SINGAPORE -- In the less than three months since Singapore implemented legislation cracking down on "fake news," the government has mostly targeted opposition parties with demands for corrections, raising concerns about fairness and transparency ahead of a general election expected next year.
Lim Tean, leader of the People's Voice party, received a directive last week ordering changes to two Facebook posts it deemed "false and misleading."
The posts criticized education policy under the ruling People's Action Party, with one saying the government spends 238 million Singapore dollars ($176 million) a year on scholarships for foreign students but only SG$167 million on bursaries and grants for Singaporeans.
Lim added the required correction notices to the top of his posts but argued against the demand in a separate message.
The government is using the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, or POFMA, ahead of the election "to silence its Opponents and chill public discussion of unpopular government policies," he wrote.
Opposition party figures have been targeted in three of the four cases of correction demands since the legislation was implemented in October. The first demand, in November, was directed at Brad Bowyer of the Progress Singapore Party. The Singapore Democratic Party was ordered this month to revise Facebook posts and an article. Lim was the third opposition target.
Another case involved Alex Tan, editor of the States Times Review, a website frequently critical of the government. When Tan refused to follow a directive to revise a Facebook post, Facebook was ordered to add the correction notice instead.
The company complied while saying in a statement that "we hope the Singapore government's assurances that [the law] will not impact free expression will lead to a measured and transparent approach to implementation."
The law lets any minister issue correction orders "in the public interest." Individuals violating the legislation can be fined up to SG$100,000, imprisoned for up to 10 years, or both. The legislation raised concerns over freedom of expression even before its implementation, but the government deemed it necessary to curb the spread of misinformation on social media.
The law's definition of "public interest" includes security, protecting public finances, ensuring friendly relations with other countries, and preventing influence on the outcome of a presidential or parliamentary election or a referendum. With a general election expected as soon as 2020, the focus is on whether the government keeps using the legislation against the opposition.
The merits of the law itself could become a point of contention during the campaign. The Singapore Democratic Party said it would apply to the minister of manpower to cancel its correction notice.
Singapore has been led by the People's Action Party since the country's 1965 independence, and political opposition here is weak. Reporters Without Borders ranks the city-state 151st in its 2019 World Press Freedom Index.
Neighboring Malaysia passed legislation criminalizing fake news in April 2018 under then-Prime Minister Najib Razak, a month before a general election, and the government used it to investigate then-opposition leader Mahathir Mohamad. With Mahathir now prime minister, the parliament repealed the law last week.