Truth or Dare: A video about online falsehoods and Singapore’s POFMA law

CORRECTION: In the video I say that K Shanmugam was in parliament in 1987. This is wrong. He entered parliament in 1988. So Shanmugam was only part of parliamentary proceedings related to the alleged “Marxist conspiracy” in those subsequent two years. The last prisoner was released in mid 1990. Apologies.

Additional reading and video notes

At a high level, I want to note that there are many critiques of POFMA out there. Some critics have always believed that no new law is needed, since Singapore’s government already has a panoply of instruments to control speech, like libel and sedition laws, and licensing laws for media outlets and online sites.

While I sympathise with their views, my sense has always been that some new law may be needed to tame a new beast. For sure, as a writer, I consider the proliferation of falsehoods online to be one of the biggest threats to my profession, to democracy, and to our common humanity.

This is why I began the video with The Financial Times and Sarah Palin. Online falsehoods are everywhere. Read critically. There is no better answer to our crisis than those two words.

When it comes to Singapore, in the video I focus on what is most objectionable about POFMA to me: the fact that partisan politicians are in charge of the tool.

There is much more I would have liked to say, given more time. In April last year I wrote a series of four posts on speech that deal with some fundamentals, generally and also particular to Singapore. The first one, “The slow death of honest discourse”, is here.

I like all of Cherian George’s critiques of the law, including “Proposed online falsehoods law will help the government deal with dangers, but will it also make the government more dangerous?” (here) and “Give judges more leeway under fake news laws” (here).

Meanwhile Academia.sg, helmed by some of Singapore’s finest scholars, has an archive of POFMA-related statements and commentaries here.

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The Josephine Teo versus Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) POFMA case

Here is the original SDP article from 8 June 2019.

Here is the SDP Facebook post that refers to above article, published 30 Nov 2019. This post and a subsequent one on 2 Dec are what drew the POFMA order.

Here is the government’s POFMA correction order statement, published on 14 Dec 2019.

Here is the SDP’s reply to the government’s correction, published on 2 Jan 2020.

Finally here is a case summary of the court’s decision, published 5 Feb 2020.

In addition to what I say in the video, here are two interesting aspects:

1. The original SDP article appears to have been based off a Straits Times article, ”PMETs make up rising share of retrenched locals”, which states that “PMETs are becoming the new vulnerable group and more needs to be done to mitigate the risk of them being displaced”.

However, because the SDP did not reference this original ST article in its own article, the judge deemed that the SDP could not rely on the ST article as backup:

“The meaning put forward by the appellants [SDP] was also rejected because it referred to external considerations like news articles which were not even referenced in the SDP Article, and which therefore would not have influenced how a reasonable person would have interpreted the Article.”

(Above is in reference to SDP’s statement “a rising proportion of Singapore PMETs getting retrenched”, and the denominator that this “proportion” refers to, one of the main points of contention. See video.)

Takeaway for commentators: reference, cite, quote, hyperlink properly. Even if you want to be succinct in your delivery of a point, make sure that you provide the reader with all the backing documentation and references.

2. If you look at the original SDP article, the offending statement is this:

“The SDP’s proposal comes amidst a rising proportion of Singapore PMETs getting retrenched. Such a trend is partly the result of hundreds of local companies continuing to discriminate against local workers.”

It is just a small bit of a much longer article, “SDP population policy: Hire S’poreans first, retrench S’poreans last”.

It is unfortunate that the single little bit has caused the whole article to be discredited. (If indeed, that is what happened; or did it cause the article to become more popular?)

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Workers’ Party and Shanmugam slugging it out over POFMA

https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=660643687705286

https://www.facebook.com/theonlinecitizen/posts/10157316006291383

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Transcript

Subsequent notes here follow the narrative thread of the video.

There may be minor differences between this transcript and what I finally said. Video transcript is italicised; and my additional commentary is in regular font. Hyperlinks lead to sources.

