SINGAPORE—Terry Xu is an unlikely martyr for press freedom. The Singaporean, round-faced and self-effacing with a worker cap pulled down low over his forehead, spent most of his 20s in blue-collar jobs before joining The Online Citizen, a rare independent news site in the city-state. He first volunteered as a photographer, helping cover successive general elections in 2011 and 2015. Now the site’s editor, he’s not sure he’ll be a free man when the next election comes around, nor whether The Online Citizen will still exist.
The site is one of the few outlets here that challenges the government’s narratives and gives a platform to dissenting voices, in a country where the ruling People’s Action Party has for decades exercised subtle but pervasive control over conversations in the public sphere. That has made it, and Xu, a target. “Any publication that does not run the government narrative,” Xu told me, “is their opposition.”
Singapore’s control of the national narrative has led to it being ranked 151st out of 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders’ press-freedom index, below more visibly repressive countries such as Russia, Cambodia, and Venezuela. In May, the government handed itself new powers that will extend that control deeper into the digital realm and allow it to unilaterally determine what is true and what is “fake news.” A new law means that any government minister will be able to order even the largest international social-media companies to remove or “correct” content that the government disagrees with, filtering and reshaping what people see online so that it conforms with the official state worldview. Those targeted by the order can appeal, first to the minister and then to a court, a process that is likely to be time-consuming and expensive.
Other authoritarian governments could see Singapore, a developed society, as a model for similar measures, and use legitimate concerns about online misinformation to deepen control over the internet. The consequences of that could be profound and troubling, balkanizing the internet between free and controlled systems, and denying millions of people its value as a tool for open communication and free expression.
“If we don’t take this seriously enough,” says Julie Owono, the executive director of Internet Without Borders, a Paris-based organization that advocates for a free internet, “we accept that the internet is going to be Chinese- or Russia-like. That would make the internet absolutely irrelevant.”
The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act—quickly abbreviated to POFMA in Singapore’s acronym-obsessed political culture—gives individual government ministers the power to unilaterally declare online content “false or misleading” and demand that it be corrected or taken down. The law covers anything that can be viewed in Singapore, including posts on social-media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as private-messaging apps, and allows ministers to sanction repeat offenders and make it a criminal offense to finance them.
The government says that the measure is necessary to prevent the spread of the kind of socially corrosive falsehoods that have become prevalent in other parts of the region, including the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
In Singapore, ministers presented their approach as being of a kind with moves in Europe, where countries, including the U.K. and Germany, are publicly seeking regulatory solutions to an epidemic of malicious falsehoods that had skewed public debate. But European lawmakers fretted over the balance between dealing with the problem rapidly and comprehensively and not impinging on individual freedoms. In Singapore, the legislation is worded so broadly as to give ministers enormous power with little direct oversight.
Once the law goes into effect, likely later this year, individual ministers will be able to decide whether a piece of content is “false or misleading” and to issue a takedown or correction order.
Press-freedom activists say that it is a straightforward power grab; another mechanism for extending government controls into the digital world—one that sets the ruling party up as the sole arbiter of what is true.
“People don’t realize the kind of powers they’re handing to the government,” Xu said.
Given Singapore’s record, that is alarming. Mainstream outlets—most of which are at least part owned by the state investment company Temasek—uncritically present the government’s perspective, while the few independent organizations and journalists are put under constant pressure through regulatory demands, defamation suits, and occasionally criminal charges. On certain subjects, in particular the merest suggestion of financial impropriety by government officials, the state responds with charges of slander and defamation. International publications, including The Economist, have been sanctioned or sued. Xu himself was charged with criminal defamation in December, after The Online Citizen published a reader letter that made unspecified allegations of corruption against senior members of the party.
The People’s Action Party is embedded into many aspects of daily life, with influence over companies and universities, and many people fear speaking up. That chilling effect is widespread—last year, a Reuters Institute survey found that 63 percent of Singaporeans worry that expressing political views online could get them into trouble with the authorities.
“You have to have the mental preparation that you’ll go to jail,” Xu said. “The government controls people by fear. If you don’t have that expectation, then you’ll self-censor.”
The government also uses highly specific regulation to put pressure on media outlets. The Online Citizen was forced to register as a political organization, creating restrictions on how it could be funded. Last month, authorities demanded that Xu hand over the identities of all the donors who have given money to keep the website going. If he doesn’t comply, the site could be shut down within weeks. Another site, The Independent, was targeted in the same way, although it does not solicit donations and so had no donors to identify.
These regulatory pressures are not new, but there is now more jeopardy in noncompliance.
The new law also contains a provision allowing ministers to grant exemptions, meaning that they could, if they so desired, liberally interpret the meaning of “misleading” to target criticism, while allowing falsehoods that support the government to pass unhindered. Previous experience suggests that this is likely, as seen in the case of Kirsten Han, an advocacy journalist and the editor in chief of New Naratif, a Singapore-based news website covering Southeast Asia.
Han and her colleague, the historian PJ Thum, gave evidence at public hearings on online falsehoods in 2018. Both tried to make the case that more often than not it has been governments worldwide that have generated and spread misleading stories. At times, their testimony in front of members of Parliament resembled cross-examination in a criminal trial. Thum’s testimony took six hours, during which time he was challenged not only on his work but on the validity of his academic credentials.
Soon after, they were targeted. Their application to set up a company in Singapore was rejected, after the government said that a $75,000 grant that they had received from the George Soros–funded Open Society Foundation amounted to an attempt by a foreign actor to influence Singaporean politics. When they traveled to meet the newly elected Malaysian prime minister, a People’s Action Party member of Parliament wrote a long Facebook post accusing them of inviting Malaysia to interfere in Singaporean democracy. On social media, they were portrayed as traitors.
“Some people said that we should be detained without trial, some people said we should be executed. Some people suggested that I should be dragged out into the street and have my hair cut like a French collaborator with the Nazis,” Han says. Their attempts to get the accusations retracted were rejected out of hand.
Defenders of free speech worry that Singapore’s law will be replicated elsewhere, particularly if the social-media platforms that it covers comply with it. Facebook is the primary source of news for millions of people across Southeast Asia; its rise coincided with growing access to the web in countries such as Bangladesh and the Philippines. It is the de facto front page of the internet in the region. Having recognized the importance of this space, governments want to control it.
Analysts believe that Facebook is likely to acquiesce, at least those places where it is used widely, and might even pull out of less lucrative nations. “Their fundamental stakeholders are Wall Street analysts,” says Howard Yu, an innovation expert at the International Institute for Management Development, a business school. “They’ll simply pick the market that corresponds to the biggest existing revenue, and secondly, the markets that represent the biggest growth going forward … Smaller markets? Too bad.”
That would mean ceding ground online to authoritarians who are fighting a war of narratives— and winning. In Singapore, the consequence of that would be fewer avenues than ever for journalists and activists to challenge the official interpretation of reality without facing retaliation. As Han says: “I think the thing we have to accept is that there’s no safe way to report in Singapore. Not anymore, if there ever was.”