L-R: Ian Chong, Terry Xu, Thum Ping Tjin New Naratif

Political Agenda — “Fake News”, Foreign Interference, and Freedom of Expression

Author: New Naratif
Published:

It’s been about a year since Singapore’s Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods held its open hearings. Although no Bills have yet been tabled, Singapore is expecting legislation to deal with “fake news” and foreign interference. But what would their impact be?

In this episode, we talk to political scientist Ian Chong and Editor-in-Chief of The Online Citizen Terry Xu about security concerns and the impact on free speech in Singapore.

Political Agenda - New Naratif
Ian Chong and Terry Xu New Naratif
Political Agenda - New Naratif
Kirsten Han and Ian Chong New Naratif

PJ Thum
Hello and welcome to this week’s episode of New Naratif’s Political Agenda, our fortnightly podcast on contemporary issues and current affairs in Singapore. And we’re coming to you on a very rainy Monday afternoon, so please forgive the sounds of rain and thunder in the background. I’m your host, PJ Thum and with me as usual is my brilliant co-host, New Naratif’s Editor-in-Chief Kirsten Han.

Kirsten Han
Hello!

PJ Thum
So, Kirsten, you’ve got a new book out?

Kirsten Han
Yes, it’s a very small one. I just… I feel like it’s quite odd to call it a book, because I feel like… compared to the effort of most people who wrote a book, this is a very small one.

PJ Thum
Right, it’s called The Silhouette of Oppression. And it’s published by for Epigram, and available…?

Kirsten Han
It’s available at the Huggs-Epigram Coffee Bookshop, that’s in the URA Centre, and also available in bookstores like Kinokuniya.

PJ Thum
Cool! So with us today we have two guests. First of all—our first returning guest, I believe—Ian Chong, a political scientist. How are you, Ian?

Ian Chong
Good, thank you.

PJ Thum
Now, those of you who’ve been listening to our podcast for a while will remember Ian was in our very first podcast on nationalism, and today we’re talking about fake news and foreign intervention and freedom of expression. And Ian, I know you’ve actually written a book on this topic on external intervention.

Ian Chong
Yes, that’s right. And when you mentioned it, I hear the thunder going off.

PJ Thum
Also with us today is Terry Xu, Editor-in-Chief of The Online Citizen. Now, Terry, I know you’ve been charged with criminal defamation. Can you comment on how that case is going?

Terry Xu
Yeah, I can. Basically what we’re doing now is that we are bringing the case to the Court of Appeal to challenge the constitutionality of the criminal defamation law because it goes against Article 14 of our Singapore Constitution.

PJ Thum
Right, Article 14 is…

Terry Xu
Article 14 basically protects one’s… no, not protects, it ensures one’s right to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly. Yeah, basically that.

PJ Thum
Cool. Well, good luck. Do you know when that will be heard, that challenge?

Terry Xu
End March, early April.

PJ Thum
Okay, so about a less than a month. We’re recording this on the Monday 11th of March. And so we’re going to talk today about fake news. It’s been a year or so since the Select Committee hearings on deliberate online falsehoods…

Kirsten Han
You finally get to talk about fake news!

PJ Thum
Yes, yes, I spent six-and-a-half hours in there and never got to talk about fake news. So finally, here’s my chance. But Kirsten, why don’t you help our audience set the context for our discussion today? About the past year, fake news, the proposed laws and so on and so forth.

Kirsten Han
So it’s been almost a year since the Select Committee held their open hearings, and last September, they published their report. So their report made 22 recommendations to the government, which the government almost immediately accepted. Which, you know, I suppose it’s very efficient, because if you have members of the Cabinet in the committee, then it’s very easy to accept what you contributed to yourself.

And so we haven’t yet seen a Bill to deal with deliberate online falsehoods or foreign interference, but they’ve talked about it to the press and in Parliament and mentioned that an anti-fake news law could be introduced, or the Bill could be introduced in the first half of this year. And there was also talk about also bringing in laws to deal with foreign interference in Singaporean politics. So we’ve yet to see the details of any of this, but we know that it’s coming.

PJ Thum
I think this, you know, the fact that you mentioned… Cabinet members were in the Select Committee, that’s normally not how a Select Committee runs, as far as I understand. The Select Committee is supposed to be comprised of backbenchers who gather information and then submit a report to the policy makers. So normally, in a Select Committee in Westminster parliamentary system, you wouldn’t normally have Cabinet members sitting, and especially decision makers sitting in the same Committee that’s supposed to make recommendations. And I think this is one of the things that made us very suspicious of the Select Committee to begin with, although, of course, we decided to participate in good faith. And that didn’t get us very far.

Kirsten Han
Yeah,usually you wouldn’t want an ownself-recommend to-ownself scenario.

Ian Chong
I do it all the time, are you telling me I shouldn’t?

PJ Thum
Ian, why don’t you help understand a bit about fake news, give us a bit about the context. Historicise it for us, given your own expertise and research. Why are we concerned about fake news?

Ian Chong
I won’t claim expertise on it. I have to say this because it’s rare that a historian asks a political scientist to historicise an issue…

PJ Thum
At least you agree I’m a historian, right? The Select Committee did not agree I was a historian and said, “oh, how can you be in the anthropology department and be a historian” as if interdisciplinary doesn’t exist and research clusters don’t exist and they don’t know how academia works, and anyway…

Ian Chong
In the spirit of interdisciplinarity, I will say that this issue of fake news and how it can get out of hand is not new to the internet era, so to speak, or new to the social media era. It’s something that we have seen historically in all cultures and all settings.

So just to give a few examples, if you think about the hysteria over witchcraft, this is an example, again, of people being misinformed, believing in things that are untrue and getting carried away. And this can have very fatal consequences for people identified as witches. And we’ve seen this in medieval Europe.

In China, there’s actually a very famous book by a historian by the name of Philip Kuhn called Soulstealers; it talks about how this belief in witchcraft and sorcery in mid-Qing China created a mass hysteria that led to a lot of social unrest. When you look at the White Lotus movement, the Boxer Rebellion or the Boxer episode in China… these are again examples where people with certain beliefs that they come across from charismatic leaders or from information that they seem to have or already are predisposed towards… they can get themselves into mass movements that are very violent.

Now, of course, that’s the extreme end of things. My point is just to say that these issues of mass hysteria based on very poor information because people are not thinking critically, they don’t have enough… you know, the variety of information or that they don’t look at it, it is a historical phenomenon.

In Singapore in the ’60s there was this Koro scare—nicely timed thunder—this Koro scare where people living in and around pig farms apparently believed that the new vaccination given to pigs would cause male penises to shrink into their bodies, causing death. It’s true, and that created a lot of hysteria. People were crowding hospitals, and that was based on erroneous information clearly, but it spread and the state effort to try to address this… So the Ministry of Health came about and said, “No, no, this is not true.” But they did in a fairly hamfisted way without really understanding how people came to believe in things and that actually exacerbated the problem. People felt “oh no, there must be something wrong here”, so it actually exacerbated the problem and more people went to the hospitals. Now, it was only through time-consuming, painstaking sort of outreach efforts that this disinformation was finally dispelled.

