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Uproar over hoax as Mr Lee remains in critical condition

SINGAPORE — Former Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew continues to be critically ill, as the police today (March 19) warned against spreading falsehoods to deceive the public.

Flowers for Mr Lee Kuan Yew and a note wishing him a speedy recovery were placed on a lawn at Singapore General Hospital this afternoon. Photo: Amanda Lee

Flowers for Mr Lee Kuan Yew and a note wishing him a speedy recovery were placed on a lawn at Singapore General Hospital this afternoon. Photo: Amanda Lee

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SINGAPORE — Former Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew continues to be critically ill, as the police today (March 19) warned against spreading falsehoods to deceive the public.

The police were responding to media queries over a police report filed by the Prime Minister’s Office over a hoax involving screengrabs of a fake PMO webpage announcing that Mr Lee died, which went viral on yesterday night, duping several international media outlets in the process, which later apologised for putting out erroneous tweets and reports.

“We take a very stern view against anyone who doctors a government website to spread false information to deceive the public. We will spare no effort to bring them to task. We also advise the public not to spread falsehoods,” said Assistant Commissioner of Police Melvin Yong, the director of the police public affairs department.

The PMO said today that Mr Lee, who has been warded at the Singapore General Hospital since Feb 5 after coming down with severe pneumonia, was critically ill in the hospital’s intensive care unit. His health improved on Feb 28, but has since worsened, with the PMO reporting a deterioration in his health on Tuesday and yesterday.

The fake webpage has drawn widespread backlash from the public. 67-year-old retiree Teo Kwee Lock, who was among the stream of Singaporeans who visited SGH yesterday to show support for Mr Lee, said the people who spread such hoaxes and rumours are “horrible”. “They don’t respect (what Mr) Lee Kuan Yew has done for him...I really feel sorry for all these people,” he said.

Ms Denise Tan, 29, a marketing manager said when she was shown a picture of the screengrab by her friend, they both teared up, thinking it was real. “Then my brother messaged me to tell it that it’s a hoax and I was so angry! I hope whoever did it is arrested for doing such a thing,” she said.

Member of Parliament Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC) said he was initially taken in by the “announcement” as well. “The hoax was done in very bad taste. The challenge would be to finding whoever did this and prosecuting them. There are adequate laws in place to deal with them,” said Mr Nair, who sits on the Government Parliamentary Committee for Communications and Information. He added: “Right now all the updates about (Mr Lee) being critically ill, people are all expecting the worse.”

Under the Penal Code, it is an offence to cheat by pretending to be another person. It is also an offence — forgery — to make a fake document or electronic record with the intention of causing damage or injury to the public or to any person, among other things.

Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC), who is chairman of the Communications and Information GPC said the hoax was not only “grossly insensitive” to the family of Mr Lee, but also a case of someone impersonating a government website. “That would have to be dealt with harshly,” he said.

He also noted that the PMO website was down when he went to check on the hoax. “We should look at our (cyber) infrastructure and we shouldn’t have a down time especially in time like these. We need greater resilience on our information dissemination platforms,” he said.

Nanyang Technological University’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information professor Ang Peng Hwa said in this case, the incident was handled quite quickly.

“There are people who want to see how far their stuff can go viral — it’s just a cheap thrill and it happens all the time.” he said.

Such incidents cannot be prevented, but they can be “minimised”, such as by going to the police, as the PMO did. “It is a deterrence measure to say that this is disrespectful behaviour,” Prof Ang said.

MP Baey Yam Keng (Tampines GRC) said the public also needs to be alert. “People should take the effort to understand how all these things can be made up, and not fall victim to such malicious intentions,” he said.

Agreeing, technology consultant Alfred Siew added: “For newsmakers, coming up with timely information is the best way, but of course that’s subject to the circumstances.” ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY AMANDA LEE

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