Singapore’s fake news debate wrapped in 1MDB controversy
An opposition website's claim that PM Lee Hsien Loong is being investigated overseas for financial fraud is testing the city-state's penchant for on-line censorship
On November 5, the Australia-based website States Times Review (STR) published an article entitled “Lee Hsien Loong becomes 1MDB’s key investigation target”, an eye-catching headline that appeared to implicate Singapore’s national leader in financial fraud.
That is, the article alleged that it wasn’t just former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak who was reputedly involved in the multi-billion dollar scandal at the 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) fund, but also Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Moreover, the article claimed that Malaysia had signed various unequal deals that favored Singapore—including a water export deal supposedly lower than market prices—in exchange for Singaporean banks to launder pilfered 1MDB funds.
The article, strongly denied by government officials as false, has become the latest case study in the rising debate over anti-fake news legislation in the already tightly censored city-state.
STR’s story, which was republished by Malaysian website The Coverage and circulated on social media, was disavowed on November 8 by Sarawak Report, whose editor Clare Rewcastle-Brown was misquoted in the piece. Sarawak Report was one of the leading publications to first break revelations of the 1MDB scandal in Malaysia.
In a Facebook post, Sarawak Report denied giving an interview to STR and that it had any information on Singapore becoming a target in 1MDB investigations. The transnational scandal is under investigation in various countries outside of Malaysia, including the United States, Switzerland and Singapore itself.
Singapore authorities have targeted STR for reprisal on fake news grounds, filing police reports and issuing takedown orders. Reports indicate the site’s administrators could face criminal defamation charges carrying two year prison penalties. No official charges have been filed yet, however.
The Monetary Authority of Singapore filed a police report against STR, alleging that it had “made statements that were false and malicious, and impugned the integrity of MAS as a financial regulator.”
The Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), which regulates online content in Singapore, issued a takedown order demanding that STR immediately remove the article. Moreover, Singapore authorities requested Facebook to remove a post that shared the article in question.
The ruling People’s Action Party government, which markets Singapore as a squeaky clean, law-abiding clime conducive for foreign investment, is extremely sensitive to any allegation of corruption or impropriety in government.
“I think when you make allegations of corruption, money laundering, against the Prime Minister and the government of Singapore… of course, we take this very seriously,” Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam told the local press.
STR, run by former opposition candidate Alex Tan, who now lives in Australia, has a reputation for its anti-PAP editorial line and willingness to play fast and loose with the facts.
That can be seen in its exaggerated claim on its homepage to be “Singapore’s only independent media” despite the emergence of various new critical sites in recent years.
Yet STR has refused to take down the article. “If the Singaporean Prime Minister is adamant on being innocent, he or his acting proxies, i.e. Monetary Authority of Singapore and Infocomm Media Development Authority, is welcomed to file a case with the Australian authorities,” Tan wrote in an article on the website.
Following Tan’s refusal, the website was restricted in Singapore. Anyone visiting the site using a Singapore IP address was met with a message saying, “The website that you are trying to access is unavailable as it contains prohibited material” with a URL pointing to the IMDA’s internet content standards.
At the time of writing, however, the website is again accessible from Singaporean IP addresses.
Significantly, Facebook also refused to take down the post sharing STR’s article. “We have a responsibility to handle any government request to restrict alleged misinformation carefully and thoughtfully, consistent with our approach to government requests around the world,” a Facebook spokesperson told Asia Times.
“We do not have a policy that prohibits alleged falsehoods, apart from in situations where this content has the potential to contribute to imminent violence or physical harm.”
Facebook’s refusal, though, has given the Singapore government an opening to drive home its point about the need for strict new legislation to tackle alleged fake online news.
“Facebook has declined to take down a post that is clearly false, defamatory and attacks Singapore, using falsehoods. This shows why we need legislation to protect us from deliberate online falsehoods,” read a statement from the Ministry for Law.
“[Facebook] cannot be relied upon to filter falsehoods or protect Singapore from a false information campaign,” it added.
The Singapore government has been mulling measures to tackle “fake news” or “deliberate online falsehoods.” Earlier this year, Parliament convened a Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods which solicited written submissions and held hours of public hearings.
The Select Committee’s report, published in September, recommended that “the government should have the powers to swiftly disrupt the spread and influence of online falsehoods” with legislation that will “achieve the objective of breaking virality [sic] by being effective in a matter of hours.”
The government has yet to table any legislation, but action has previously been taken against platforms that published false information.
In 2015, The Real Singapore website was shut down and its editors charged and convicted under the Sedition Act for publishing content with the tendency “to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or classes of the population of Singapore.”
In one offending article, the site falsely claimed that a Filipino family was involved in a conflict with Hindu devotees at a religious procession and the police.
The Real Singapore’s editors, Ai Takagi and Yang Kaiheng, were sentenced respectively to ten and eight months in prison. But not everyone agrees with the Singaporean authorities’ framing of this latest online saga.
Ngiam Shih-Tung of Singaporean human rights group MARUAH testified before the Select Committee in March and rejects the law ministry’s argument that Facebook’s refusal to take down STR’s post indicates a need for further legislation – presumably to allow the government to compel technology companies to comply with takedown orders.
“The STR article in question does not incite violence against any individual or class of persons,” Ngiam says. “If the [Prime Minister] is aggrieved by the article he could go to court to obtain an injunction against the site or even make use of the [Protection from Harassment Act] since he is a natural person.”
“Whatever harm the PM may suffer in the time it takes to obtain a court order is less than the harm that would result to society if take-down orders can be issued without giving both parties the right to be heard in open court.”
Civil society groups have raised concerns that anti-fake news legislation would further crimp freedom of expression in the city-state.
There are already broad laws regulating free speech in Singapore, including a recent contempt of court law introduced in 2016 that led to the convictions of activist Jolovan Wham and opposition politician John Tan for “scandalizing” the judiciary over posts they made on Facebook. They are currently awaiting sentencing; the maximum penalty is a fine of up to S$100,000 and/or three years’ imprisonment.
Asohan Aryaduray, a founding member of the Institute for Journalists Malaysia and senior editor at the mainstream Malaysian news website The Star Online, points to a history that leads many to wonder about possible Singaporean complicity in Malaysian corruption.
A 2013 undercover investigation by Global Witness, a UK-based environmental nongovernmental organization, for example, revealed how Sarawak Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud’s family and others managed to “by-pass Malaysian law to sell off Sarawak’s land and forests, using Singapore’s secretive banks to conceal corrupt deals.”
The investigation secretly videotaped lawyers and members of Taib’s family offering to sell land and hide the profits in Singapore. Still, Taib and his family members denied the allegations contained in the report.
“From terrorism financing to the Panama Papers exposés, we’ve seen that the global banking system needs an overhaul and greater oversight, and Singapore’s is no exception,” Asohan says.
“True, Singapore has investigated, convicted and fined some of those involved in the 1MDB scandal, but these punitive actions are disproportionately low when compared to the scale and scope of the scandal.”