And this was all without the help of social media, without the help of the Internet. My point being that this sort of misinformation, willful disinformation—sorry, disinformation if it’s willful, misinformation if it’s not—has been around with human society since forever, really.

PJ Thum
You mentioned this in your submission to the Select Committee, I think. You said Koro was in 1967 and peaked around 97 cases a day, which in a population of just over a million back then is a huge, huge number. So clearly, we have this history of fake news spreading all throughout recorded history, fake news has been a problem. So what is it now that we are so concerned about, or that the current Singapore government is so concerned about, which I feel are probably two separate things?

Ian Chong
So I look at things quite broadly. So in terms of disinformation, my real concern is when these things get weaponised by states or by large well-resourced entities, including possibly terrorist organisations, corporations, so on and so forth. And the concern here is that they can cause a lot of chaos within society, they can cause a lot of distrust in state institutions, and also among individuals and groups within society.

That having been said, the fact that there are state actors involved in the creation and propagation of fake news, this is something that states tend to do a lot. When you think about propaganda, this is common to almost any state, any regime. They involve themselves in various kinds of propaganda. And when they do this, very often it’s targeted against particular individuals or groups they don’t like. And the other side of the use of the… manipulation of information, if you will, is the targeting of people who might be weaker positions. So there’s the protection of minorities and minority rights issues in a society, there’s also how society can be attacked.

So these are different aspects of security that relate to fake news and disinformation. So when you look at state entities going after people based on erroneous information, think about the Red Scare in the US in the ’50s, this is McCarthyism; people, especially people in the media and entertainment world, were branded as communists, as threats to national security. And they were persecuted, they were put in jail. If you look at places on the other side of the Cold War divide, whether this is during Stalin’s purges, or whether this is during the anti-rightist campaign, the Cultural Revolution, people in China were branded as rightists and they were targeted, they were put in jail, they were sometimes killed. And a lot of this is based on untrue information about whether these people were actually threats to the state or not.

Kirsten Han
But I think… like to back up a little bit, there’s also concern and, you know, not completely invalid that social media and the internet allows things to happen at scale and speed that’s new. So the fake news part is not new, but the scale and the speed is and there have been issues. A lot of people have pointed out how Facebook has facilitated violence in Myanmar and in Sri Lanka and they’ve been going on forever trying to get Facebook to do something about it. And it’s only now that Facebook is starting to move, so there are areas of concern that kind of trigger people to worry about this and I think what I’m worried about is when states or when powerful people leverage these sorts of valid concerns to then use it for their own goals as well.

Ian Chong
I will say one more other thing, apart from the scale and speed there’s also the variety. So apart from just TV, word of mouth, the radio. Now we talk about Facebook because it’s been in the news but more recent studies of the propagation of false information finds that when you look at chat platforms like WhatsApp, like LINE, like WeChat, they are full of false information that gets spread around and these are… it’s far more difficult to monitor and police the false information that comes across these trust networks.

PJ Thum
Now Terry, as a fellow editor-in-chief or fellow publisher of an online publication, I’m sure you’ve been accused of putting out fake news.

Terry Xu
Yeah, more than often.

PJ Thum
And so what happens then? Can you talk our listeners through what happens when the current government or the authorities accuse you of putting out fake news?

Terry Xu
Well, it depends. There are cases where I’m accused of putting out fake news, they will just put out a statement saying that “oh, TOC published a fake news and you have to believe me that they really did that” or they would take the approach of like suing us.

So the first time they did so was using POHA, the Protection from Harassment Act, and then they took us to court and we fought it out and eventually we won and they were therefore deprived of the use of POHA to defend themselves against the harassment, MINDEF particularly.

And I think that’s the two different approaches they basically do. Either they put out statements or they would go to Parliament and say that “oh, this is TOC has made false allegation” but with no evidence to back what they say.

As an example I think one particular occasion, K Shanmugam mentioned in Parliament saying that TOC lied during the Benjamin Lim’s case, where we reported on various accounts. One particular one that was mentioned during the Select Committee hearing, which is the T-shirts, that the police wore T-shirts with the “POLICE” word behind. So basically what the government did was to say that “oh, there was no such thing, the parent who actually told TOC was mistaken.” But they did nothing else to prove to the public that that’s the case. If you ask me, the best thing that they could do was to show CCTV footage of the police walking in with their clothes with no “POLICE” signs on it. But what they did was simply just for K Shanmugam to actually exercise parliamentary privilege and then therefore accuse TOC of lying in Parliament, without showing definite proof that TOC did lie.

And this is my problem with the government having the arbitrary, the final say in terms of truth, because it cannot be that they need not produce any evidence or produce any source to say that, okay, this person is lying, or this person is whatever, without proving to the public that that is the definite case.

PJ Thum
Yeah, I mean, I have experienced the same thing. I’ve been accused of lying very much about my historical research, but I have all these documents and citations and the government thus far has refused to produce, you know, a single piece of evidence to substantiate their side of the argument, and refused to declassify the documents that they definitely hold within, you know, Special… the Internal Security Department.

For the benefit of our audience, could you also explain briefly takedown orders, and how that has affected you?

Terry Xu
You know, it’s interesting, I only experienced one takedown order, which is the one that I got from IMDA. So they issued, on my birthday, 18th of September, they issued me a takedown order under the Internet Code of Conduct, saying that this particular letter which was published by Daniel De Costa—then known as Willy Sum—saying that it contravened the Internet Code of Conduct and therefore under this particular Act, so and so, I was to take down the letter within six hours. Which I did within the next hour or so and complied. And that was the case.

So people will wonder what if I do not take down the order? It’s quite amazing to me that if I were not to comply with the thing, it carries a jail sentence which I think is actually quite overbearing. I suppose that should be a revocation license or something pertaining to the action itself but in this case, if I were not comply with that takedown order, I would be subject to a jail sentence.

Ian Chong
How long is the maximum sentence, may I ask?

Terry Xu
I think two years?

Kirsten Han
But we’ve seen that that’s limited in scope right? So they also tried to issue… from what I understand they also tried to issue takedown orders to the States Times Review and Singapore Herald more recently because of the story that they put about Lee Hsien Loong being a key target in the 1MDB investigations which MAS and other government agencies debunked, and they sent the takedown and then States Times Review said “we refuse” but because they’re not in Singapore, there was limited, you know, repercussions. They could only block the site.

Terry Xu
So the thing is, right, for the letter which I got from IMDA… it addressed me as a licensee that they are in charge of. So whereas for… let’s say if platforms, say, States Times Review or TheCoverage.my, exist outside of Singapore and therefore they are not the licensee where IMDA has the authority over and therefore the takedown order that they issue to the different entities, right, it’s more like a “can you please take down” kind of request because our jurisdiction does not cover them, does not cross borders. So basically the takedown order does not actually… are unable to enforce the powers that is similar to me, TOC.

