Mr Deputy Speaker, before I speak on the substantive aspects of the Bill, I want to make the point that not all legislation passed in this House targeting online content is equal. The Workers’ Party will support rules aimed at online content when they are in Singaporeans’ interest, such as with this Bill, but not otherwise.
My speech is in three parts:
First, I will reiterate why the WP did not support previous Bills concerning online content. It is important to highlight to Singaporeans that each piece of legislation needs to be scrutinized on its own merits. The Government must be made to justify each statute it wishes passed by this House, including those that restrict Singaporeans’ access to online content;
Second, I will set out why we support the current Bill as a whole; and
Third, despite my general agreement with the Bill, I will raise questions for the Minister on specific points of concern.
Previous Statutes on Online Content
Mr Deputy Speaker, I move to the first part of my speech on previous legislation targeted at online content.
In its press release of 8 May, the Ministry of Home Affairs called this Bill, and I quote, “the next piece in our suite of legislation, including the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act, and the recently amended Broadcasting Act, to better protect the public in Singapore from various harms in the online space”, unquote.
The Ministry of Home Affairs groups these four Acts together – the Broadcasting Act, POFMA, FICA and now, if I may coin the obvious acronym, OCHA. However, we need to remind ourselves in this House and we need to remind Singaporeans generally, that these statutes are very different from one another.
Three points connect these statutes:
One, they relate to online content;
Two, the Government says that these laws are needed to protect Singaporeans from harm; and
Three, the Government can implement broad, powerful measures to restrict Singaporeans’ access to online content and to impose severe penalties on individuals and entities for non-compliance.
But these statutes differ in critical ways. They target exceedingly diverse online content. OCHA targets online content that could result in Singaporeans being victims of scams and other crime. POFMA and FICA restrict the access of Singaporeans to information that the Government considers false, manipulative, or foreign interference in our domestic affairs.
But reasonable people can disagree with the Government on what types of online content are harmful and whether Singaporeans need to be protected from them. Reasonable people can also desire that the Government not be given draconian powers that could be used, whether now or by future Governments, to stifle points of view different from those of the Government of the day.
Regarding FICA, the WP did not vote in favour of FICA as promulgated by the Government. We were not against FICA in principle. We understand that there are foreign actors who wish Singapore harm and that the Government should have powers to counter malignant forces. But our view is that FICA confers extraordinary powers which need the most robust of independent oversight by the Judicial arm of our Government, namely, the Supreme Court. The Workers’ Party was also of the view that the wording in FICA such as ‘is likely to’ and ‘where the Minister suspects’ creates low thresholds of proof that could be unfairly used against individuals or entities.
The Workers’ Party proposed more than 40 amendments which we opined would allow FICA to achieve its aims of curbing unwanted foreign interference while at the same time ensuring appropriate checks on the Government that protect the rights of Singaporeans.
As for POFMA, the WP opposed it because POFMA entrusts the Ministers and their Alternate Authorities to decide what is truth and what is a falsehood. In certain cases, they would not be neutral parties but would be making decisions as interested parties. For instance, if a Government decision is criticized in an article published on a website, it is the Minister himself or herself who decides whether the article is true or false. And the Minister would be able to make such a decision with limited oversight by the courts. The High Court cannot inquire into the merits of a Minister’s POFMA decision.
In addition, the powers under POFMA are extreme. If a correction order is made, an entire website can be blocked, not just the offending article.
My view is that when websites are blocked under POFMA it is Singaporeans’ who lose out. Singaporeans are not able to read alternate viewpoints. If such alternate viewpoints are false, the Government can counter those viewpoints by publishing the facts as it sees them in mainstream local media, both print as well as online.
The recent case involving Asia Sentinel is instructive on how POFMA can be deployed by the Government. The Government recently issued a POFMA correction direction to Asia Sentinel, a California-registered publication, over an article titled “Singapore kills a chicken to scare the monkeys”. Asia Sentinel took certain actions to comply, but the Ministry of Information and Communications said, and I quote, “While Asia Sentinel carried the correction notices, this was not done in compliance with the requirements of the correction direction for the respective correction notices to be situated at the top of the article and at the top of the main page of the website.” Unquote.
I believe that Asia Sentinel placed the correction notice at the top of the article but did not place it at the top of the main page of the website. Because Asia Sentinel did not comply fully with the Government’s order, Internet Service Providers in Singapore were ordered to block access in Singapore to Asia Sentinel’s website. The article and the website are no longer accessible by computers or smartphones with Singapore IP addresses.
In particular, I find it draconian to expect a news website to place a correction notice at the top of the main page of the website. Surely a correction notice situated at the top of the article should be sufficient if the Government’s concern is for Singaporeans to be able to read the Government’s point of view in contrast to that of the news publication.
My concern is not for Asia Sentinel itself. They are a foreign website and it is of not much concern to me whether they lose readership or revenue by being blocked in Singapore. What I do care about is that I, and other Singaporeans, cannot access Asia Sentinel to read the article in question and decide what we think about it for ourselves. Indeed, anyone using a computer with a Singapore IP address can no longer access any articles published on Asia Sentinel, even those that have nothing to do with Singapore. Surely that smacks of the Government wanting to punish the publishers of the website rather than merely wanting to correct falsehoods in a specific article? The Singapore Government must have many tools at its disposal to ensure that its viewpoint is available to Singaporeans. Is it really in the best interests of Singapore citizens that the Government blocks, not only an article the Government deems false, but an entire publication?