1. “The golden rule of conduct is mutual toleration, seeing that we will never all think alike and we shall always see Truth in fragment and from different points of vision.”

Gandhi

2. Singaporeans don’t care about fake news….we only care about bread-and-butter issues….sure or not? Let’s look into that.

3. I won’t be using the term “fake news” anymore. It’s a hackneyed term, usually used by autocratic leaders eager to discredit stuff they don’t like.

4. So in this video I’ll tell you about online falsehoods; why Singapore’s government was right to do something about them; but then why its actual solution, POFMA, is flawed because it can be used as a partisan tool to give one party an unfair advantage over others; and finally what you, as somebody who cares about the truth, should actually be doing now to prepare yourself for the election.

5. Online falsehoods are everywhere. They have affected elections in the US and ethnic conflict in Myanmar. People have been murdered in India because of WhatsApp lies.

6. It would be easy to point out falsehoods in some shitty publication.

7. Like this!

8. Or this!

9. Or this!

10. Oh wait. That’s not fiction. That’s true. We Singaporeans used to leave our pee in elevators. Now we turn it into beer. Progress, siah.

11. But forget all those. What I’m going to do is show you a falsehood from one of my favourite publications.

The Financial Times on Sarah Palin. I’m no big Sarah fan, but let me take her side now, and critique the FT.

12. Sarah was John McCain’s VP candidate in the 2008 election, the one won by Barack Obama.

And do you remember Sarah’s memorable line: “I can see Russia from my house.”

That line got repeated everywhere, liberals used it to mock Sarah’s knowledge of foreign affairs.

13. Well, Sarah lives about a thousand kilometres from Russia. Why would she say “I can see Russia from my house”?

Well guess what. She never did!

This is what she said: “you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska.”

And she’s absolutely right! America’s Little Diomede Island is about five kilometres from Russia’s Big Diomede Island. That’s four times closer than Singapore is to Batam. On a clear day you can indeed see Russia from Alaska.

14. So how did Sarah’s factual statement get transformed into a moronic gaffe? Through satire.

15. Two days after Sarah’s interview, Tina Fey played Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live and Tina changed Sarah’s words to: “I can see Russia from my house.”

It was a spoof, Tina had every right to do so.

The problem is that media channels started reporting the satire as the truth. They started attributing Tina Fey’s spoof to Sarah Palin.

I love Tina Fey. I used to think she’s the funniest woman on screen. Until I found Leslie Mann.

16. In 2016, eight years after that happened, the Financial Times was still repeating the falsehood, here, in an article about Palin and Trump.

Now I’m still a big fan of the FT and The Economist and The New York Times and other members of “the liberal media”. But I’ve become a bit more sceptical about their coverage in this Trumpian era.

17. For sure, it’s important that we distinguish between good faith and bad faith actors.

Good faith actors, like most professional media, make mistakes because of human error or biases. And they are willing to correct errors, that’s important.

Bad faith actors are those who deliberately spread falsehoods and disinformation. And they have little interest in correcting the falsehood.

18. So this is my first point: online falsehoods are everywhere. You must read critically.

And you must distinguish between good faith actors who make honest mistakes and bad faith actors who are deliberately trying to deceive you.

Remember all this, as we now move on to talk about Singapore.

19. In my opinion, the ruling PAP and the mainstream media it controls, or MSM, are some of the main propagators of falsehoods and unverified allegations in Singapore.

I am talking here about impact, not quantity. Other players, like The Real Singapore and The States Times may have put out a greater number of falsehoods.

But those coming from the PAP and the MSM have had a greater impact.

20. Putting the PAP in charge of truth is a bit like putting Michael Jackson in charge of the Boys Brigade or Maradona in charge of coca plantations. You know somebody’s gonna get fucked.

21. Let me tell you about three times when the PAP and the MSM spread “what appear to be” falsehoods.

22. First, Operation Spectrum, the so-called Marxist conspiracy in 1987. Twenty-two Singaporeans, mostly women, between the ages of 18 and 40, were arrested.