PJ Thum
Right, this license is the Internet Class License, right, so the way the law is worded, it actually covers everyone anywhere in the world but it can only be enforced if the people who run this site come into Singapore, is that correct? That’s my understanding.

Terry Xu
I don’t think so. It’s more like… if you reside in Singapore, you run a blog, you have your Facebook account, you have Twitter etc. Anything that basically is an electronic means of communication… so you have a default license. You don’t have to apply, you simply have it. Only like for weird entities like TOC, The Independent Singapore, the defunct Middle Ground, these three entities are given a special license by IMDA which compels them to declare their source of income, who are their editors… Other than that all the other bloggers or the other website holders are basically… they have a default license, only if they reside in Singapore.

Ian Chong
I suppose, though, if there are laws in foreign jurisdictions that pertain to takedown and all that, the Singapore state as a legal entity can probably challenge in a foreign court if they wanted to but they haven’t so far.

Terry Xu
But that only pertains to like defamation, I think particularly defamation because the other stuff like, say, public disorder and stuff, it’s a very different, it’s a very different ballgame. Where in Singapore we can say that, “oh, we have to act before that thing happened”. But in other countries, they will say that “okay, has that thing happened” because for them you have to prove that this really caused a certain thing happening first before, say, this person can be held accountable, held responsible, be charged for it.

Ian Chong
Maybe, but I mean, that this is a legal issue, right, that I suppose if the state were really, really committed, they can try to test. There’s nothing to stop them trying, they may lose the suit but they can try.

Terry Xu
Provided they have a law…

Ian Chong
Provided there’s a law in that jurisdiction.

Kirsten Han
But at the moment… so in our own jurisdiction, while we still haven’t seen the Bill, so we don’t actually have the law yet, but what we also don’t have at the moment is a working definition of “deliberate online falsehood” that people can understand. So, you know, there’s a lot of talk about fake news and a lot of talk about deliberate online falsehoods and how these are harmful, but we don’t know necessarily what, you know, the current PAP administration means when they say “deliberate online falsehood” and as we see with the TOC Benjamin Lim case, right, there was an accusation of malicious intent without it being found by the court. So it was… just stood up in Parliament and said TOC is running a malicious orchestrated campaign against the police and and that was not proven, right… not everything that turns up in the media that is wrong is evidence of malicious intent, even the most well-respected media publications get things wrong sometimes, because sources you interview might misremember things, that they might say something and then turned out that they were wrong, you might not have all the details at a time if it’s a developing story. If the government agencies don’t respond to you, you cannot be faulted for not having their side of the story.

So the it’s kind of well known that, you know, breaking news, developing news is not always the full story and fully accurate from that point, because it’s just based on what information you have at that point. So to then say, “oh, this was wrong, and therefore, it must be a malicious campaign” is really very troubling. Because it it kind of imposes intent without it being, having gone through a trial, without TOC being able to put their point of view…

Ian Chong
So an example on this. I was in Washington DC on 9/11. And one of the things that came about was, as you all know, the Pentagon was hit by aircraft, right? And from certain angles, it looks as if there was smoke coming out from the State Department, because it’s further down south that you have the Pentagon and what the news, the local news in DC was reporting was that there was a car bomb outside the State Department.

This caused a lot of panic, and people were already panicky, and there were lots of people in the streets. But this was clearly a wrong report. But if that panic had… it didn’t, but if it had caused a stampede and injuries, then what would the culpability be? I think in that case, it was a very confusing situation, the news report, the reporters were reporting based on what they felt was true, based on what information they were receiving, and should they then be culpable for something, right, so this is a real life example of how difficult it is to pinpoint what is deliberate or not. And also, just because something has negative effects doesn’t mean that the intention, right… there’s a difference between intention and outcome, right, that the intention was necessarily malicious.

Kirsten Han
And that’s one of the problems that I have with the term “fake news” or “deliberate online falsehoods” and that it seems to create this binary between, something’s either fake or it’s not fake. But you’re not taking into account the many ways that things reported or portrayed in the media.

So it might not be fake but it could be skewed, it might not be fake but has, you know, political slant, or a report that omits certain things. It’s not fake, but it’s not necessarily everything in the story. So people actually need to be encouraged to think about it in this way and to always be questioning rather than think, “Oh, this is a real story. And this is a fake story.”

PJ Thum
Yeah. Or it might not be fake, it might just be two genuine different opinions or people who remember the same situation in two different ways, right? If you’ve ever had an argument with a loved one and gone back to talk about it sometime later, I’m quite sure the two of you will have remembered that whole argument in very different ways. It happens to all of us, it’s human nature. And yet, you know, the problem is, then, as you said, trying to evaluate and codify and put this into statute, some sort of definition when human nature makes it impossible for us to ever define this, I guess.

Ian Chong
I think there’s also a belief, right, that there is a definite knowable truth out there that is unchanging. I suppose with some phenomenon that may be possible, but with lots of things, you know, our understanding changes as we get more information, as you know, things that we feel are extraneous goes away.

I mean, for a long time people believed that the world was flat, the Earth was flat, they didn’t believe in evolution. They believed that the sun revolved around the Earth, these sort of things, people sincerely held these beliefs, but as they got more information, well, they were disproved. So while there is some sort of, I suppose, celestial truth out there, the lived experience was very different.

PJ Thum
One example I’m reminded of, of course, is advertising, because when advertising was first sort of invented, and people started advertising products, the public tended to accept that unquestioningly, assuming that because it was in print and, you know, in in potentially authoritative places, like newspapers, that it was true. But over time, we have come to realise that advertising… Its goal is to sell us things and it it is actively seeking to manipulate us. So I think most people, you know, having grown up surrounded by advertising, accept that there is a whole manipulative aspect about it, and are naturally sceptical towards it.

So, it’s also how human society adapts and changes to changing circumstances regarding the information, regarding the sort of knowledge, the information that we are bombarded with on a daily basis, right, we adapt, we change and, you know, we learn to recognise and be more discerning just through a natural process of adaptation.

Ian Chong
I mean, you look at cola drinks, that we now know are sugary and bad for health for a variety of reasons. I mean, when they started off, right, they were marketed as medicinal products.

PJ Thum
Or cigarettes, cigarettes, healthy cigarettes, you know.

Kirsten Han
I mean, it’s all about the media literacy, right? So like when the Brothers Lumiere first screened one of their pioneer films, The Arrival of a Train, people actually started to run because they thought the train was actually coming at them. And it took awhile to be like, “oh, this is film, this is, you know, it’s not real, it’s just moving picture” and then people basically adjusted their reality to to understand what they’re seeing.

PJ Thum
So before we get into a deeper philosophical discussion about the nature of knowing…

Ian Chong
Sorry!