What if the New York Times or the Financial Times were to republish the Asia Sentinel article or any other POFMA-sanctioned article? Would the Singapore Government seriously mean to block either the New York Times or the Financial Times if it refuses to publish the correction notices in the required format? Would this blocking be in the best interests of Singaporeans?
Support for the current Bill
Mr Speaker, let me move on to the second part of my speech, on my support for the current Bill.
The WP agrees that it is necessary to protect Singaporeans from scams and other crimes that can be perpetrated using online methods.
I believe it is right for the authorities to have available the use of Part 2 directions against those who control relevant material or websites, online service providers, internet service providers and app stores. I am sure that legitimate business operators in these areas would have no objection to cooperating with Singapore authorities to protect those who live here from online criminal harms.
In particular, I support the development of Codes of Practice for Designated Online Services as provided for in Part 4. Ultimately, a proactive approach rather than a reactive one is certainly important in view of how quickly online scams evolve.
Overall, the WP’s assessment is that OCHA is very different from POFMA and FICA when it comes to the online harms targeted. This Bill deserves the support of this House.
Specific concerns and questions for the Minister
Mr Speaker, this brings me to the third part of my speech where I have questions for the Minister on specific points of concern.
“Reasonably suspects” versus “suspects”
My first question for the Minister is: what exactly is the difference between the use in Part 2, specifically 6(1) of the words “reasonably suspects” compared to the word “suspects”? The Ministry of Home Affairs’ press release acknowledges that the word “suspects” is a lower threshold than “reasonably suspects”. But what is the practical effect of this difference in the context of combatting online crimes? Perhaps the Minister could explain the distinction using the standards of proof used in our courts. Could the standards of “on a balance of probabilities”, “prima facie”, or “reasonable doubt” help us understand the difference better?
Codes of Practice and their enforcement
Mr Speaker, may I also ask the Minister to give more details about the Codes of Practice? While in principle, a proactive approach in having Codes of Practice is good, the fact that there are sanctions for non-compliance reiterate the importance, if not critical role Designated Online Services and other intermediaries play to disrupt scammers. Under Part 4 of the Bill, the Government may issue rectification notices and implementation directives to Designated Online Services, and non-compliance with notices or directives attract prosecution and severe fines that can go into the millions of dollars.
Could the Minister give details of how Codes of Practice will be developed, including what consultations and engagements will be undertaken with the industry?
And to this end, Mr Deputy Speaker how would this Code of Practice apply in practice to disrupt online scams. The days of receiving phonecalls from people pretending to be Immigration, Ministry of Health and bank officers are becoming yesterday’s scams. Today’s online scam lure individuals – one that was recounted to me at this Monday’s Meet-the-People session two days ago – are very sophisticated. A resident was lured by an offer of a supposedly genuine job to raise the profile of products sold on e-commerce platforms such as Qoo10. She received a payment for services rendered on the first day. Convinced that the arrangement was legitimate as money has been transferred to her, she got trapped in an quasi-investment scam hoping to see the more returns and increased her engagement with the scammer. The young lady at my MPS on Monday told me she lost more than $300,000 in total. The scammer actually paid her close to $1000 on the first day of the engagement, winning her trust. I am sure members have heard similar sad outcomes for some of their residents. Can the Minister share how this Bill and the Codes of Practice will operate in practice to disrupt such scammers, particularly with reference to e-commerce companies and online service providers through whom such scams are perpetrated.
While it is hoped that this Bill will serve as an important line of defence to disrupt online scams, the future is even more ominous, with AI portending the prospect of a far more intelligent scammer than ever before. To this end, it cannot be left to the agencies like the Anti-Scam Command or the Police or even the legislation such as this Bill to serve as the first line of defence for Singaporeans. The general public has to be far more vigilant with respect to its engagements online, especially when it comes to the transfer of funds and engagement with individuals who are not known to them.
Other activities OCHA could conceivably address
Finally, Mr Deputy Speaker, the introductory words of the Explanatory Statement to the Bill say that this Bill seeks to counter online criminal activity and protect against online harms. Currently, the target of the Bill appears to be scams and other criminal activity.
But the fact that the Explanatory Statement says that the Bill seeks also to protect against online harms suggests that activities other than criminal ones have been contemplated by the drafters of the Bill. Could the Minister shed light on what other activities the Bill could potentially address or could conceivably address? Could the Minister let us know what other scenarios beyond criminal activity were discussed or are being deliberated? For example, the Government has previously mentioned that it would seek to address ‘cancel culture’. Could this be one of the areas that is being contemplated as potentially coming within the scope of the Bill?
In conclusion, Mr Speaker, this Bill is very different from POFMA and FICA, which the WP did not support. POFMA and FICA carry the possibility of Ministers depriving Singaporeans of hearing valid alternative points of view without adequate judicial checks.
OCHA is targeted at protecting members of the public from scams and offences that can cause financial and other harm. If it remains focused on this target, the WP will continue to be in favour of its implementation.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I support the Bill.