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Laws to fight fake news passed, Workers’ Party rapped for opposing move

SINGAPORE — Wrapping up a two-day marathon debate on draft laws regulating fake news, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam slammed the opposition Workers’ Party (WP) for using “stock phrases” and their limited understanding of the laws.

Law Minister K Shanmugam said that when people say things which are false and hide, the best remedy is to "shine a powerful light" on truth, and he does not understand why the Workers' Party is against that.

Law Minister K Shanmugam said that when people say things which are false and hide, the best remedy is to "shine a powerful light" on truth, and he does not understand why the Workers' Party is against that.

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SINGAPORE — Wrapping up a two-day marathon debate on draft laws regulating fake news, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam slammed the opposition Workers’ Party (WP) for using “stock phrases” and their limited understanding of the laws.

He said in Parliament on Wednesday (May 8) that the opposition party members, who objected to the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, had conflated facts with opinions, among other things.

In one of the longest debates on proposed legislation in recent years, the session started around noon on Wednesday and ended at around 10.20pm when the votes were taken and the Bill was eventually passed into law.

Seven political office-holders and 31 Members of Parliament (MPs) — or a third of the House — gave their take on the proposed laws over the two days, with Tuesday's debate lasting about four hours.




Wrapping up the debate towards the end of Wednesday’s sitting, Mr Shanmugam hit back at each of the nine WP MPs, pointing out that they have sidestepped the question as to how the new laws create a “chilling effect” given that it gives the Government narrower powers and there is greater judicial oversight.

He noted that the Bill is a “completely defensible, open system that places no great power within the executive”.

“In that context, all the nine WP MPs’ speeches are remarkable for the fact that (they don’t) deal head on with the point I made, which is that the powers here are narrower than the powers that currently exist,” Mr Shanmugam said.

Most of his counter-arguments were directed at former WP chief Low Thia Khiang, who on Tuesday censured the Government for having a “hidden agenda” to protect itself and “achieve political monopoly” in coming up with the draft laws, and said that ordinary citizens would lack the resources to take their appeals to court should they find themselves being accused of spreading falsehoods.

Mr Shanmugam said on Wednesday: “The armageddon we were threatened with if this Bill comes to law, I’m still trying to see the logical flow of that argument.”

Summing up his speech, which lasted over an hour, Mr Shanmugam reiterated that the new legislation is not a political exercise, as there is “no political profit” in allowing online falsehoods to proliferate or damage the country’s “infrastructure of fact”.

“It will damage the institutions and frankly, no mainstream political party will benefit from this. It will damage any party that wants to consider itself mainstream and credible. Everyone will be damaged,” he stressed.

Instead, the new legislation is an exercise to maintain the country’s values and enable it to have a “set of honest debates” on policies based on a foundation of truth, he said.

“That’s what this is about. This is not about the Workers’ Party or the PAP (People’s Action Party). Today, it is about Singapore,” Mr Shanmugam added.




The Bill, which gives government ministers broad powers to quickly stop the dissemination of online falsehoods, was passed just slightly more than a month after it was tabled on April 1.

It was not without objection, evidently.


Mr Pritam Singh, WP’s chief and MP for Aljunied Group Representation Constituency (GRC), called for a division on Wednesday.

The division bell was rung twice, at the second and third readings. In a division, the vote of each MP is collected and tabulated through an electronic voting system to ascertain whether the motion has the support of a simple majority of the MPs who are present and voting.

In the first instance, 74 MPs — comprising the PAP MPs and Nominated MPs who were present — voted “yes”, while all nine WP MPs voted “no” and one Nominated MP — Professor Lim Sun Sun — abstained.

In the second vote, 72 MPs, including PAP MPs and Nominated MPs voted “yes”, while all the WP MPs voted “no”.

Three Nominated MPs, namely Ms Anthea Ong, Ms Irene Quay and Associate Professor Walter Theseira, who had voted “yes” in the first round, abstained in the second.

In the days after the laws were tabled, there were concerns that the Bill gives too much power to government ministers and the definition of “public interest” was wide. 




Chief among the various criticisms was that it would have a “chilling effect” on free speech. This led Mr Shanmugam to call it “one of the most overused phrases” as he chided critics for their limited understand of the Bill when he opened the debate on Tuesday.  

At the time, he also laid out the legal and philosophical arguments on why the new laws were needed. 

It is a better move to come up with a new legislation that is fashioned to deal specifically with online falsehoods with greater speed, in a more targeted manner and with greater judicial oversight, he argued.


Over the two days, the WP MPs argued ferociously against the Bill, saying that it would suppress free speech and that the Government should limit the scope of powers given to ministers.

They proposed that the courts, not the Government, be the first and sole decider of what constitutes a falsehood.

In his speech on Wednesday, Mr Shanmugam took aim at Mr Low, who said that a minister issuing an order to correct or take down fake news before it is challenged in court is akin to “chopping off a head and then reporting to the emperor”.

Saying that it is “typical and colourful” of Mr Low to make such statements, Mr Shanmugam pointed out that after a correction order is made, the correction will be posted alongside the original false statement.

Aggrieved individuals can appeal to the courts, which can overrule the minister, he added.

It is the same process if the minister orders that an article containing falsehoods be taken down.

“Nobody’s head, nobody’s hands are chopped,” he quipped.