PJ Thum
To come back to what we were talking about, it seems to me that we’re all actually… you know, both the PAP government and us on the ground here today and other people around the world… We’re actually all worried about the same thing and that’s states, you know, weaponising propaganda?

We’re all worried about the same thing: states weaponising propaganda for their own purposes, right. And states are the main source of worry because they’re the ones with the resources with the power, the influence to be able to put across, their version or their perspective on the truth and in a very powerful, compelling way. But the difference is, it seems, that the current Singapore government is worried about foreign actors undermining their power to do that in Singapore. And us Singaporeans are worried about our own government doing that against us. And that seems to be the main divide with regards to why we are concerned about fake news.

Terry Xu
Probably take, for example… I don’t know whether you recall where there was a public uproar over the culling of jungle fowls. So the thing is, it’s very widely known that the jungle fowls here are the ones that are being narrated on BBC World, that they are endangered, that they’re a rare species, but AVA or the government, the PAP government itself, insisted that they are not endangered, they were just normal jungle fowls. And they even went to Parliament to say that “no they were not jungle fowls” and MP Louis Ng actually insisted that they were the ones that were actually endangered.

So going back… and then during the Select Committee, you have Janil saying that figures and statistics, the facts must come from… or the government should be part of them in order to be considered as true. So meaning, right, in that case, everyone knew that the jungle fowls that were being culled by AVA were basically the endangered ones. But the thing is that the government simply insisted that they were not and that becomes the truth. So in the event, say, if the law were to come out as what we predict to be, someone writes that “oh the government has culled endangered jungle fowl”. And the person who wrote that, basically, is considered in violation of the deliberate online falsehoods because the government has already said that it is not true. But yet he still went ahead and publish it. And as a publisher, that’s what I’m actually concerned about, that the government becomes an arbiter of truth.

Ian Chong
And I’d add also something else that doesn’t, hasn’t come up as much in the public discussion, but worries me as somebody who tries to study and look at security, which is if there is so much authority and trust put into state agencies…

Basically, we don’t have any redundancy in terms of looking at ways of verifying information, ways of looking at veracity and seeking confirmation and corroboration. If I were a malicious external entity that actually makes… As I was saying, if I were a malicious, external entity with lots of resources, that actually makes my work easier. What I can do then do is to spoof the official information, or if I’m able to and committed to doing so, I can take them over and then spread far more pernicious, confusing information through state channels that originally had the trust of the population. And the net effect of this over time, it’s to really erode public trust in any sort of source of information, it has the ability to create a lot of confusion.

And so you know, if I really wanted to mess things up as a foreign state entity, that’s what I would do. And these laws or legislation that target domestic actors, sometimes corporations that may be international, they don’t really go, they don’t really deal with this problem in anywhere as effective a manner as I think would be ideal. Because look, if I were intent on creating a lot of confusion, then sites, whether it’s TOC or New Naratif or Straits Times or TODAY or Zaobao, they’re expendable. It’s great if I get them shut down. It’s great if I make people not trust them. And so, you know, I would go in, these sites get somehow undermined… wonderful, then I’ll go on to the next one.

And ultimately, at the end of the day, you would have shot all your few sites that might otherwise have, you know, some veracity or trust. So by putting all our eggs in one basket and demanding that there’s such concentration over the arbitration of what is true, what is not, that actually exposes our society in some degree to greater risk, because we have, instead of spreading out our risk, we have pooled it. We have concentrated it.

PJ Thum
Right, so there’s only one source of the “truth”, whoever controls that source, controls the truth and has the ability to cause a lot of damage. And as we discussed in this podcast a few weeks ago, our government cybersecurity doesn’t seem to be very strong. So we can’t even have confidence that there are good measures out there to prevent our government computers from being hacked. Given all that’s happened in the past couple of months, right… we don’t even have that confidence in the government’s… in the state administration’s cybersecurity.

Ian Chong
So that’s one side of the issue, right, which I think is important and you guys have touched on but there’s the other side of it, too, and this will come up with the cyberattack on SingHealth. Which is, okay, so you are able to fend things off to a certain degree, you are able to maybe contain the damage in one instance. But what can you then do to prevent further occurrences?

Like I said, right, if I were a concerted state actor that wanted to target Singapore, I’d look for all kinds of targets to go after to really mess up your society. So then the question would be, “If I’m going to stop for the recurrences, what kind of countermeasures do I need to take?” And your laws are not going to be very useful… I mean, are you going to then try to arrest a foreign head of state or the head of a foreign intelligence service?

And then when you do think about countermeasures, are you going to do disinformation back? Are you going to look for other asymmetric measures? You can do that, but then there’s also the risk of escalation. Because the question will be, then, can you control the escalation? Will you in your response make things worse and will you potentially have things spin out of control and then everyone would be worse off and I think what strikes me about the Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods is that it completely left out this discussion.

Terry Xu
No, but the thing is, I think it’s actually pretty confusing. What do they seek to achieve through this deliberate online falsehood Bill?

As Ian mentioned, the Bill doesn’t seem to be able to address foreign intervention, if they were to be, say if the CIA or China were to really intervene by say, investing in so-called local media etc. They only can get the runners, meaning the people who run the platforms, people who post on the WhatsApp or social media posting, but they can’t do anything to the perpetrators.

And in fact the existing law already addressed this issue of having to… if someone were to collaborate with external powers the government has already got the power to apprehend or to call this person in for questioning. This fake news law seeks to address the source but clearly it doesn’t.

And also inside the whole discussion, I remember one of the examples mentioned was the Myanmar fake news where it caused a riot with temples being burned etc. But the thing is that fake news was sanctioned by the government. If that news was not sanctioned by government, was, say, Rohingya being hit by say the army… the army or the state media would have come out and clarified the matter and everyone will be notified that this is the case.

And see the disparity: if this information is perpetuated by a foreign force and is so-called unfavorable to the government, any authoritarian government would will find it easy to address the disinformation through the various networks they have. But disinformation that is perpetuated by the government or by forces that’s friendly to the establishment would find it very easy to just perpetuate this, because there’s no alternative source to so-called push down the thing.

Ian Chong
So that’s an important point because it’s about restraint on authority, which is quite key. Because right now we’re assuming that the authorities, the state institutions, they will always be somehow even-handed and effective. But that’s a assumption. And in cases like I said, if they are being compromised from the outside, or sometimes they may be compromised from within, looking forward, your laws need to be able to account for these sorts of possibilities.

Because your laws aren’t just for the here and now, they’re supposed to be, you know, very wide-ranging, they’re supposed to be able to cover into the future to take into account these other possibilities as well. And the fact that we’re not really having a discussion about this in public is to me quite worrisome, because we are, I guess, in Singapore, very familiar with one set of approaches to rule and to governance. But I think it would be dangerous to assume that this will always be the case.

Terry Xu
And in this law, sorry, in this proposal it’s very likely that the government will be exempted from being charged under so-called spreading of misinformation, as it did in, say, the Administration of Justice Act, as it did in whatever new laws are coming out, you always find that the PAP government is exempted from the legislation.

