(Delivered in Parliament on 8 May 2019)
Sir, if this bill is drafted solely to target the perpetrators of hate, violence, intolerance, and disdain towards another race or religion, by all means, let’s do it. We should never allow such people to propagate their vile ideologies in any form or manner. This world has no place for sick people with no love and respect for life, happiness, and basic human decency.
If this bill is also to hold those big, powerful online businesses accountable and responsible to stop the spread of such vile messages, by all means, let’s go after them too. These money-minded companies can’t have the cake and eat it at the expense of our social order, racial and religious harmony.
And if this bill is drafted solely to protect our way of life, our love and respect for one another, regardless of race, language or religion, I am all for it.
But this bill is way more than that. This bill will also give a “Big Brother” government considerable latitude to silent the voice of the common man in a community where he can be at ease to express his views, opinions, arts, music, political beliefs, and more, without inhibition.
This bill will strike fear into the hearts of these Singaporeans who are vocal and passionate about the issues they care about most because they can be issued with a Part 3 Direction even if they do not know or have no reason to believe that the fact of what they have shared in their community could be wrong.
This bill will arm each Minister with a nuclear option to act as judge and jury to obliterate critics and opponents of the government in a flash. This bill, if abused, will turn Singapore into a repressive state in no time.
SCOPE OF BILL
Sir, I too, subscribe to the belief that freedom of speech is never absolute. One cannot shout fire in a crowded place and cause panic and mayhem in the name of free speech. I also subscribe to the fact that we are living in a very different world now. We do need to protect the society at large from being torn apart by the rise of racial and religious tensions fanned by bigots, extremists, and racists.
So this bill should be scoped with the sole purpose to protect our society from harm espoused by people with vile intentions. It should be scoped to hold companies which allow hate ideologies and messages to propagate in their systems accountable. It should not be scoped with ambiguity to protect a “big brother” government from critics, political opponents, civil societies, NGOs, and online communities, in the name of tackling online falsehood.
This government has already amassed an arsenal of legislation to block or take down undesirable materials to protect the community at large. Does it really need a nuclear option to send shiver down the spines of men in the street, uncles and aunties, academics, critics, and the society at large, in the name of protecting them from online falsehood and manipulation?
INFLUENCE OF ELECTION
Sir, the ambiguity of this bill is even more telling when it comes to the business of elections. The absolute power it bestows on a Minister to remove information that may influence the outcome of an election cannot be understated. This bill basically allows an incumbent party, who is seeking re-election, the sole power to remove any damaging statement made against the party and its leaders, in the name of public interest, so as to contain any political fallout. The nuclear option, if abused, will actually allow the Minister to influence the outcome of an election, something which the bill is designed to prevent in the first place. Who can vouch that an incumbent party, when faced with multiple battles on all fronts, will not resort to desperate measures to avoid losing power in a critical election?
We are all against foreign intervention in our electoral process. The powers that be in this world may want to influence the outcome of elections for whatever reason and we should not allow them. We are not alone and we should work with the social media giants to stop these foreign agents from trying to influence the outcome of our elections.
But the biggest fear of someone making a false statement of fact knowingly to influence the outcome of an election may not come from an individual or from an outside source, but from an incumbent party with ample resources to shape public opinion and perception at will. The biggest contributor of misleading propaganda may come from the incumbent government itself. So where is the protection against the incumbent from influencing the outcome of an election under this bill?
Take for example at the last General Election. At the eleventh hour of the campaign, the PAP machinery sent a letter to the residents of Punggol East, stating that $22.5 million dollars belonging to the constituency and transferred to the accounts of the Workers’ Party-run town council in 2013 had become unaccounted for. The letter said it was an indisputable fact that the money had gone missing from our books, contrary to what was reported by our auditors every year. Clearly, this false statement was made solely to influence the outcome of the 2015 elections. So how would this proposed bill, if it were to be in place then, deal with this false statement of fact coming from the incumbent party at the very last minute, and regurgitated by the state media to reach a wider audience without any fact checking done?
Let me give another scenario. What if during an election, some insiders were to publish serious personal allegations against the top leadership of the incumbent party, questioning their integrity and character to lead the country. Under this bill, the Minister, Competent Authority, or Alternate Authority, can easily order a take-down of the allegations in the name of public interest, knowing very well that no one apart from the affected Minister and insiders themselves would know who was telling the truth. So would this bill be used to silent such information which could be material to help voters decide who to support in an election?
Any statement made against an entity of the authority or its leadership, which may not be outright false but could be misconstrued in the context in which it appears, can be taken down in the name of public interest under this bill solely at the discretion of any Minister, without having first to prove the alleged falsehood. This nuclear option would be able to silent anyone instantly at a critical time with no immediate recourse.
ARBITER OF TRUTH
Sir, no matter how you dissect this proposed bill, the arbiter of truth originates from the government and its Ministers, and the Competent Authority that reports to them.
The Minister for Law was reported to have said, “The courts decide ultimately what is true and what is false and they will be the final arbiters.”
But under this proposed bill, if a Minister opines that it is in the public interest to issue a Part 3 Direction on a statement made against the Prime Minister, for example, that opinion would be taken at face value as the gospel truth. And justice would be served immediately. How is that even right to begin with? How it is not wrong in any sense of the laws that one is judged and prosecuted first for something the courts must decide ultimately if it was indeed false in the first place? This bill will assume the government is always right all the time until the courts say otherwise.
As the Minister had cleverly put it, the court is the final arbiter of truth, and the key word is “final” because in reality, the original arbiter of truth had already spoken and issued the decree for punitive action to be taken immediately.
It is easy for the Law Minister to say “these Ministers are elected officials, and the decisions they make could also be reflected by the people’s votes during a General Election.” Sir, if an unscrupulous Minister were to abuse his power under this proposed bill right before the hustings start, and win the election subsequently, what can the final arbiter of truth do? As the Minister had said yesterday, the fastest time the Courts can hear an appeal in this instance is 9 days, excluding weekends. There are only 9 Days of campaigning, including weekends. Elections would be over by then.
And what if the alleged false statement of fact was not false after all and it could have influenced the outcome of the election? What would be the recourse? Under this bill, the Courts may not even need to rule if the Minister were to subsequently agree with the aggrieved party, upon appeal, that the statement concerned was indeed not false. What if the Minister were to decide to cancel a Part 3 Direction on his own initiative, days after the elections are over? In both cases, no final arbiter of truth would be required. The undeserving candidate had won. Can the results of the general elections be declared void then?
The Law Minister had said in an interview that he cannot vouch for how a future government will act with this bill. But if we knew that there is a nuclear option in the bill, which could be abused in the future, why are we, as legislators, not doing anything about it now? Why would we want to leave a nuclear option for a future dictator to silent all dissenting voices with a snap of his fingers?
As stated at the beginning of my speech, I am all for the protection of our way of life, our racial and religious harmony. I am also all for making the big online businesses accountable for the spread of vile ideologies that threatens the social fabric of our society. What I cannot support is for this government to slip a nuclear option into this bill to protect itself in the name of tackling online falsehood, especially in the context of conducting a fair election.
When we enact bills that chip away our basic rights and freedoms, in name of protecting the society at large, we have to be wary about the added power we would be giving to the state in the process. That power, in the wrong hands, may kill the dreams, the imaginations, the laughter, and the creativity of the people. This bill, in the hands of a despot, will kill democracy over time. The fact of the matter is no one can vouch for how a future government will act with this bill, not just the Law Minister. I cannot, with a clear conscience, support this bill.