POFMA to shape SG political conversation

Last month, naturalised citizen and political figure Brad Bowyer corrected his Facebook post to comply with Singapore’s newly enacted Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA).

In his original post, the ex-Briton alleged that the government interferes with investment decisions made by state investment arms Temasek and GIC.

He’s since issued a correction notice including a link to the official government fact-checking site Factually on his social media article.

“I have no problem in following that request as I feel it is fair to have both points of view and clarifications and corrections of fact when necessary,” Bowyer further wrote on Facebook.

“In general, I caution all those who comment on our domestic politics and social issues to do so with due care and attention especially if you speak from any place of influence.”

Bowyer’s case is the third instance of POFMA being invoked in response to misleading statements or false statement of facts. Individuals or websites failing to comply with recommended corrective actions could be fined up to S$ 1 million or 10 years in prison.

Lawyer and opposition politician Lim Tean was requested recently to issue corrections to his Facebook posts arguing that more government funding goes to foreign students versus local students.

Opposition party Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) was also brought to task for highlighting the issue of increasing white collar unemployment on Facebook. It later added a “CORRECTION NOTICE: This post contains a false statement of fact” preamble to this post.

Passed in May this year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong assured the bill is not meant to target opinion, criticism, satire, or parody.

Rather, the multi-racial and religious nature of Singapore’s population and widespread internet penetration necessitates striking a fine balance between regulating the spread of malicious falsehoods that can wrongly skew public opinion, and preserving individual freedoms.

“If we do not protect ourselves, hostile parties will find a simple matter to turn different groups against one another and cause disorder in our society”, observed the Singapore PM.

Singapore ranked 151 out of 180 countries this year in the World Press Freedom Index according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), behind countries such as Venezuela, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Sudan.

However, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam advocates adopting a cautious approach towards such rankings. There is a need to be “discerning about these rankings and how they are done and the political objectives behind them.”

For a government that loves its acronyms as much as it does political stability, whether the ‘anti-fake news’ bill was rushed for tabling ahead of upcoming elections remains a matter of conjecture.

The jury is also out on the extent to which the government will use POFMA to quell criticisms and alternative political views.

The only certainty in this brave new world of increased media literacy is this: to win the war of narratives in Singapore also means to employ rigorous use of facts and numbers.

For the most tech-savvy population in Southeast Asia, learning two sides of a story isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Government site Factually clarifies Brad Bowyer’s Facebook post.