the Taiwanese media outlet that made the original claims.
The absence of a clear standard for POFMA’s application only complicates matters.
Potential for Suppression of Discourse: A lingering concern is whether these legal manoeuvres aim to muzzle local discourse.
If global entities can easily retract and apologize to sidestep legal complications arising from blatant violations of legislation, would local organizations receive the same consideration?
It’s almost certain that had a local outlet committed a similar infraction, the police would be at my doorstep, leading to potential imprisonment.
The overarching narrative suggests a legal framework used more to sculpt narratives and control discourse than to uphold justice.
This not only questions principles like transparency and equality but also casts doubts on Singapore’s allegiance to the rule of law.
While the government’s stated goal with POFMA might be to preserve order and safeguard its image, the tactics witnessed here could erode public confidence in its institutions.
For Singapore, a nation that often takes pride in its robust legal and governance frameworks, introspection is essential. It must ensure its laws and their enforcement truly reflect the interests of its citizens, not just its ruling elite.
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