Kirsten Han
That’s one discussion we didn’t see in the Select Committee or any other discussions about fake news, right? What happens when it is the the people in power who are doing it; we didn’t hear anything about checks on abuses of power, checks on figures of authority who might engage in propaganda and astroturfing and whatnot.

And so it seems like, what we’re really concerned about is this confluence of factors, that one, we don’t know whether it would apply to the state itself, and it seems like it might not. It doesn’t seem like if it is really about stopping foreign interference and foreign disinformation campaigns, it doesn’t seem like legislation would be effective, but it would probably be super effective on targeting local actors who would probably, even if they were involved in the problem, be very small fish. So it seems like what the problem is, is that we are going to… we might bring in a law that’s not effective against the very big problems, but could have the effect of really affecting freedom of expression in Singapore.

Ian Chong
Freedom of expression, and also, given the examples I said, our actual security. That, I think, is what worries me the most. The real sort of hardcore security issues that we need to be worried about, that’s just not discussed for some reason.

Kirsten Han
So we could be heading towards a very massive own goal and not talking about it.

Ian Chong
Possibly.

PJ Thum
So what should we do? It seems like the most serious problems that we have, we were talking about them, but they’re actually not addressable by the government. And even where they are, our government seems very… our current government is very intent on, you know, scoring an own goal. So what can we do? What should the government do, and what can we do about this problem?

Ian Chong
So what should be done in the abstract is one, there needs to be independent fact-checking, and multiple sources of independent fact-checking. It’s not so much that the state tells you what it is; this independence is important for credibility, it is important for trust, so people can cross-check across different platforms that may have slightly different methodologies. Now, that’s one.

The other is to have a population that is more critical of the information that they receive, that’s more willing to question and to look for a different angles on any given issue. So that ability, I think, helps to inoculate the population against disinformation.

Of course, for concerted efforts it’s going to be very difficult. But this gives a certain degree of protection. And it’s both a state-led effort, in a sense of being able to mobilise the resources to do this, the public education, the most effective way is probably for the state to fund it. But of course, you don’t want too much… you want the funding, but you don’t want too much state direction, given the risk of state overreach that I talked about. So you also need more civil society actors, you need more freedom of press, more transparency, such that people can more easily make up their minds and become familiar with ways of checking information.

I mean, one of the things that’s quite interesting that has come up now that the issue of disinformation has been out there for a while… People who tend to be more susceptible to disinformation tend to be in the older demographic, people who are less familiar with the sort of multiple competing voices, even contending voices that you see online and on social media. So that suggests that what PJ had mentioned earlier, this familiarity with difficult, complex, sometimes contradictory information is a very useful ability to have, and it’s something that individuals probably need to acquire. But, you know, to do so, obviously takes time and effort and all that. So, it’s a bit of a challenge in that sense, but it’s the first line of defence in any case.

Kirsten Han
The Select Committee report does make, you know, it makes good recommendations and problematic recommendations. Among the good recommendations are things like media literacy campaigns and education, which I don’t think anyone would really have a quarrel with; everybody agrees that media literacy education is good.

Then there are recommendations that are good, but I think people should ask further questions. So, for example, there was a recommendation about supporting and fostering quality journalism in Singapore, which on the surface sounds like, again a thing… who’s going to argue with wanting quality journalism? But I think in the Singaporean context, we should really question what does that mean, and whether that actually can be achieved among the other recommendations, which include things like, the government should get powers via legislation to defund platforms that we say publish fake news, and we don’t know what they mean when they say “deliberate online falsehoods”, we don’t know who gets to decide if the platform is spreading deliberate online falsehoods.

But one of the recommendations was that the government will have the power to defund these sites by basically blocking them from taking advertising and therefore blocking them from making money, which could have an effect if the government is just going to declare, like, for example, declare that TOC is publishing fake news, as they have already, without it being found in court. Then they could then take the step and say, well, TOC now doesn’t get any advertising. And if TOC doesn’t get any advertising, how are you going to fund yourself?

One of the recommendations was also that the government should have the power to break the vitality of fake news spreading on social media. That should be effective in a matter of hours, which suggests to me that this is not something that is going through a court, this is going to come in a sort of executive takedown order sort of fashion. And that was actually one of the suggestions during the Select Committee, there were people who presented and said, “oh, you should have an executive takedown order.” And then the safety mechanism is if people are unhappy, they can seek a judicial review to get the thing reinstated. But if we think about it, you know, in the Singaporean context, who is going to take the government to court? Who is going to come out with that money and the time to actually go to court over say, one Facebook post?

Ian Chong
I think also the virality approach looks to a particular kind of platform, which is the public sort. So it can address the Twitters of the world, it can address the Facebooks of the world.

But another source of disinformation comes from these private messaging networks, right. So your WhatsApp, your LINE, your WeChat, just to name a few. Facebook messaging. So what happens here is it’s far more psychological. It’s because you have these networks of trust, that information gets spread. So you know, if I trust PJ and Kirsten trusts me… And Terry somehow get some false information to PJ and he sends it along to me via some private messaging service, and I figure, “oh well, it comes from PJ, you know, he’s an established historian (of sorts!) but anyway I trust what he says” and I pass it along to Kirsten and she says, “oh Ian, sure I know this guy, he’s sort of odd, but you know, I generally trust what he has to say” and this is how a lot of that virality happens.

Now, I mention these private messaging networks because they’re very hard to monitor. And then even if you are able to monitor and catch some of the the ways it spread, you know, how are you going to catch all the different areas in which this news going out? That’s extremely difficult.

Yes, you talk about, okay, so WhatsApp is under Facebook and all that, you can pressure the home company. Yes, that may be true, but for other corporations that don’t have a Singapore presence like LINE, like Naver, which is behind it. Or WeChat; what are you gonna do about them? Will the governments that support them, or are closely related to them, be susceptible to the pressure from the Singapore state? That remains an open question. So that issue of virality, I think, is only partially addressed, and based on a certain understanding of how virality works, and leaves a broad area uncovered.

And this is actually a realistic problem, because what happened with the last municipal and local elections in Taiwan was that a lot of disinformation was being spread, but it was being spread through LINE. There were some effort to create bots that could you then, you know, put in correctives and all that, but it’s still very, very challenging.

Kirsten Han
And there’s only so far you can push a tech company, right? Because tech companies are not under pressure from Singapore alone, they have other pressures. So for example, Mark Zuckerberg recently announced that Facebook is now going to care a lot about privacy. And we are going to, you know, do this and that about privacy. They still have their data centre in Singapore, so people are already asking questions about that. But if they are under so much pressure around the world to emphasise privacy, you’re not going to be able as the Singapore government, or any single government, say “break your end-to-end encryption for WhatsApp so I can see it” because a tech company will just be like “this affects our bottom line, this affects our business model in the big scale of things”. Why would they do that?

