On 8 May, Singapore’s parliament passed a controversial fake news law that gives authorities the power to police online platforms.
The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act 2019 received global criticism from international media, human rights groups, the biggest tech companies and even a former Singaporean government minister. Their concerns centred on the law’s sweeping yet vague provisions, its severe criminal penalties, and its extraterritorial reach.
Fifty-eight academics (it later rose to 125), including myself, from many different institutions in several countries sent a letter to Singapore’s minister of education Ong Ye Kung on 11 April, copying in Singapore university presidents and boards of trustees.
We focused on the law’s lack of clarity in defining “facts”, “false or misleading statements” and Singapore’s “public interest”, and the impact it will have on scholarly research and publication.
In response, government ministers conducted dialogue sessions at a number of universities and met privately with a group of our signatories, taking great effort to explain the bill.
But they were unable to deny that the law was vulnerable to abuse and empowers political interests to skew scholarly debates. They could only assure us that this government does not intend to misuse the law’s powers in this way.
Admitting they could not speak for future governments, they advised only that Singaporeans vote wisely to stop the law getting into the wrong hands.
Meanwhile, government pronouncements reinforced rather than reduced our unease about politicians using the legislation to adjudicate scholarly disputes.
Ministers showed their impatience with contrary viewpoints by declaring that only people who support irresponsible speech would oppose the bill, then labelled critics who persisted as “alarmist” and “crying wolf”.
In his parliamentary speech, Minister Ong – who as a sitting minister is empowered by the new law to decide if a particular statement is “false or misleading”, “against the public interest” and made “with malicious intent” – asserted, completely without evidence, that the whole group’s “real concern is not about their research per se” but about the law being used to “stifle political discourse in Singapore, given that some of the academics are also activists”.
The standard government mantra is that “opinion” would be allowed under POFMA, thus protecting freedom of expression for anyone expressing “any viewpoint”. But this confers such freedom only on expressions of “personal opinion”, not statements of “facts”, or contentions of purported statements of “facts”, which, for scholarly work, is based on laborious original research, data-gathering and rigorous analysis subject to expert peer review.
In order to exempt academic research from the law, Minister Ong has categorised research results as “hypotheses, theories and opinions”. But this denies its seriousness and reduces its credibility. Ironically, it is such devaluation of expert knowledge that has contributed to the worldwide epidemic of fake news and created a world where all that matters is a “personal opinion”.
The US president Donald Trump, for example, justifies denying that human-induced climate change is happening, despite scientific evidence to the contrary, because it is his “personal belief” – this POFMA would allow.
Academics should be at the forefront of the fight against fake news, but this can only happen if our expert knowledge and professional judgment is taken seriously, not misrepresented (and thus dismissed) as mere “opinion”.
We also submitted concerns to the ministry of law regarding specific and technical aspects of academic research and publication, to which we have not received any response. One of these concerns is the requirement to post a correction provided by a minister to any finding mentioned online to which they object to under POFMA, including in private social media posts and encrypted chat groups.
For academics whose published research findings often involve research collaborators, peer reviewers and publishers of many nationalities and in multiple jurisdictions, this will be difficult if not impossible to do without perjury and exposure to legal jeopardy from other partners.
POFMA poses problems in other domains besides academia, chiefly because it will apply “in or outside of Singapore” and take precedence over legal requirements in other jurisdictions, such as the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation that protects citizens’ data privacy.
And the fact that it allows ministers to exempt any individual or entity guilty of offence from being penalised means that the law by design does not actually protect from all “fake news”, including that which might be perpetrated by the state itself.
Academia is one of the most globalised professions and Singapore’s universities are proudly among the world’s most highly ranked, as well as being international institutions – a large majority of tenure-track faculty are foreign nationals (only one of whom signed our letter, despite many expressing their concerns privately).
What happens here will have an inevitable ripple effect, especially if copycat legislation is enacted by larger players like China or India.
Fake news is a global problem that needs to be tackled globally. Academics should be part of the solution by defending against it through our core missions of research, education, and community outreach.
We cannot do this if we are hobbled by this law and any subsequent imitators that it might inspire.
Linda Lim is a Singaporean economist and professor emerita at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.