Following the statements made by Indian politician Arvind Kejriwal regarding the “Singapore variant” of the COVID-19 virus, the Ministry of Health (MOH) has instructed the POFMA office to issue general correction direction to Facebook, Twitter and SPH Magazines (HardwareZone forum). The platforms are required to carry the correction notice to all end-users in Singapore who use Facebook, Twitter and HardwareZone.com regarding the falsehoods on “Singapore” strain.
MOH says it is “aware of a false statement circulating online by multiple media outlets and social media platforms”, which implies that a new, previously unknown variant of COVID-19 originated in Singapore and/or risks spreading to India from Singapore. The move comes two days after Kejriwal said that the new variant in Singapore is ‘very dangerous for children’. MOH further clarified that there are no new “Singapore” variant of COVID 19 and that "there is an absence of evidence of any COVID-19 variant that is extremely dangerous for kids". The strain that is prevalent in many of the COVID-19 cases detected in Singapore in recent weeks is said to be the "B.1.617.2 variant", which MOH said originated from India.
In a tweet responding to Kejriwal, Singapore's foreign minister, Vivian Balakrishnan said: "Politicians should stick to facts! There is no 'Singapore variant'." His tweet has received 5344 retweets, 662 quote tweets, and more than 18,000 likes at the time of writing.
With Netizens swarming the replies section, many have agreed with Balakrishnan's tweet and expressed how they "do not support the comment" made by Kejriwal.
Meanwhile the Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) also met the high commissioner of India P Kumaran on 19 May to express concerns regarding Kejriwal's failure to ascertain the facts before making claims. "MFA regrets the unfounded assertions made on Facebook and Twitter by chief minister of Delhi Arvind Kejriwal that a variant of COVID-19 found in Singapore was particularly harmful to children and could cause a third wave of infections in India," MFA said in its statement.
According to media reports, leaders in India’s ruling party the BJP have also called out Kejriwal for being “irresponsible” and potentially damaging long-standing partnerships the nation has with Singapore. The country’s foreign minister tweeted earlier that he wishes to clarify the “Delhi CM does not speak for India”.
An article on The Straits Times also quoted member of parliament Priyanka Chaturvedi, who is a member of political party Shiv Sena added that given many Indians have made Singapore as their home, such “irresponsible and unfounded accusations without expertise or authority” could damage bilateral relations. The article added that Indian nationals have also called out Kejriwal for adding fuel to the fire of racial tensions in Singapore.
Recently Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also spoke up against a racist attacks in the nation after a local Indian woman was kicked for not wearing a mask while brisk walking. In a Facebook post the PM condemned racist attitudes and actions. According to media reports, the woman was shouted at for not wearing a mask above her nose while walking briskly – which was permitted by the regulations set by the Singapore government as part of COVID-19 curbing measures. Meanwhile the police are also investigating an individual for making offensive remarks to an Indian family at Pasir Ris Beach Park a few weeks back and a video circulating saw the man accusing the Indian family of “coming [sic] and spreading [sic] the virus.”
Other instances of POFMA
The POFMA Office is situated within the infocomm media development authority, and is responsible for the administration of the protection from online falsehoods and manipulation act (POFMA). This is part of the wider whole-of-government effort to address online falsehoods that affect the public interest.
Prior to this, in 2020, MOH and the Ministry of Trade and Industry instructed the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) office to issue correction directions to separate groups of people who have posted and shared fake news online regarding the COVID-19 outbreak then.
The Ministry of Trade and Industry has instructed POFMA to issue a correction direction to Alex Tan, and a targeted correction direction to Facebook. This comes after a post on the “States Times Review” Facebook page was uploaded on 30 January, making the false claim that Singapore had run out of face masks. The Facebook page is run by Tan who lives in Australia, according to government agency website gov.sg.
According to a press release then, The States Times Review said on its Facebook page that the senior minister of state, MOH and Ministry of Transport, Lam Pin Min confirmed that Singapore had run out of face masks, and insinuated that Lam was blaming Singaporeans for “insensible and irresponsible” use of surgical masks. The article added that Tan also posted that Singapore had run out of masks since last Sunday, less than three days after the first confirmed case.
POFMA was passed by the Singapore government in May 2019, after a two-day debate in parliament. It was passed with a majority of 72 votes, despite all nine from the Workers’ Party voting against it, according to various media reports then. Under the law, those who spread or accelerate online falsehoods could face jail terms of up to 10 years and fines of up to SG$1 million. Additionally, it clamped down on the use of an inauthentic online account or a bot to communicate falsehoods. Internet platforms or individuals refusing to display corrections alongside malicious posts or remove them may also face hefty fines and jail terms.
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