As expected, the messages circulate on WhatsApp and other closed messaging apps. Some claim to be coming from front-line healthcare workers in Singapore, others from “friends of friends” who can never be tracked down. Many more are simply left unsigned, with no way for an average receiver to check the message’s provenance.
The information contained in such forwarded messages ranges from the misinformed to the outright made-up. As Singapore’s reported COVID-19 cases climb—with the majority coming from migrant worker dormitories—some have also propagated racist and xenophobic narratives, claiming that male migrant workers would spread the virus to female migrant domestic workers who would then infect their employers; that migrant workers are dirty and only have themselves to blame for getting COVID-19; or even that migrant workers want and try to get infected with the virus because they can then get paid for not working.
All these claims are outrageous and untrue: migrant domestic workers who tested positive for COVID-19 were mostly infected by their employers; substandard work and living conditions left migrant workers vulnerable to virus transmission; and my own interactions with migrant workers, as well as those by NGO workers, have only found them to be anxious and fearful of catching a dangerous and still poorly understood virus. Yet the messages continue to be forwarded from one chat to another, validating problematic views already existing within Singaporean society. Given the barriers to tracking these messages, it is difficult to know how widely they have travelled, but multiple people have told me similar stories about receiving them (sometimes from more than one chat group), and related sentiments have popped up on social media.
Yet the messages continue to be forwarded from one chat to another, validating problematic views already existing within Singaporean society.
If one looks up the Singapore government’s justification of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (more commonly known as POFMA), this should be the sort of thing the law is meant to address. In his speech during the second reading of the bill in May 2019, Minister for Law K Shanmugam referenced the spreading of false stories—believed to be created by foreign sources—propagating harmful and divisive narratives in the United Kingdom about refugees and immigration. He described them as having “created a permissive environment for hate”, leading to a rise in hate crimes.
According to the POFMA’ed database, a little over half of the 52 POFMA orders issued since its coming into force in October 2019 have been related to the COVID-19 outbreak in Singapore, ranging from rumours of a COVID-19 death (back when Singapore had not yet recorded any related deaths) to claims about the shortage of face masks. Yet these correction orders and clarifications have yet to address racist rhetoric that further stigmatises an already marginalised segment of Singapore’s working class.
During POFMA’s second reading, Senior Minister of Law Edwin Tong said that POFMA will even cover closed platforms like chat apps. Despite this, no POFMA order has materialised to combat falsehoods circulating on platforms like WhatsApp and WeChat. This is possibly because, despite Tong’s statements about POFMA’s reach, chain messages on closed or encrypted apps can’t be targeted with correction notices or takedown orders. And while POFMA leaves open the option of a “general correction direction”, the practicality of sending a message to every Singaporean WhatsApp user—regardless of whether they’ve received the original false message or not—is highly questionable, if even technically achievable. As the student-run website Class Notes has pointed out, the government has used clarifications on its own platforms to debunk falsehoods circulating via text messaging and chat apps.
Meanwhile, the government is also trapped in a ludicrous cat-and-mouse game with the Australia-based Alex Tan, publisher of anti-People’s Action Party platforms like States Times Review (STR). STR’s content is known to be unreliable and likely to pander to xenophobic tendencies, and Tan has been the recipient of multiple correction directions. He has stubbornly refused to comply with any of them. When an order was issued to disable Singaporeans’ access to the STR Facebook page, he simply went off and set up a new page to continue peddling skewed narratives and false claims. At the beginning of June, the government had to issue a new disabling order to cut off access to National Times Singapore, another Tan-operated Facebook page. It is likely that he will set up another page to plague us all, and on and on the farce will go. As long as Tan remains outside of Singapore, there is little else that POFMA can do. And if this law cannot touch a single ex-citizen, it is unlikely it will be able to do much about a serious disinformation campaign coordinated by hostile foreign actors.
If this law cannot touch a single ex-citizen, it is unlikely it will be able to do much about a serious disinformation campaign coordinated by hostile foreign actors.
The COVID-19 period has also shown that Singapore has tools other than POFMA to tackle the spreading of false information. On 26 May, taxi driver Kenneth Lai was sentenced to four months in prison for posting misinformation in a Facebook group claiming that hawker centres and coffee shops were going to be shuttered and supermarkets allowed to open only one or two days a week, during Singapore’s lockdown period. He had taken the post down voluntarily after about 15 minutes, but it was not enough to save him.
Although POFMA criminalises the communicating of false statements of fact—with penalties of up to a S$50,000 fine ($36,000) and/or five years’ imprisonment—Lai wasn’t charged under POFMA, but under the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act, which carries maximum penalties of up to a S$10,000 fine (US$7,200) and/or three years’ imprisonment.
When asked why POFMA was not used in this case, Shanmugam said, “You look at the previous cases where POFMA was used… in the vast majority, probably, there was no other criminal offence… When it’s a criminal offence, we will take action along those lines… but if it crosses the threshold for POFMA, we will use POFMA.”
It is an answer that doesn’t tell us very much, since we still don’t know how something is determined to have “crossed the threshold for POFMA”.
This leaves us with a topsy-turvy situation: POFMA is impotent against the closed messaging apps where the most pernicious falsehoods are circulating, but has been used to force correction notices on content—such as New Naratif’s The Show with PJ Thum video about POFMA, or reports about foreign speculation on the annual salary of Ho Ching, CEO of state investment company Temasek Holdings and wife of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong—even where there is no clear danger of real risk or harm to the public. There is a lack of clarity over when something justifies the issuance of a POFMA directive, instead of a public statement from the relevant authorities, or prosecution under other laws.
The heightened levels of anxiety during a global pandemic throw into sharp relief the importance of debunking misinformation and disinformation.
The heightened levels of anxiety during a global pandemic throw into sharp relief the importance of debunking misinformation and disinformation. This has never been the sticking point; even advocates of freedom of expression agree that falsehoods should be addressed and rebutted as much as possible.
But POFMA continues to be a blunt, clumsy tool, unable to tackle damaging and false rhetoric within the chat apps where it thrives, nor able to deal with bad faith actors abroad.