Singapore targets opposition politician in first online falsehoods directive

Singapore opposition politician Brad Bowyer has been ordered to issue a correction regarding a Facebook post he published, triggering the first use of the country's Online Falsehoods law since it came into effect in October.

A Singapore opposition politician has been ordered to issue a correction regarding Facebook post he published alleging, amongst others, that the government is involved in decisions made by two state-owned investment firms. It marks the first use of the country's Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) since it came into effect last month. 

The POFMA Office, which administers the Act, said in a statement Monday that it was instructed by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat to issue a correction direction to Brad Bowyer with regards to his post made on November 13. The directive demanded Bowyer carried the correction notice, in full, at the top of his Facebook post.

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This was the first use of the Act since it was passed in May, following a brief public debate, and kicked in on  October 2 with details on how appeals against directives could be made. The bill had passed amidst strong criticism that it gave the government far-reaching powers over online communication and would be used to stifle free speech as well as quell political opponents.

The POFMA office said the Bowyer, who is a member of opposition party Progress Singapore Party, falsely implied the Singapore government controlled commercial decisions made by state-owned investment firm Temasek Holding and sovereign wealth fund GIC. In its denial, the Singapore government said it neither influenced nor directed investment decisions made by both organisations.

It also refuted the politician's statement that Temasek had invested in the debt-ridden parent company of Salt Bae, saying that it was a subsidiary of that parent company that was in financial difficulties. 

On his part, Bowyer on Monday published a Facebook post with clarifications on the directive. Amongst these, he said he had suggested the Singapore government had some level of oversight on the two investment firms, and if argued otherwise, said it would be "a fair question to ask why the government does not have any oversight of Temasek or GIC as they invest public funds and have government members on their boards with the Prime Minister being the chairman of GIC and his wife as head of Temasek".

Regarding the government's assertion that his comments on Singapore's investment in India's Amaravati city project had contained false information, Bowyer said he was unable to assert otherwise since little information had been released regarding how much exactly had been poured into the initiative. "As it is clearly a matter of public interest and there are unanswered questions on the level of losses and whether given the political nature of the area it was wise investment. [I] am happy to stand corrected if there are no issues here," he said.

Bowyer concluded: "I feel we should all do our best to comment factually and responsibly, however, when questions arise just asserting something is false or giving irrelevant information does not answer valid questions. With more transparency, clarification and accountability we can rest easier that our interests are in safe hands."

Under POFMA, two criteria requirements must be met for the laws to apply: there must be a false statement of fact and it must be in the public interest to act. The criteria does not cover criticisms, satire or parody, and opinions. Comments on falsehoods also are excluded, though, the Law Ministry has cautioned that "care" should be exercised to "avoid repeating" falsehoods. The ministry has also made assurances that the Act will not be used to punish people for sharing falsehoods "in ignorance [and] good faith".

Under the new legislation, Singaporean ministers will have the authority to decide whether to act against a false statement, as well as the ability to instruct a falsehood to be taken down or corrected. The Act states that ministers must issue a notice of their decision on an application to "vary or cancel" a directive within two working days. The courts would then have six working days to schedule a hearing date if an appeal against a minister's decision has been filed. This means an appeal of a minister's decision could be heard at the High Court within nine days of its filing. 

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