Law Minister K Shanmugam today (Jan 10) successfully received support from the ruling party-dominated Parliament for his “green paper” to set up a Select Committee – comprising of 8 PAP MPs, 1 PAP NMP and 1 Opposition MP – to dispel online falsehoods including new censorship laws for the internet and online criticisms against the government.
Minister K Shanmugam says that online falsehoods is a problem in Singapore because almost everyone having internet access:
“Singapore is “highly susceptible” to such falsehoods. The deliberate spread of online falsehoods is a serious problem around the world today, and Singapore is susceptible because there is high Internet penetration here with 91 per cent of households having Web access. With this, it is easy to attack and spread falsehoods online.”
The Law Minister also speculated that Singapore is an “attractive target” even though he was unable to bring up any incident of any foreign state-sponsored falsehoods targeting the Singapore society. Referring to a prank which claimed a festival market at Geylang Serai Bazaar was selling cat and dog meat, Minister K Shanmugam claimed that foreign countries are targeting Singapore’s multi-racial demographic:
“The country’s diversity, in terms of it being a multiracial and multi-religious society, as another reason given that these are fault lines that can be easily exploited by falsehoods. In a June 2017 incident, false rumours were spread of cat and dog meat sold at the Geylang Serai Bazaar via Facebook and WhatsApp is an example of this. The country’s status as a key strategic node and key player in ASEAN also makes it attractive as a target. What we say on regional issues, international issues, carries weight. If we can be influenced and swayed, then foreign interests can be advanced through us.”
The 10-member Select Committee will be chaired by PAP MP Charles Chong, but it will continue to serve the ruling party’s interests by censoring the increasing number of online criticisms.
Propaganda Minister for Communications and Information, Yaacob Ibrahim, spoke in support of Select Committee mongering fear in the Parliament bringing up the racial riots in the 1960s, slamming the internet:
“We were fortunate to nip these in the bud early enough, so that this campaign did not sink our young nation back in the day. But today, such orchestrated campaigns can wreak even more harm. In the Internet age, falsehoods can go viral in seconds. Digital content can be easily manipulated to make it more provocative, and stir emotions more easily. Anyone can publish or share falsehoods online, even from halfway around the world. The net result is that online falsehoods can destabilise societies far more easily than ever before.”
The Minister then brought up The Real Singapore, a now-defunct popular news website, which published an inaccurate news source in 2014. Praising his own ministry’s “swift actions”, Minister Yaacob Ibrahim condemned the website for the inaccurate article and claimed that the website owners’ sole aim was to make money by providing a fake news website.
According to Propaganda Minister Yaacob Ibrahim, the Singapore public needs more “education” but stressed that the government-supplied material is “not enough”:
“Public education remains the country’s first line of defence, but it is not enough. Mechanisms need to be put in place to respond swiftly to these falsehoods, and there needs to be an inclusive approach to address the issue holistically, involving the public and private sectors. We need a broader national conversation about this issue, so everyone has a shared understanding of the threat, and a sense of ownership about the solution.”
Singapore’s mainstream media is ranked 154th in the world for credibility. The key generator of fake news is the government-backed media, churning propaganda and half-truth to sway public opinions in favour for the government. The country also has one of the most stringent media censorship laws in the world. For example, any website or Facebook page that comments on current affairs will need to place a S$50,000 bond with the propaganda ministry. Failures to comply with government’s take-down orders will also result in lengthy jail terms and a fine.