While so far the implied threat of Singapore’s proposed “fake news” law has fallen primarily on the press, social media and the political opposition the fact is that the law has potentially serious consequences for fields ranging from technology to advertising, media, publishing, and academia, and extending globally as well as domestically, and could seriously hamper commerce.
The measure was introduced in the Parliament on April 1 by the People’s Action Party government to combat what it considers to be the threat from fake news, a phrase that has gained currency across the globe as US President Donald Trump has declared open warfare on the news media, to be followed actions of varying severity in 43 countries.
Officially known as the Bill for the Protection from Online Disinformation and Manipulation Act (PODMA), the proposed legislation is as vague as it is sweeping. Given the Singapore Parliament’s track record, the bill will almost certainly become law after the next sitting in early May unless the government realizes the harm it could do.
Because the PAP government has written extra-territorial provisions into the text of the legislation, that means multinational businesses, news organizations, publishers, and universities with operations or substantive collaboration in Singapore are subject to the law, not just local targets. Technology companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google have already voiced serious concerns about the proposed legislation.
It could also affect Singapore’s ambitions for international academic legitimacy through the National University of Singapore’s partnership with Yale University in the US and Monash, Australia’s largest university, which is seeking to deepen its relationships with Singapore.
The government has already shown a prickly attitude toward Yale’s presence in the island republic, with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warning in October of 2015 in effect that Singapore is not New Haven and that the alliance between the Ivy League liberal arts school and NUS needs a curriculum and a college ethos that respond to the regional context of Asia.
“Its graduates have to understand these countries… not just a theoretical, intellectual understanding on paper but actual experience living in Asia, interacting with fellow students from this region and outside,” he said. That was taken as an admonition not to get too academically adventurous.
Thus academic colleagues and students in the United States and Australia whose academic research, particularly in political science or sociology, for instance, touches on Singapore or who, like US or Australian institutions have collaborative relationships, could be threatened, raising concerns about academic rigor. Scholars doing academic work relating to Singapore may get caught up with the law, should the state be dissatisfied with their work for whatever reason.
There is plenty of reason for academicians to be cautious. In 2007, the UK’s University of Warwick pulled out of a project to operate a planned university, citing faculty concerns about the cost and potential curbs on academic freedom.
According to language in the legislation, “false statements” are tautologically defined as statements that are “false” or “misleading.” The text provides no further explanation for what these terms mean in practice. Any minister can determine that a statement is “false” based on whether it harms “public interest,” based on everything from friendly foreign relations to the “diminution of public confidence” in state institutions. In short, the law allows any Singapore minister to label anything disagreeable, embarrassing, or simply displeasing as “false.”
Once a minister declares an online statement as “false,” individuals, websites, and online platforms must publish “corrections” or notices, block access, or remove content. Said minister gets to determine the wording of “corrections” and notices. These “corrections” and notices stating that a statement is “false” have to accompany the content in question or even an online account that the minister deems questionable so long as people in Singapore can access the information. This may apply regardless of the actual rigor or accuracy of a statement. Costly and potentially lengthy judicial arbitration is only available as after a first appeal to the minister in question fails.
Noncompliance brings a hefty maximum fine of S$1 million (roughly US$738,300) for companies and a maximum 10-year jail sentence. Non-disclosure and public interest are not acceptable defenses under the proposed legislation. Such consequences can fall on international businesses, publishers, media organizations and universities that have a presence in Singapore and carry information about Singapore. Singapore ministers explained that opinion, satire, and parody do not fall under the law, but the line distinguishing them from what a minister may decide is “fact” is unclear at best.
Individuals and corporations trying to comply with the proposed legislation in Singapore may find themselves running afoul of laws protecting privacy, non-discrimination, and free speech in other jurisdictions. The law has the potential to invite copycat legislation elsewhere, particularly countries with authoritarian tendencies eager to place more curbs on expression as well as business. Singapore’s penchant for using its tame courts to bring contempt and defamation charges against its critics, for instance, has spread to many countries including Malaysia, just across the Strait, until its government was sacked in May 2018 by reformers.
Places like Turkey and Hungary come to mind. Unless something affects passage, a practical impossibility given the PAP’s one-party dominance, businesses, media, and academia have to brace themselves for an even more restrictive and troubling world ahead.