Speech by Mr. Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC at the Second Reading of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill (Bill No. 10/2019)
Sir, online falsehoods are a global problem. From developing to developed countries, they have seeded distrust, sparked violence and shaped elections.
Singapore is right to take a proactive stance against the spread of online falsehoods. As we do so, I hope we can take a measured approach that balances the urgency of combating falsehoods with the costs to society. I would like to thank the Minister for addressing the concerns about how long a Minister will take to consider an appeal and also the speed and cost of subsequent appeals to the High Court. I thank the Minister for providing assurances.
As the Minister has already addressed many of my concerns I was going to raise, and as members have raised many of the points I was going to raise – that’s the luxury of being the last speaker – I just have 3 quick points for further clarifications.
First, in additional to the process of an appeal to the High Court, can the Minister also provide details of how long it would take, and how much it might cost when cases go on further appeals to the Court of Appeal? Would he also direct that the appeal be heard within a certain time frame? I understand that it might be difficult to provide an estimate, but would be grateful for a rough estimate of cost and timeline
The Ministry has said that the Bill does not cover satire or comedy. However, this exclusion is nowhere to be found in the Bill.
It is not uncommon for satire or comedy to exaggerate or invent facts by intention. At the same time, online falsehoods have sometimes been perpetuated, for instance, by state actors in the guise of comedy. Can the Minister elaborate on how satire and comedy will be excluded from the law?
Lastly, the fight against the spread of falsehoods must also be a fight for the spread of truth.
The battle against falsehoods demands not only the stick but also the carrot. Having the tools to react promptly to falsehoods is important. However, the Government cannot constantly be on the back foot, playing “whack-a-mole” whenever another falsehood pops up.
If we want people to present the truth, we must demonstrate readiness to give the truth and them the data they need.
Instead of being reactive, we can be proactive in spreading the truth by helping people who would like to report the truth to obtain government data needed to verify the facts.
This is not a new proposal. The Select Committee itself proposed that public institutions should “pre-empt vulnerabilities and put out information in advance, where possible, to inoculate the public.”
The government should channel more resources and take greater efforts to engage Singaporeans. They can do so by sharing data and information more frequently and in greater detail.
Other countries have done so through the Freedom of Information laws. More than 80 countries have some form of Freedom of Information laws, this includes those closest to us such as China, India, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand. While Hong Kong has not legislated on the freedom of information, it has Code of Access to Information. This is a formal framework for access to information held by Government departments. The code require civil servants routinely, or on request, to provide information unless there are specific reasons for not doing so. Further, their procedures will review a complaint if the provision of the code has not been properly applied.
A concern may be excessive openness may compromise national security. However, there are common exceptions in Freedom of Information laws around the world, including national security, public safety, prevention of criminal activities and personal privacy. The Freedom of Information laws have been implemented to varying degrees of successes and effectiveness in these countries. With more than 80 case studies available, there are ample lessons that we can learn from both the successes and the failures.
The Select Committee has suggested that the Government should study the experiences of countries with Freedom of Information legislative and ombudsman. Can the Minister share whether the Government is looking into this, and provide an update?
Sir, notwithstanding my clarifications, I support the Bill.
Watch the speech here
Watch Minister Shanmugam’s response here