A mix of activists, church members and social workers. The PAP claims that they were plotting to overthrow the state.

But they have never been charged with anything, and were detained without trial, the longest for three years. More than that, some detainees allege that they were tortured.

23. Right away many thought that the PAP had made a terrible mistake.

In 1991, Walter Woon, later to be Attorney-General, said that the government’s case is still not proven. In 1992, Minister S. Dhanabalan resigned from the Cabinet because of his displeasure with the Marxist arrests.

In 2001, Tharman said that “..from what I knew of them, most were social activists but were not out to subvert the system.” And historian Mary Turnbull has called “the alleged Marxist conspiracy” a myth. (Source: C.M. Turnbull (2009). A History of Modern Singapore, 1819–2005)

24. This directly contradicts what Lee Hsien Loong and his buddies told us in 1987.

25. Now, whether you are in Team Hsien Loong or Team Tharman…actually it doesn’t really matter for now.

26. What I simply want to show you is that the PAP’s most senior politicians have offered up contradictory versions of the truth.

For thirty-three years Hsien Loong has insisted they are Marxists. And for nineteen, Tharman has suggested they are not. They both can’t be right.

27. This potential falsehood still lives with us, we are all complicit. All the accused, those who were tortured, many are still around.

The perpetrators of this, many are still around. Goh Chok Tong and Lee Hsien Loong were in the cabinet in 1987. Shanmugam was in parliament in 1987. So was Tan Cheng Bock.

28. “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

Desmond Tutu

29. Let’s look at two more recent examples.

Probably the main reason governments are so concerned about online falsehoods is the risk they pose to elections. Well, at Singapore’s last general election in 2015, the PAP and MSM produced the two most prominent falsehoods, in my opinion.

30. First, during campaigning, three Singaporean media channels published allegations from a poison pen letter that Daniel Goh, the opposition Workers Party candidate, had had an affair with one of his students.

31. A poison pen letter is one that is written anonymously to sabo somebody.

No editor or publication with integrity would ever dream of publishing it. Having a credible source is journalism 101!

32. Imagine if I wrote a poison pen letter—“Tan Chuan Jin, the speaker of the house, is in Liverpool playing footsie with Lee Bee Wah”; signed anonymous, and I sent it to Singapore’s MSM.

Would they publish it? Of course not. Ah, but if you make scandalous allegations about the opposition. Lai Lai Lai. We’ll help spread the lie.

33. Zaobao, Straits Times, Channel News Asia: you should be ashamed of yourselves.

The funniest thing is: now the MSM claims to be the guardians of truth, the trusted sources.

Tak malu ah, you all. After decades of doing the PAP’s bidding…tak malu ah?

34. Second, just three days before Singaporeans voted, PAP politician Charles Chong printed and distributed flyers to residents of Punggol East.

35. He claimed that it was an indisputable fact that under the Workers Party management, $22.5 million dollars was “unaccounted for”.

Chong has never shown evidence or facts for this insinuation.

36. You might be wondering: well, if Charles Chong’s baseless claim was so blatant, why hasn’t anybody mentioned it?

They have! During the POFMA debate, the Workers Party asked Shanmugam about this incident in parliament.

You know what Shanmugam did? Nothing. He purposely deflected the question.

Shanmugam intentionally ignored the statute in the POFMA bill that says the Government can protect the public interest “to prevent influence on the outcome of an election or a referendum”

That is exactly what Charles Chong did by spreading that falsehood about 22.5 million dollars. Charles was trying to influence the outcome of an election.

Png Eng Huat of the Workers Party pressed Shanmugam, but he brushed them off. Go watch the whole video.

Aside: Leon Perera’s performance in the POFMA debate, especially his rebuttals to Shan, proves the value of having the opposition in parliament. Watch the video.

37. Shanmugam fans like to tell me, oh he may be tough, but at least he is straight up, direct, he will answer your questions.