However, Mr Low stood by his statement during his clarification after Mr Shanmugam’s speech.

Referring to an example he raised on Tuesday, that “the older generation cannot accept a non-Chinese prime minister”, Mr Low said that such a statement would be considered an opinion if it came from a minister or his supporters.

But if political opponents were to make the same comment, it would be considered a falsehood.

Refuting this, Mr Shanmugam said that such comments are not covered by the new laws. “Don’t try and get people misled using examples,” he retorted.


Addressing another point made by Mr Low that there are some fundamental similarities between the Internal Security Act (ISA) and the laws governing fake news, Mr Shanmugam said that there is a “fundamental difference” because an individual cannot appeal to the court under the ISA.

He then declined to be drawn further into the discussion. 




As for the courts being the only arbiters to determine falsehoods, Mr Shanmugam said that this would not allow the Government to break the online spread of a falsehood in a matter of hours.

There are also other issues to consider, such as if the case involves a foreign agent. “Who do you sue and how long will it take to find the originator?” the law minister asked.

He noted that the WP MPs had voiced similar concerns about the suppression of the freedom of speech before the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act — which dealt with the law of contempt — was passed in 2016.

Turning to a comment made by WP Non-constituency MP Leon Perera on Tuesday that the new legislation is not “just chilling free speech but hurling it into an industrial freezer”, Mr Shanmugam said:

“It’s not free speech which will go into deep freeze. It strikes me that some stock phrases are kept in deep freeze by Mr Perera and his colleagues and brought out of the chiller once in a while. And dutifully repeated.”

When people say things which are false and hide, the “best remedy” is to shine the “light of truth”, Mr Shanmugam said.

“Why is the Workers’ Party against that?

“You want to shine a powerful light… on falsehoods that circulate, so people can understand the truth, so that the infrastructure of fact is powerful, so that democracy is protected.”


For a while, the comebacks against the WP took on a partisan tone, with several PAP MPs and other political office-holders singing the same chorus of disapproval against suggestions by the WP.  

Their main criticism centred around the opposition’s proposal of having the courts, instead of the executive arm of the Government, as the sole arbiter of whether a published statement is false or not.

Earlier during the debate, Mr Vikram Nair, MP for Sembawang GRC, said that the courts may not have the resources to deal with numerous correction or takedown applications from the ministers.

This is especially so during a volatile situation, such as during elections, where there may be “hundreds of articles” each day.

The need for swift action, which the courts may not be able to provide, was also a source of contention.

Mr Cedric Foo, MP for Pioneer constituency, highlighted that one of the recommendations in the report by the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods — of which Mr Singh is a member — stated that action needs to be taken “in a matter of hours” to break the virality of fake news.

He questioned how much more resources could be provided to the courts before it would have the same capacity as the ministers, who are supported by civil servants, to deal with fake news “in a matter of hours”.

To this, Mr Singh replied that a “speedy response (through the judiciary) is fathomable” given how amendments to the Protection from Harassment Act, which was passed on Tuesday, is looking to make the court process faster. 


Among the proposals heard in the House was one by Nee Soon GRC MP Louis Ng and Nominated MP Irene Quay, who said there could be a Freedom of Information Act in Singapore.

Mr Ng said that the Government should channel more resources to engage Singaporeans by sharing data and information more frequently and in greater detail.

Calling it one of his “favourite topics”, Mr Shanmugam said that having such an Act would inundate civil servants with more work as they would have to deal with countless “odd requests”.

Using the United Kingdom as an example, Mr Shanmugam noted that some of the requests put forth by the public there include the number of toilet rolls used during the administration of former prime minister Tony Blair.

Mr Shanmugam also said that such a law would privilege some segments of society more than others, as lawyers, businessmen and journalists tend to make up the bulk of people who want information.

“Is that the best way of improving governance? May I suggest that a better way is what we have now — this Parliament,” he said.  

“You are all representatives who are elected by the people. Some of you appointed, Nominated MPs. You can ask for any information that you want.”

In instances where the Government was being questioned about matters that stirred public interest, such as Aloysius Pang who died recently during military training and the sexual harassment of undergraduate Monica Baey, he said that these were raised in Parliament.

Mr Shanmugam also said that there are remedies in place if the Government is the entity that put out a falsehood.

MPs may question ministers in Parliament and there are consequences for ministers to face.

“There are serious processes for anyone who misleads Parliament. Anyone who misleads Parliament will be made to resign,” he added.


As for the amendments to the Bill that Associate Professor Theseira, Ms Ong and Ms Quay put forth in Parliament, Mr Shanmugam said that he had already addressed their points on Tuesday.

He noted that the three of Nominated MPs accepted the definition of falsehood and public interest in laws, as well as the executive having the power to act.

They also accepted that introducing judicial or independent oversight would risk harm in the event of an imminent threat.

At the end of the session, the move to include their amendments in the new laws were opposed by the PAP MPs. WP MPs voted to abstain.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said that when a division occurs in Parliament, a motion that is being passed requires the support of two-thirds of the total number of elected MPs. This is incorrect. A support of two-thirds of the total number of MPs, excluding Nominated MPs, is required only when changes are made to the Constitution. To pass ordinary laws, a simple majority or more than half of the MPs – including both Non-constituency and Nominated MPs – present and voting is required to pass a motion. We are sorry for the error.

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