Ian Chong
So this, you’re looking at more international level kinds of regulation, which are extremely hard to do. So we’ve seen this with climate change, there are efforts, right, but they’re extremely difficult. There are more slightly more successful efforts with, say, chemical weapons and land mines. But still, these processes take a lot of time. And it’s not something that any single state can address on their own.

But that also brings us to the question of: if we are then making ourselves susceptible to some sort of international agreement, that is actually also inviting foreign interference in how we run our domestic politics. And so sometimes our thinking about the distinction between domestic politics and foreign interference, that line is very broad and actually very muddy. So if looking at foreign interference is part of the problem, it’s actually part of the solution as well. There must be better ways of understanding foreign interference or influence, or foreign actors working in Singapore’s domestic context. Because it does exist, it happens actually quite often.

So when you think about foreign chambers of commerce, the changes in the foreign labour law, I mean that’s lobbying. When you look at organisations like REDAS (Real Estate Developers’ Association of Singapore), they will have partners, associate members, who are Japanese engineering firms or Korean engineering firms. And when they lobby, they lobby for their interests as well. So to sort of just assume that everything is foreign is somehow suspicious and bad, and not to get a better understanding about how we need to really manage and work with these multiple kinds of influences in a society and economy as open as Singapore’s is actually quite problematic.

PJ Thum
It doesn’t even have to be foreign organisations lobbying, right? Our prime minister has said, you know, Singaporeans need to tighten our belts and accept more competitive wages, basically lower wages, otherwise, foreign direct investment will go elsewhere, not come into Singapore. So it doesn’t even have to be a specific organisation, specific company, but rather this whole idea that because our economy is so heavily dependent on foreign investment, and foreign money, foreign multinationals, it then gives them far greater say, far greater influence over our economic policy, and even our social policy in all sorts of ways without us having to even think about whether it’s just one organisation.

Ian Chong
So when it comes to looking at foreign influence and domestic politics, this is a conversation that needs to be far more widespread and needs to be far more informed. So, yes, you know, if there’s going to be foreign influence, fine. Of course, there are broad structural forces, like investment and all that, that’s really hard to do anything about, but when it comes to regulation, you know, perhaps putting on the table, rather than say, “well, there’s a lot of astroturfing”… Well, yes, that’s only one part of the issue. But okay, which are the areas of foreign influence that are problematic, which are not? If there are foreign firms who are doing certain things, when you have foreign CEOs calling up the prime minister to say, “well, you need to deregulate my electric vehicle”, for instance… Which kinds of foreign interference are permissible, which are not? There’s not very much clarity, that’s an area that I think needs a lot of improvement, if we are going to try to tackle this thing about foreign interference and disinformation and have a law that is more effective, and policies that are more workable.

Kirsten Han
There’s a lot of suspicion and scepticism over this foreign interference discussion, because people have seen foreign interference used as a justification for a lot of things. So, for example, the reason that Pink Dot needs to happen with a fence around it is because “foreign interference” in domestic politics, you know, to the point where you need to get ID checked to go to a rally for equal rights, which is a fairly universal thing.

So, you know, it really runs the risk of people just seeing this as, “oh, this is just another power play”. And that really affects public trust, right? So people don’t trust that you actually want, for the good of Singapore, to deal with foreign interference. People just think, “oh, this is this is a power grab.”

Ian Chong
Here’s where authority comes in. Because if I were a foreign entity, and I wanted to affect politics in Singapore, or any country, you know… yes, there are some occasions where you want to create a lot of chaos. But often that is not the case. If you want to effect change, you go for the powerful, you go for the establishment. And so with this talk about foreign interference, what we do not see are things like disclosure laws, right, when you have senior public servants or political appointees… you know, when do they come to contact in situations that might possibly be construed as lobbying? What other kinds of activities are these? What do we want to proscribe? What do we want to allow? To what degree do we want to have reporting that is either to the parliament or open to the public, generally, so people can understand what are the different interests that are at play. This is something that we haven’t really discussed very much in Singapore, and for a talk of disinformation and foreign influence, it leaves a big gap in the sort of set of things that you need to do.

Kirsten Han
That reminds me of a comment that was made on Facebook that I thought was hilarious during the time when they announced that New Naratif could not be registered because of foreign influence, because of our Open Society funding. My favourite Facebook comment at the time was somebody going, “But why would they do that? Like, if there was foreign interference, why would they not like go for the powerful or hire their own, you know, super PR campaign? Why would someone who wants to have foreign interference go, I am going to fund a freelance journalist, a historian and a comics artist. And in 30 years, my world domination will be complete! Muahahaha!” Why would you do that? You would just go for the powerful, especially if you really wanted to run that influence, that’s the social circle that you’re trying to get into.

Ian Chong
Exactly. Which goes back to this area that we talked about earlier about, okay, so we have all these laws, but how does it restrain those in power, those in authority? Because I think we would be naive and perhaps even irresponsible to think that people in positions of power and authority cannot be compromised somehow.

And this doesn’t have to be sort of nefarious, because of any sort of greed, particular greed on their part. I mean, when you look at the SingHealth breach, for instance, there’s a pattern that’s out there now with cyberattacks where attackers go for financial information, they go for health information, they go for personal information, and then they’ll use artificial intelligence to trawl through this data, they will look for things like, is a person in a position of authority susceptible to embarrassment, because of health issues, or maybe financially they are in trouble. Or actually more perniciously, if you have somebody who has a close loved one, a child, for instance, who is really, really sick, and they need very particular kinds of medical assistance, then maybe you can go up to this person and “look, you know, I can offer you whatever the sort of specialised medical assistance is, and you just have to do whatever it is for me.” And under those circumstances, incentives are very, very different. The sort of standard kinds of ways we think about deterrence, by exerting a lot of threat, that won’t work.

So there are these things that, again, there are these huge, huge gaps that we need to address. And also, I think, when you when you look at the sort of other stuff I talked about in terms of AI and health information, it’s not something that is unique to Singapore. I mean, the reports have been out there about the health insurance breaches in the US, in Taiwan and Australia, and Europe, this is where things seem to be pointing towards. But we’ve not had discussions about that even in relation to the SingHealth cyberattack. And by the way, you don’t need people necessarily who are important political appointees or senior civil servants, right? You can go for a systems manager, you can go for somebody’s personal assistant, that’s good enough, as long as they have access.

PJ Thum
Yeah, and it seems like access is really easy to come by, in our system. Given the recent breaches.

Ian Chong
Well, what it seems like to me is that we have a lot of trust in authority. So we tend to centralise information a lot, rather than to compartmentalise. Such that if you are able to breach one node in a position of authority, you get access to a whole hoard of information, as opposed to if it’s broken up, you may get the sort of… the mitigation, if you will, you may be able get some if you compromise, but you’re not able to get all, you may not be able to piece things together. That makes any breach more difficult to achieve success.