Nah. He answers only the questions he wants to. I’ve just given you one glaring example of him evading, elak, tai qi, shield.

And, er, if Shanmugam doesn’t lock me up after this, I can give you many more.

38. Think about it, Shanmugam did not have time to discuss a serious matter in parliament with politicians whose salaries we already pay; but he had time to spend even more of our money entertaining Michelle Chong in a mindless conversation. Ya, we paid for that. Who the heck voted for her?

39. So those are three times when the PAP and the MSM spread “what appear to be” falsehoods. Let’s move on now to the actual application of POFMA.

– PAP: “Marxist Conspiracy”

– MSM: Claiming WP’s Daniel Goh was having an affair with a student

– PAP’s Charles Chong: Alleging WP lost $22.5m

40. When people criticised POFMA last year, this was the response from fans: Don’t exaggerate, don’t politicise the issue.

POFMA is meant to stop viral content that might undermine democracy, it just deals with facts not opinions, and any disagreements will be settled quickly by the courts.

41. OK, let’s take that at face value and see if it’s true.

Three of the first four POFMAs were against opposition parties. Let’s examine one, Josephine Teo ordering a correction against SDP for a post about local PMET employment.

42. SDP made an argument for why Local PMET employment has declined based on this chart. You can see unemployed resident PMETs going up, up, up from 2010-2018.

MOM replied using this chart. You can see local PMET employment going up from 2015-2019.

These are absolute numbers. Now we need to remember that it is possible for both employment and unemployment to go up.

Imagine 10,000 uni students graduate and enter the labour force. 5,000 get a job, 5,000 don’t. All else being equal, both PMET employment and unemployment will have gone up by 5,000.

To better understand the labour market and the impact of policies, we need to look at percentages, ratios, unfair hiring practices and so on.

43. It seems like one of the main sticking points was the time period: SDP using a chart from 2010-2018; Josephine using a chart from 2015-2019.

The High Court said its decision to support Josephines’ POFMA hinged on, quote, “what could be reasonably interpreted” about the relevant time frame.

43a. The judge also had to decide on a key ratio. SDP’s post mentioned “a rising proportion of Singapore PMETs getting retrenched”.

But it was not clear what the base, or denominator is. The truth of this statement depends on the denominator.

So the judge had to decide. He rejected the SDP’s assertion: PMETs retrenched as a share of all locals retrenched. That ratio is indeed rising.

Instead he agreed with the Attorney-General: PMETs retrenched as a share of all local PMETs.  Using the AG’s denominator, there is no rising proportion of PMETs getting retrenched.

And thus the SDP’s post is flawed.

43b. That’s interpretation. Isn’t that opinion?  SDP was not publishing a deliberate falsehood, something that might go viral and undermine our democracy.

Josephine should have just written her own rebuttal.

Let Singaporeans hear both sides. Why was POFMA used?

43c. There are more complexities to this case, please visit my website for fuller arguments from all three parties.

The case is under appeal, so I am not talking here about the outcome, simply the way POFMA was used, for something that requires so much interpretation, not an obvious falsehood.

44. Shanmugam also said that the POFMA power needs to be with the ministers, rather than a judge, because in the online world things travel quickly, and speed is of the essence.

45. Well, the SDP posted its article on December 2nd 2019; and Josephine’s office ordered the correction on December 14th, after almost two weeks later. Sounds more like a fishing expedition.

46. Finally, we were told: don’t worry about delays. The minister is not the final arbiter, and the Singapore courts will offer speedy resolutions when there is a disagreement.

From the time of the correction order, it took almost two months for the courts to decide.

Apa lah, even Malaysia’s courts are faster.

The court made its decision in February 2020. Think about it. Josephine Teo should have been completely focussed on fixing the dormitory situation; instead part of her time was occupied with a needless POFMA case against the SDP.

