Opinion | Is Singapore Cracking Down on Fake News or on Real Opposition?

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No. 4: an order from the minister of manpower against the S.D.P. for various posts and an online article claiming that unemployment was rising among Singaporean white-collar workers.

And then, the subject of order No. 5: Lim Tean, the leader of People’s Voice, another fledgling political party, for online posts stating that the government had put aside more money for scholarships for foreign students than for local ones.

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All these statements and analyzes touched on sensitive issues – questioning the competence of the elites, tapping people's anxieties about immigration and jobs – and at a time when many Singaporeans suspect that the government will call general elections well before April 2021, the month by which they must be held. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who has been in power since 2004, has indicated that this race will be his last, and the ruling party seems intent on securing another strong mandate.

But never mind politics, the P.A.P. has claimed, or the fact that Pofma has only been invoked against government opponents so far. That’s merely a “coincidence. ”

When it proposed the law, the P.A.P. government had argued that it was necessary to ensure a speedy response to online falsehoods, pointing to cases, such as in Sri Lanka, where a failure to correct disinformation had led to violence. Yet none of the cases in Singapore so far have had anything to do with any incitement to harm. Nor has the government treated them as an emergency that required handling in a matter of hours, as it claimed would be necessary. Most of the correction orders came days – in one case, as many as 12 days – after the supposedly false information was published.

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There’s also the matter of whether the P.A.P. government is challenging only statements of fact or also arguments and opinions. Mr. Lim’s Facebook posts – one of them a meme – were comments on the amount of scholarship money set aside for Singaporean versus foreign students. The education ministry’s correction order actually confirmed the sums that Mr. Lim mentioned, arguing instead that he should have made “a more appropriate comparison.”

On Friday, during a hearing in the S.D.P. case, the attorney general’s office argued that Pofma also covered implied statements and matters of interpretation.

And to top it all off: Pofma cannot be used to correct any falsehoods published by the government – not unless you can convince a minister from the P.A.P. to act against the party. How’s that for a measure that might “diminish public confidence” in the government’s performance?

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Kirsten Han (@kixes) is a journalist and editor in chief of New Naratif, a multimedia site promoting free expression and democracy across Southeast Asia.

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