And we’ve so far been thinking a lot about what’s stopping the breaches and less about what do we do if it happens. And given the environment of how things happened with disinformation with cyberattacks, they will happen and they will keep happening. In a way, it’s a bit like, you know, marine engineering and architecture, right, you build lots of watertight compartments, such that if some are compromised, your whole vessel doesn’t sink.

PJ Thum
So coming back to us citizens, then, you know, is the solution to just have a healthy scepticism towards authority? Or rather, not the solution, but all we can do right now, scepticism towards authority, try and develop more critical thinking and just try and educate ourselves… Because that’s a lot of effort for every citizen.

Ian Chong
Absolutely, I mean, these are things that citizens ideally should do. But I recognise there are real costs to doing this in terms of time, in terms of effort. Some of this push can come from the state, but the state, I think, in this case, should really trust its citizens that, you know, we all do want the same thing, which is the good of our society. We may construe and understand it in different ways, and we then need a conversation in order for these kinds of processes to happen, about how to fund and which directions to go. But that’s not something we really have enough.

I would also say that to get better institutions, better laws, this is something that citizens can ask for and should ask for. This is what your parliamentarians are for. When you look at polls—this is elections, right?—these are things that you should voice and ask the various political parties and candidates who are running for office for. That’s part of the election process.

Kirsten Han
I think it’s also, you know, while you educate yourself, which doesn’t necessarily have to mean that everybody is studying to PhD levels of understanding of everything… sometimes it’s just as simple as “well, I read this, let me go and Google an article from a different publication to see if they bring up something else”. Or “before I forward this WhatsApp message, let me just go and check it first, before I sent to like 200 other friends”.

It could be simple things like that, but also not forgetting to push back against attempts to use these as a justification to clamp down further. So, you know, to push back against things that erode due process, to push back against things that are not transparent and to demand more information, better information, more transparency. That’s why at the Select Committee, I’d mentioned freedom of information, and that’s something that every Singaporean can benefit from.

Ian Chong
And I think on that level, right, also to push for… to actually support independent fact-checking services, in the plural, and also support independent journalism. I’m making a plug for you guys here.

Terry Xu
Basically, what Kirsten says is true in terms of having the people have the ability to check for themselves. A diverse media environment, and also having the government to really embrace the idea of transparency. The figures that it holds, it cannot try to conflate things together and say, “oh, this is the story”. Particularly Singaporeans and PRs, they like to conflate together so there are a lot of figures that it should be putting in bare figures. And for independent fact-checkers or media platforms to refer to and come with their narrative and explain to the people whether or not certain stories are true or certain stories are not true. Whether it’s on CPF, whether it’s on healthcare expenses, etc.

And I personally don’t believe that legislation is the way forward to ensure that there’s no deliberate falsehood, particularly in scepticism that the government are the perpetrators of fake news.

Ian Chong
I would be a little bit more pessimistic, because I think that falsehoods are out there, it’s here to stay. Historically, it’s always been the case. It’s a matter of how you deal with it. It’s not that you can eradicate it. I think that’s really quixotic, right, to believe that you can eradicate disinformation.

Kirsten Han
Yeah, I think to build on that, some level of personal introspection is always important. To question yourself as well, whether the assumptions that you hold are actually true, whether you’ve actually have evidence for these things that you believe.

So for example, over the past year, there was this big, scandalous story about how an award-winning journalist from a German publication had turned out to actually have made up a whole bunch of his stories. And he was found out because he wrote a story about some small American town, and the people who live in that town were like, “yeah, that’s not us, you’ve literally made up all that stuff” and it forced a lot of reflection upon how could this possibly happen because he was very well-respected at his paper and in his field. And one of the comments that came out of that was because the stories that he’d written about small town America play into so many German assumptions and stereotypes about small town America that people didn’t even think, to fact check. Because it just reinforced things that they believe that we’re not actually true that they didn’t even realize that there might be something to check.

So, you know, some of the most dangerous sorts of things that we don’t check, because we assume them to be true, and actually not.

Ian Chong
One of the big issues here is confirmation bias. Because as humans we are comforted by when we feel we’re right, and when we see information that is discordant with what we believe we generally feel unsettled… the cognitive dissonance, right? So there’s a tendency, when you see things that conform to what you believe, you want to believe them, even though they may or may not be true. So that ability for self-introspection, to question yourself and your assumptions is really, really quite key. So whether it’s dealing with online falsehoods, whether it’s dealing with public policy, these should not be acts of faith, right? Understanding policy and law, these are not acts of faith, they demand understanding, they demand a certain standard of proof, of evidence.

Kirsten Han
That’s where I get worried as well. Because if we have laws that would allow for content to be taken down, and people to be sued and jailed and everything because it doesn’t gel with what we believe, or we feel that it spreads disharmony in society, and all these different ways to stop people from talking, creating an environment where people are not challenged with seeing things that they don’t agree with. And they’re not learning how to deal with conflict and disagreeing with one another in good faith, then we actually erode that, we actually wrote the self-introspection because then you don’t see anything that challenges you, you just kind of go along with it, right? And be like, “oh, if the officials say that it’s true, it must be true”. And you create an environment where you don’t have to deal with conflict. And it actually makes you very bad at dealing with conflict. So when it inevitably comes up, what we get is panic and anger and things getting very personal, very fast, rather than a society that actually knows how to engage in discussion.

Ian Chong
Just because you don’t like something or you feel offended by something doesn’t mean that you need to eradicate it, or think that it comes from a really, you know, from ill intent. And in Singapore, I think we’ve gotten to a stage where sometimes we forget this, where we are very easily offended. Easy to call offence, at least… I don’t know whether people actually really feel offended, but they call offence. And once they have that, they want to shut down, they really lash out. Now for a society that’s increasingly plural, that is faced with increasingly different sources of information, to label everything you don’t like as disinformation actually does a disservice to the society. It means that you’re less able to deal with complexity or less able to deal with difficult issues. And as a society, you end up being more brittle and more prone to breakdown.

PJ Thum
So how do we figure out if something is false? Like, you know, on a very practical level, rather than a sort of theory of knowledge “what is truth” level? But if I’m an ordinary citizen, how do we actually figure out whether what I’m reading, this forward that I just got from my auntie on WhatsApp, you know, this thing that I’m reading on Facebook… how do we figure out if it’s true or false?

Ian Chong
I’m being told that anything that comes from PJ is by default false, is that true?

PJ Thum
Well, then we get into an interesting problem because what happens if I say “yes, everything I say is false”? Ahhh…

Kirsten Han
We’re going to need way longer for this podcast.

I think the first thing would be… it doesn’t hurt to just go Google and look up another source. If turns out that it’s true, then, you know, great! But if it turns out that it’s false then you would have stopped yourself from forwarding something false to somebody else.

Terry Xu
Say a WhatsApp message says that the law minister said something something… so he has a certain quote that’s attributed to him or her. So you just simply go to Google and just type out the exact words and see if there’s any latest news that basically says that this person… If there isn’t then you have to question, so where did this quote come from? It must have come from somewhere. So if just a very fast search on Google does not net any result you can safely say that this is something that I wouldn’t want to forward to anyone.