47. So this one Josephine example exposes the reality.

Now we know:

1) POFMA will be used not just to challenge obvious falsehoods, but simply to challenge alternative stories and interpretations from opposition parties.

2) POFMA will be used not only for instant, viral content, but basically for anything out there.

3) And finally, the POFMA dispute resolution process can take months.

During that time, PAP ministers can issue take-down orders that have the force of law.

48. Some of you might still have blind faith in our current leaders. OK. But what about our future leaders, 4G and 5G leadership. Do you trust them to control the truth?

What if one day our leaders tell us that hydroxychloroquine can treat COVID-19?

What if one day we are told that wives must talk in Doraemon voices?

What if one day we are told that a person’s race matters more than their ability?

49. What can you do now? You must hold your leaders to account. We cannot allow POFMA to be abused for silly political manoeuvres.

50. There are real problems out there, cyber terrorists or state hackers who might try to manipulate us.

Singapore recently used POFMA to combat lies about the Wuhan virus. That’s good!

We need to speak up against ministers who abuse POFMA, to ensure that when there is a crisis, Singaporeans retain trust in the instrument.

51. And one day we must replace ministers with non-partisan stakeholders. Maybe judges. Maybe media professionals.

Maybe Kim Huat?

52. We have a situation today where: PAP politicians can make any unverified allegation they want to, like in the Marxist Conspiracy, like with Charles Chong, and there is no immediate recourse.

On the other hand, because of POFMA, PAP ministers have the power to slap down anything the opposition says, even if it is just a difference of opinion or interpretation, like in the Josephine vs SDP case.

There is a fundamental imbalance in informational power here.

53. In the upcoming elections, when you listen to the PAP, when you listen to the MSM, remember all that I’ve told you today.

54. I’m going to end with two points.

First, to reiterate, I am glad the government has done something to tackle online falsehoods. Thank you, Shan and the rest.

But, in my opinion, your solution is imperfect, for all the reasons given.

Second, I want to stress that this is not a partisan message. Singapore needs neutral arbitrators in charge of POFMA.

I don’t want Shanmugam and the PAP to have POFMA powers. By that same token I also never want Pritam Singh and the Workers Party to have that. I also don’t want Chee Soon Juan and the SDP to control the truth.

And I also don’t want Tan Cheng Bock and the…

Tan Cheng Bock and the…

Eh, Cheng Bock what party ah? The fella keeps changing.

55. Cheng Bock is now with the Progress Singapore Party.

He publicly changed his mind about the Marxist Conspiracy in 2011…a few months before the presidential election. Is he opportunistic? Or a politician who is able to own up to his mistakes?

***

Other content

1987: Untracing the conspiracy

 

Lai Ah-Eng: “Responding here first to a point in your correction notes that the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) passed in 1990 was a product of the incident of the alleged Marxist Conspiracy. This is a common misinterpretation in my view. While true that the alleged Marxist conspiracy was linked by the state/LKY (and I stress this) to Catholicism-inspired liberation theology especially from Latin America, the more significant reasons for the MRHA was the highly aggressive, insensitive and competitive proselitization of religion, especially evangelical Christianity and to some extent Islam in Singapore (and Southeast Asia) ever since the 1970s through till the 1980s. This proselitization really threatened to divide people and still does, although some methods have changed. (I happen to have researched and documented some of these during those years, not to mention growing up and living with these during the same period.) Hope this helps clarify our very complex circumstances.”

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Addendum video

Sources:

Useful idiot #1: RSIS

“Defending Singapore against foreign interference”, 3rd September 2019, RSIS

Mary Turnbull’s objection is in C.M. Turnbull (1995). Dateline Singapore: 150 Years of The Straits Times, p. 293

Excerpts of Turnbull’s objection in other works, including

Jothie Rajah, Cherian George and Francis Seow

Useful idiot #2: Michelle Chong

Ah Lian VLOG #19: Premium Lian Meets Minister K Shanmugam

Michelle Chong is domestic helper Nina Medina!

 

 

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