PM Lee stands by falsehood bill, as Malaysia looks to tackle fake news differently

Singapore Prime Minister (PM) Lee Hsien Loong has responded to international criticism on the proposed Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill during a joint press conference at the Singapore-Malaysia Leaders' Retreat recently. While PM Lee defended the bill as something that "will work for Singapore," Malaysia PM Mahathir also explained at the event why he has decided to do away with the country's Anti-Fake News Act.

PM Lee was answering to the questions posed by a reporter during a Q&A segment about Reporters Without Borders' (RSF) public condemmation of the bill. According to a transcript published by Prime Minister's Office Singapore, he said that the Select Committee has deliberated the bill for almost two years and Singapore is not the only one who is legislating to fight the proliferation of fake news online. France, Germany and most recently, Australia have done so, whilst the United Kingdom is currently considering taking such an action as well.

"I am not surprised that Reporters Without Borders criticised it. They criticise many things about Singapore's media management but what we have done has worked for Singapore," added PM Lee.

In an article by RSF, the organisation called out the bill for combining loose wording with catch-all formulations that "extend the range of applicability of the penalties to absolutely all content circulating online" and providing government ministers with "an almost absolute power of interpretation." The analysis by RSF also flagged other issues such as disproportionate penalties, biased legislative process and hidden agenda.

Daniel Bastard, head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk said, “In its current form, this Orwellian law establishes nothing less than a ‘ministry of truth’ that would be free to silence independent voices and impose the ruling party’s line."

We condemn this bill in the strongest possible terms because, in both form and substance, it poses unacceptable obstacles to the free flow of journalistically verified information.

Meanwhile, PM Mahathir said during the Q&A that the promise to do away with Anti-Fake News rule is to prevent the government from abusing the law, as it "has happened in the last government." Additionally, he said that it is "what the people want."

Previously, law and home affairs Minister K Shanmugam had also told several media outlets that Human Rights Watch's criticism on the bill was biased and one-sided. Other industry players and social media platforms have expressed concerns over the lack of public consultation.