On Wednesday, Singapore’s parliament agreed to set up a new select committee to study what the government has characterized as “deliberate online falsehoods.” The move is just one of several steps that the Southeast Asian state has taken in its response to the growing challenge of fake news, in spite of various concerns raised by some opponents.
Singapore, like some of its other neighbors such as Malaysia and Indonesia, has become increasingly aware of the growing magnitude of the challenge of fake news (See: “Asia’s War on Fake News”). As part of this, the country’s top officials have been publicly and privately emphasizing the dire consequences of fake news to the country specifically – including generating unnecessary public alarm, diverting limited resources, and harming the reputations of individuals and institutions – as well as considering new measures that can be taken.
As I have noted previously in these pages, several moves have in fact already been underway in the cyber realm more broadly, including not just the consideration of new laws, which often dominates the headlines, but also creating a new cyber agency, boosting cooperation with other countries as well as conversations about the extent to which social media networks should be regulated (See: “Where is Singapore in its War Against Fake News?”).
The attention to this problem has continued into 2018. Last week, the Ministry of Communications and Information and the Ministry of Law released a Green Paper on the challenges and implications of the problem of “deliberate online falsehoods.” And, on January 10, as expected in parliament, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam, who has been quite vocal on this issue, proposed the creation of a committee of members of parliament (MPs) who would study and then recommend a series of measures about how Singapore should tackle the problem.
Though Singapore already provides for the creation of Select Committees of MPs by parliament for a variety of reasons, including the examination of policy issues or consideration of legislation, it has rarely been employed in practice recently. In citing his rationale for the Committee’s creation for this issue, Shanmugam had indicated that this would enable a broader national conversation on this problem, which he said that Singapore was “highly susceptible” to given its high Internet penetration which enabled the propagation of falsehoods; its racial, religious and linguistic diversity which created fault lines that could easily exploited; and the country’s attractiveness as a key economic hub and strategic player in Southeast Asia which made it an important target to influence and undermine.
Though others within parliament cited familiar concerns about the move, including new measures that could be used to silence government criticism, parliament subsequently voted unanimously to approve the formation of the new Select Committee, which, Shanmugam had said would be comprised of government MPs, an opposition MP, and a nominated MP. Subsequently, on January 11, the chairman of the new Select Committee, Deputy Speaker Charles Chong, revealed the members of the new Committee.
Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also chimed in on the creation of the new Committee, urging on Facebook for Singaporeans to give their views on this problem and indicating that everyone ought to be part of the solution. He, like other Singapore officials like Shanmugam, are no doubt aware that despite the steps the city-state is taking such as this new committee, the magnitude of the problem and the lingering concerns within some parts of society mean that the challenge will continue to be an immense one for the government to handle amidst the other things it has on its plate as well.