Say if it’s a picture of a HDB collapse, a collapsed HDB, or part of the wall has collapsed, then very easy, you just simply go to Google again, say “wall collapsed HDB Singapore” and if it is happening, immediately we see it. It is impossible for something that’s that important to appear on your WhatsApp and not be reported. Unless you tell me that it’s your friend who saw this thing and forwarded to you immediately to say “friend, friend this is what happened” but if it’s a forwarded message, meaning you don’t know how many times it has been forwarded, that means it should be a third, fourth, fifth account and the news would have caught it already.

Kirsten Han
Another thing to do, which a lot of us fall for—and I definitely fall for—is to check the date in the bylines of articles, because sometimes this isn’t fake news technically, but old articles resurface and people react to them as if they’re new. And so, you know, things like “how dare this MP say this” and it’s like, no, actually, she said that two years ago, and maybe has since apologised or something, and then it resurfaces again. And people get angry again. So that’s a very common thing, because it could come from sources that are reputable. But just because we’ve missed out the date, we don’t realise that it’s an old article.

Terry Xu
So it’s a backdated reaction. Two years late.

Ian Chong
Lag effect…

So I guess I generally try to be sceptical, but I agree that sometimes things from reputable sources, you know, that are backdated… that’s something that I’ve sometimes sort of made mistakes on. Now, generally, I suppose I try…. My friends and family tell me this, “why are you always also sceptical?” Maybe that’s sort of a professional disease. But I mean, I try to be sceptical with things and try to see if there are other places you can corroborate information. That’s a good thing to start. And I mean, you obviously don’t do this with every single thing that you come across. But those that you think are sort of important, obviously you would want to forward things to your friends and family, because you think it’s important enough. And if that’s the case, see if you can corroborate it. I think that’s the the basic principle. I mean, other than bits about saying, “okay, well, I would like more transparency. But, you know, if I don’t have that, what do I do?” So this is where I think having more information out there for people to be able to find is actually useful rather than less.

PJ Thum
What about stuff that, like, for my work, a lot of people tell me that it’s simply too cheem for them to understand. All these historical arguments, you know, but the historical arguments are at the crux of the dispute between our current government and myself, if I can call it that… disagreement. And, of course, my position is that there are multiple perspectives on any situation, whereas they seem very intent on tarring me as a complete liar, but how would an ordinary Singaporean or anyone approach this situation where you have a lot of very technical arguments about the nature of historical proof. And, you know, so not even just an academic thing, but, say, a debate over policy where there is a lot of very technical arguments going on about economic policy or transport policy or healthcare, how would a Singaporean approach that?

Ian Chong
So I think there are two issues when it comes to policy. One is, you know, if there are actual facts, right, statistics and so on and so forth…. Now facts are one thing. Facts in and of themselves don’t carry meaning, you know, when we do policy and all that they matter to us, or they have implications because we ascribe certain meanings to them.

And so, I think sometimes it’s useful, and maybe we don’t do this well enough… to understand that lots of times when we are putting across a policy or a law they are based on a certain understanding of facts, right, so a lot of it comes down to your prior beliefs in a way. You can disagree whether you want to be more market-oriented in your economy or more welfarist. It’s not right, necessarily right or wrong, there are pros and cons to both. But ultimately, where people lean on, it comes down to where, what they discount more, what they put a premium on. “I think, well, profits are really, really important.” Or “I think having some sort of distribution and social stability is more important”. I think to understand that there are certain issues where there’s not going to be a happy “oh we all see the same truth and see the same thing”… To accept, right, that there will be this tension, there will be things that make you uncomfortable and you just have to keep talking about it and you don’t have any quick resolution is something that perhaps we can do more of in Singapore.

Terry Xu
It’s hard for the common Singaporean, or common layman to understand the nuances of the debates that you have. But it’s easier if they were to break down to specific parts, like whether Lee Kuan Yew lied about the so-called… whether Lee Kuan Yew actually broke his promise to the Barisan about retracting this ISA, for example. I mean, that’s actually easier and very straightforward for people to understand. But if we were to look at the grander scale, it’s very hard because there’s different interpretation of different…

Ian Chong
So I think that’s a good example. Because whether or not Lee Kuan Yew broke his promise to the Barisan is a fact, but whether or not it was something necessary at the time is an interpretation that people will have, and people have very sharply divided views, but that’s fine. We need to learn to live with these kinds of things.

Terry Xu
So with the so-called small little facts, as has been established, accepted by both sides and the individual basically gets one’s interpretation, or interpretation of how that whole segment of history transpired. I mean, that’s easier for us to move forward, rather than really an endgame, whether the PAP was justified to do this or not, I mean, that’s too wide of a position.

PJ Thum
Yeah, you guys are describing, I think, a really good strategy where, first of all, you know, not to sit down and try and solve everything yourself, but to discuss it with other people and to start exploring different perspectives. And then to, you know, especially people with different perspectives from you, right, have a good honest conversation and then try and find common ground through facts, right, and realise that the difference between you is not really the facts, but your values, your interpretation of it, which can be equally valid. And through that, come to a far greater understanding of the situation. And I think that’s fundamentally the most important thing for us Singaporeans, we need to really have more conversations and learn to talk to each other a lot more about very sensitive issues, important issues, and to do so in a very constructive and safe way.

Ian Chong
It’s not about imposing your view, or convincing the other person. That’s not going to happen…

Terry Xu
Or starting petition…

Ian Chong
It’s about how we learn to live with our differences and make good use of them, rather than to say, “well, because I don’t like what you say, I will have to silence you. And, you know, make sure you can never speak again”, or something like that.

Kirsten Han
Yeah, I think we really emphasise sometimes too much that we think what is right and true must have consensus. So we tend to get into discussions where essentially what we’re doing is trying to browbeat each other into having some sort of consensus, but maybe what we should be doing is accept that there are some things on which people will never have consensus. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Ian Chong
And to accept that maybe you could be wrong. I mean, as people who… well PJ and I are people who try to submit things to journals. We get over wrong, and our arguments are stupid all the time.

PJ Thum
Yeah!

Ian Chong
So you sort of get used to it. It’s like, it’s not that big a deal.

PJ Thum
Yeah. Okay. On that note, I’m reminded of a quote by Socrates, which is that the only true wisdom is to know that you don’t know anything, and I think that’s a really important quote for us to keep in mind as we try and tackle fake news, disinformation and all these, you know, huge challenges that we collectively face as a society going forward.

Ian Chong
Aiyah, so nihilistic.

PJ Thum
Would you prefer a different quote?

Ian Chong
No, no, it’s fine. I was just joking.

PJ Thum
Okay. So I’d like to thank our guests, Ian Chong and Terry Xu, thank you very much guys for joining us.

Ian Chong
Thanks a lot!

 

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