Speech by MP Henry Kwek during debate on POFMA
Mr. Deputy Speaker,
1. I spoke to many of my residents. There is consensus that fake news has a profound effect on the world. The question now is how best to deal with this issue.
a. And that is –
i. How can our society best balance our individual desire to unfettered free speech,
ii. With our desire to be protected by the tremendous impact of irresponsible, or worse still, deliberate falsehood,
1. weaponised by the speed and reach of social media.
2. Many of us in this chamber are aware there is no single silver bullet to combat fake news, online or offline.
a. The best we can do is to create laws, so as to create an environment of responsible speech, anchored by an informed citizenry.
b. Indeed, when the demand for fake news diminishes, no supply of fake news, no matter how large, can seriously harm society.
3. Our desired outcome should not be to just weed out irresponsible speech that diminishes our society.
4. We must also ensure that responsible speech thrive in our society,
a. because healthy private and public discourse is the means for people and society to reflect and move forward.
5. And that brings me to the main point today – we can do more to communicate to our people what constitutes responsible speech.
6. A fair number of my residents have seen the various news articles, whatsapp messages, and even Michelle Chong’s recent interview of Minister K. Shanmugam.
7. But there is still a much-needed desire for clarity on what this entire framework means.
a. For example when we say that POFMA doesn’t target opinions,
i. But at the same time that certain offensive and divisive opinions are restricted using different laws.
b. What people do not understand is that there are several laws that target different types of harmful speech, with remedies that vary in strength.
c. These laws include:
i. POFMA and POHA,
ii. Penal Code: Section 298 and 298A,
iii. Sedition Act: Section 3, 4 or
iv. Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act: Section 8
v. Contempt of Court sections on scandalising of courts, and sub judice contempt.
8. These laws are complex to understand by themselves, and it is even harder for most Singaporeans to understand how it all comes together.
9. Therefore, it is very important that we unpack for our people, in simple terms, what constitutes responsible speech: –
a. the various laws,
b. the principles behind these laws,
c. our unique circumstances and vulnerabilities, and
d. who are these laws meant for?
10. Now that there is considerable public attention on responsible speech, let us ride on this wave of interest, and share more on this topic. When people understand better how the different laws work, their powers and limitations, then they can see that government does not have blanket power to take down whatever news they don’t like. Only certain types of speech that are harmful to society can be dealt with according to the law.
11. A good place for this to start is our schools, especially at our tertiary institutions, where there has been much discussion on the POFMA. I have seen a deep conviction by MinLaw to create our overall framework for responsible speech. I hope we can see a whole of government effort, including MOE, to communicate that clearly to our people.
12. Next, I would like MinLaw to clarify on one matter:
a. First, under the POFMA, there is a defence of “reasonable excuse” for the internet intermediaries.
i. Does this mean that an intermediary can choose not to comply and invoke the defence, if it hurts their profits to comply?
13. Lastly, I would like to end by suggesting that Singapore actively contribute to the global discourse on how we deal with deliberate online falsehoods. Indeed, there are many legislators worldwide watching our deliberations carefully.
a. Deliberate online falsehood is something that affects all societies and does not automatically and neatly stop at any borders.
b. In the long run, our best bet is to shape the larger environment in a positive way.
14. Let me conclude. In my speech on the motion on this matter last year, I quoted Washington Post’s motto, “Democracy dies from Darkness”.
a. Democracy cannot survive and thrive without a public discourse informed by facts, truth and transparency.
i. Because public discourse is the means for our society to reflect collectively.
b. Therefore, I support the POFMA.
i. It strengthens our framework of responsible speech.
ii. It seeks to root out merchants of mistruths, or special interests and worse still, foreign influence that seeks to deliberately manipulate and destabilise our society through fake news.
c. But we must go beyond crafting this framework.
d. We must communicate clearly and simply to our people what responsible speech entails,
i. factoring our unique circumstances
ii. as a small, multi-cultural,
iii. multi-religious and multi-racial city-state.
e. Because what matters is not just ensuring that fake news that’s meant to manipulate has no place in Singapore,
i. but also to ensure that our laws do not unintentionally curtail healthy and necessary discourse or diminish the marketplace of ideas that healthy democracies require.
15. With that, Mr Speaker, I stand in support of the bill.
Watch the speech here
Watch Minister Shanmugam’s response here