Er Dr Lee Bee Wah’s speech in Parliament about deliberate online falsehoods
In 1969, Malaysia was rife with rumours of attacks between Malays and Chinese. This sparked off massive racial riots, which spread to Singapore. In Singapore, the riots lasted 7 days and led to at least 4 deaths and 80 people injured. People of my age or older will definitely remember those horrible, blood-soaked days.
At that time, my family and I lived on a rubber plantation near to Malacca. The houses were very far apart, so at night we had to trek to a neighbour’s house for safety in numbers.
My third brother had just been born then. I still remember my mum telling me, if the Malays come that night, we have to leave my brother and run to the woods behind. I was only eight then, but I knew the weight of what Mummy was saying. I hoped the time would not come, . I will never forget the fear and anxiety of those few days.
The 1969 riots show just how much harm rumours can cause. And now, fake news is more powerful than in 1969. I would like to take this chance to warn Singaporeans that fake news is not just insidious and viral, but can hurt real people. We need every Singaporean to work together to control its spread.
Fake news is now insidious and indistinguishable from real news. Maybe you have seen online, how videos can be manipulated to look like someone said something they didn’t. We used to say “seeing is believing”, but it isn’t true anymore.
There are also bots that pretend to be real people spreading rumours. Their sheer numbers can give the false impression that many people believe such rumours.
The virality of fake news is obvious. It’s not just on English media- residents frequently send me fake news to check if they should believe it. These range from plastic rice and fake seaweed to insecticides in durians. They originate from unreliable sites in China, Taiwan, and Malaysia. There’s even a Chinese-language site based in Australia that specialises in fake news about Singapore, including those that aim to hurt our relations with China and the US. I believe the scourge has spread to Malay and Tamil news as well. So fake news is assaulting our people in all languages and forms.
Some might say, the maligned people can rebut. But we’ve seen that the rebuttal post, due to it being less “scandalous”, often spreads much slower than fake news. Moreover, a lot of fake news goes through Whatsapp and is hard to track and arrest.
We can’t eradicate fake news because people get monetary and political benefits from it.
For example “The Real Singapore”, whose fake stories earned its founders 500,000 dollars and a bungalow in Australia. How long does an average Singaporean take to earn 500,000 dollars? But they did it easily, by maligning innocent citizens and fracturing our society. Although this website has closed down, there are still similar sites out there, I hope the government can do something about them.
Other countries can gain political sway through fake news. America has found that 150 million people have read fake news from Russia and Eastern Europe, and this might even have swayed their elections. 150 million people is 30 times the size of our entire population! How much easier will it be to overwhelm us and cause racial divisions with fake news?
Fake news hurts real people. Poor durian sellers hurt by rumours of insecticide. The Ang Mo Kio coffeeshop owner who was wrongly accused of selling fake eggs. They are average hardworking citizens penalised by rumours out of their control.
Fake news can even threaten lives, by slowing down the spread of vital information. When Zika hit America, many people refused to check for mosquito breeding as they wrongly believed that Zika was caused by vaccines or insecticides. This caused the spread of the disease and affected many innocent babies and families. Singapore was not immune to such fake news. But most Singaporeans believed in reliable sources, and together we stemmed the spread of Zika. But with fake news eroding trust in reliable sources, we can’t be sure of doing so well in the next crisis.
It’s not hard to picture- Country X wants to make Singapore adopt policies friendly to it. It can spread rumours of interracial violence, just like in 1969.
Now, fake news can spread even faster. It can be islandwide in just a few hours. Although the government can clarify, but Country X will also be prepared. They spread the news that the government is also racially biased. They overwhelm Singaporeans with social media ads and bot comments. This leads to racial riots and massive economic depression.
Country X then sets up a political party, perhaps through local puppets. They claim to represent the interests of a certain race, and enter Parliament on that platform. From there, they can influence government to adopt policies friendly to their country. The ones hurt are average Singaporeans. Those who forwarded fake news become unwitting accomplices.
This might be a very pessimistic scenario. But if even a superpower like the US can allegedly be influenced by this, what more a small country like us? If we don’t put up our defences fast, it’s akin to betting with our people’s livelihoods and even lives. Therefore, I support setting up a Select Committee to study this issue.
I hope this Committee will look into the following:
Deputy Speaker sir, I support the Committee taking feedback from all parties, then proposing something for Parliament to further debate.
Only with an effective law against fake news, can we work together to fight the threat of fake news, while maintaining the open flow of information in Singapore. At the same time, I hope every Singaporean will verify and reflect before forwarding any piece of news. Remember, fake news hurts real people- our innocent countrymen.