Five months after it was passed into law, Singapore’s anti-fake news legislation has taken draconian effect, representing a new threat to online expression and new wrinkle for big technology companies with operations in the city-state.

The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, more commonly known as POFMA, sparked sharp civil society, academia and large tech company criticism ahead of its passage.

The Asia Internet Coalition described the fake news-related law as the “most far-reaching legislation of its kind to date”, giving the “Singapore government full discretion over what is considered true or false.”

At the same time, observers think it is unlikely that the law – unless frequently and arbitrarily applied – will make much of a dent in Singapore’s attractiveness as a foreign tech investment hub.

Under the newly enacted law, any government minister will have the power to issue directives requiring individuals or companies to post corrections, remove articles or block access to content that they deem contains “false statements of fact” related to the public interest.

Ministers are also under the law able to designate a page that’s received three such orders in a six-month period a so-called “declared online location”— an act that aims to defund a website by barring it from earning income from advertising or subscriptions.

Singapore's Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam speaks to journalists during the Foreign Correspondents Association of Singapore luncheon in Singapore on December 2, 2016. The danger of attacks by Islamic State (IS) supporters in Southeast Asia has increased as the group searches for new fronts after setbacks in the Middle East, Singapore's internal security minister warned on December 2. / AFP PHOTO / ROSLAN RAHMAN
Law Minister K. Shanmugam speaks to journalists in Singapore on December 2, 2016.Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

Nor may individuals associated with such designated sites be allowed to derive any financial or other benefits from operating it.

The law also provides for prosecutions of individuals, who can face fines of up to S$50,000 (US$36,000), and, or, up to five years in prison. If the alleged falsehood is posted using “an inauthentic online account or controlled by a bot,” the total potential fine rises to S$100,000 ($73,000), and, or, up to 10 years in prison.

Companies found guilty of spreading fake news can face fines of up to S$1 million ($735,000).

The outcry against the bill failed to halt its passage into law, underscoring the long-ruling People’s Action Party’s (PAP) supermajority control over parliament.

After a two-day marathon debate, 72 PAP MPs voted for the bill; all nine opposition members voted against. Three nominated MPs, who had proposed amendments to constrain the powers of ministers that failed to get adopted, abstained from the vote.

Once the law was passed, big internet and tech companies took a notably more conciliatory tack, with the Asia Internet Coalition promising that they would “work with the Singapore government on the implementation of the POFMA and on promoting digital and media literacy to address and reduce the impact of online falsehoods.”

After the law came into force on October 2, Jeff Paine, managing director of the Asia Internet Coalition, issued a statement saying that the coalition “hopes that POFMA will be enforced with transparency and fairness.”

Terence Lee, chief editor of the website Tech in Asia, told Asia Times that reaction to the passage of the law has been “fairly muted.”

“While social media platforms will no doubt be affected by POFMA, in the larger scheme of things it doesn’t outweigh the benefits of setting up in Singapore to tap on the growth of the internet economy of SEA,” he says.

Facebook uses Singapore as a regional hub for its Southeast Asia operations. Photo: AFP

Major tech companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google all have significant operations in Singapore. In 2018, Facebook announced that it would invest over US$1 billion to build its first Asian data center in Singapore.

“Obviously, Facebook and Google voiced their concerns about this but they will still comply,” Lee added, noting that Chinese tech companies such as Tik Tok and BIGO, both present in Singapore, are no strangers to stringent government online regulations.

“We’re committed to preventing the spread of misinformation on our services in Singapore, and we’ve taken significant steps this year, rolling out third party fact checking with local partner AFP and launching ‘We Think Digital’, which empowers Singaporeans with critical digital literacy skills,” says Rahimah Abdulrahim, Facebook’s director of public policy in Southeast Asia.

“These initiatives complement our ongoing global work to remove fake accounts, disrupt coordinated inauthentic behavior, and offer more transparency around ads and Pages.”

The PAP government has given the tech companies some leeway with the law. Temporary exemptions were made under subsidiary legislation to give Google, Facebook, Twitter, Baidu and WeChat time to “put in place the necessary arrangements and technological measures to enable them to comply with certain requirements of the Act.”

Complying with government censorship orders could open tech companies up to criticism, yet industry sources say that this isn’t likely enough pressure to push companies into more active resistance.

Facebook, for instance, has already received flak for censorship in Vietnam. A report produced by Facebook earlier this year revealed that in the last half of 2018 it had restricted access to over 500% more content than previously.

Still, Lee doesn’t think the risk of complying with POFMA will be high enough to impact on Facebook’s target markets. “How much of a reputational risk are we talking about, and among which groups of people?” he asks.

“If we’re talking about the general population, they’re just going to flock to where their friends hang out. For [businesses], they’ll buy ads on the platform with the most people relevant to them.”

Despite some initial disquiet, most tech companies aren’t particularly alarmed by the new law’s enactment, industry sources say. As Lee points out, there are still many online companies, such as e-commerce site like Lazada, or payment services like PayPal, that won’t be directly affected by the fake news law.

“People invest in Singapore not because of Singapore’s domestic market. It’s the gateway to the rest of Southeast Asia,” Lee says.

Concerns about the law’s potential abuse are centered instead in Singapore’s independent media scene. The local mainstream media—spanning traditional mediums like print, television and radio, as well as online—is widely seen as influenced by the PAP and skewed in favor of the government’s narratives.

The few independent media outlets that take a more critical view of the ruling party already tend to struggle with funding and resources to pose a serious challenge to pro-establishment media sources. Those that have built strong readerships, meanwhile, often come under official pressure to tone down and censor their news.

Terry Xu, chief editor of Singapore’s longest-running independent news website, The Online Citizen, was sued last month by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for defamation for publishing an article that repeated allegations made by his estranged siblings. Under the POFMA, authorities can now deem such articles as fake news and demand they be taken down.

Kumaran says The Independent Singapore, with the new fake law’s passage in sight, has invested substantially over the past year to improve editorial and fact-checking processes.

He, for one, isn’t worried about Singapore’s relationship with foreign tech companies; it’s the local media outfits that are most under threat by the new law, he says.

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaks during the opening of the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue summit in Singapore on May 31, 2019. Photo: Roslan Rahman/AFP

“Make no mistake, POFMA is a tool to control the political narrative in Singapore,” Kumaran warns.

“The big tech firms have both formal and informal communication channels with the Singapore government,” to shield them from the law, he told Asia Times.

“At the same time, the government has put in place severe restrictions on local media start-ups and publicly shames them as traitors and dissidents to keep the copycats out,” he said.

“So we have a situation of local media start-ups not having sufficient capital while foreign media outlets are free to setup shop.”