POFMA: Letter to Education Minister

11 April 2019

Minister Ong Ye Kung

Minister of Education, Singapore

Dear Minister Ong,

We are academics who have expertise, experience or interest in Singapore and Asia generally.  We write to express our concern that the proposed Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act 2019 (POFMA) will have unintended detrimental consequences for scholars and research in Singapore, and for the global academy.

We recognize that POFMA is not aimed at the academic community, and that it does not apply to “opinion, criticisms, satire and parody”.  What concerns us as scholars is that it sanctions and potentially criminalizes “statements of fact” that are “false or misleading”.

The advance of knowledge derives from, and hence much of academic work focuses on, disputing apparently established “facts”.  These are confirmed or denied through the process of research, and continuously reappraised as new data and analysis become available over time.  Thus for many phenomena it is not possible to state definitively what is a “fact” proven for all time, and what is a conjecture or hypothesis that may turn out to be “false or misleading”. It is specifically those statements that “a reasonable person” would consider “to be a representation of fact” that are most usefully subject to rigorous academic scrutiny.

This is true in both the sciences and the sphere of human social activity, where even quantitative research deals in probabilities, not absolute certainties, and interpretations of even generally agreed upon “facts” may vary greatly, a contention that is the lifeblood of scholarly pursuit, from medicine and mechanical engineering to literary criticism and macroeconomics. In academia, scholarship is evaluated through peer review and specialist publication, but even the results of this rigorous process are subject to disagreement and critical scrutiny. A good academic must always be prepared to use evidence and logic to evaluate established “facts.”

Much scholarly discourse now takes place online, with faculty sharing preliminary research drafts and working papers on personal webpages, blogs and other social media, and the increased popularity of open access journals. Universities and funding agencies also increasingly encourage scholars to share their research and knowledge with the general public through online media commentaries on platforms such as The Conversation.

Wide dissemination of ongoing research—which may be considered “facts in dispute”—is a global public good facilitated by the borderless internet.  Our concern is that POFMA’s wide reach, both “in and outside Singapore”, its broad definition of Singapore’s “public interest” (e.g. covering matters deemed related to “Singapore’s friendly relations with other countries”), its holding “internet intermediaries” responsible for all items posted on their platforms, and its severe penalties of large fines and long prison terms for deemed violations, will discourage this for an indeterminately wide range of subjects and individuals. These provisions may have unforeseen consequences for Singapore’s ability to serve as a global hub of first-rate academic research and technological innovation.

Under these circumstances, POFMA is likely to make many academics hesitant to conduct or supervise research that might unknowingly fall afoul of POFMA, or refer colleagues or students to faculty positions in Singapore’s respected universities.  Singapore is known for its investment in education, a commitment that reflects a belief that such an investment pays dividends. This act discourages scholars from marshaling their expertise in precisely the areas where it is most needed—namely, pressing questions and challenges for which there are no clear answers or easy solutions.

We are also concerned that passage of POFMA might set an international precedent and spur emulation by other countries with weaker institutions, thus casting even wider restraints on global scholarly research and knowledge advancement, and its public dissemination.  Copycat legislation or reciprocal action could boomerang on Singapore entities, including businesses, government officials and universities with activities in other jurisdictions, just as POFMA will impact foreign entities that have interactions with Singapore, including universities.

We hope that government deliberations of the proposed law will take into account these concerns of the global academic community, clarify the law’s applications to academia, and ensure safeguards for scholarly research and its online outreach, to minimize the likely adverse effects on global as well as local innovation, knowledge production and dissemination.

Looking forward to your response, we are, respectfully yours,

Note: The letter to the Minister carried 58 original signatures. The letter remained open for signature after it was sent to the Minister, until 7 May 2019. The additional signatories are italicised. Total signatories: 125

  • Barbara Watson Andaya, University of Hawaii
  • Leonard Andaya, University of Hawaii
  • Ang Peng Hwa, Nanyang Technological University*
  • Shannon Ang, University of Michigan/Nanyang Technological University (PhD student)*
  • Shobha Avadhani, National University of Singapore*
  • Alice Ba, University of Delaware
  • Michael Barr, Flinders University
  • Rachel Bok, University of British Columbia (PhD student)*
  • Carlo Bonura, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
  • Michael Buehler, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
  • Toby Carroll, City University of Hong Kong
  • Jason Chan, University of Minnesota*
  • Qizhong Chang, National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University*
  • Pheng Cheah, University of California-Berkeley
  • Roland Cheo, Shandong University*
  • Chia Yeow-Tong, University of Sydney*
  • Angelina Chin, Pomona College
  • Ja Ian Chong, National University of Singapore*
  • Ping-Tzu Chu, National Tsinghua University
  • Charmaine Chua, University of California-Santa Barbara (as of July 1, 2019)*
  • John Ciorciari, University of Michigan
  • Nicole Constable, University of Pittsburgh
  • Robert Cribb, Australian National University
  • Edilberto C. DeJesus, Asian Institute of Management
  • Benjamin Hill Detenber, Nanyang Technological University
  • John DiMoia, Seoul National University
  • Richard Doner, Emory University
  • Saroja Dorairajoo, National University of Singapore*
  • Prasenjit Duara, Duke University
  • Mohan Dutta, Massey University
  • Benjamin Elman, Princeton University
  • Fam Shun Deng, Australian National University*
  • Anne Feldhaus, Arizona State University
  • Yuanqiu Feng, University of Michigan/National University of Singapore (PhD student)*
  • Nancy Florida, University of Michigan
  • Cherian George, Hong Kong Baptist University*
  • Xingli Giam, University of Tennessee*
  • Thomas Gold, University of California-Berkeley
  • Terence Gomez, University of Malaya
  • Pavel Gudoshnikov, University of Leeds
  • Eva Hansson, Stockholm University
  • Kevin Hewison, University of North Carolina
  • Allen Hicken, University of Michigan
  • Hal Hill, Australia National University
  • Victoria Hui, University of Notre Dame
  • William Hurst, Northwestern University
  • Paul Hutchcroft, Australia National University
  • Darryl Jarvis, Education University of Hong Kong
  • Kanishka Jayasuriya, Murdoch University
  • Gavin Jones, Australia National University
  • Lee Jones, Queen Mary University of London
  • Walid Jumblatt, Nanyang Technological University*
  • Yuko Kasuya, Keio University
  • Laavanya Kathiravelu, Nanyang Technological University*
  • Eddie C.Y. Kuo, Nanyang Technological University*
  • Kwok Kian Woon, Nanyang Technological University*
  • Terence T. Lee, Murdoch University
  • Terence C.L. Lee, National University of Singapore*
  • Joanne Leow, University of Saskatchewan*
  • Victor Lieberman, University of Michigan
  • Liew Kai Khiun, Nanyang Technological University*
  • Francis Lim Khek Gee, Nanyang Technological University*
  • Jamus Lim, ESSEC Business School*
  • Linda Lim, University of Michigan*
  • Lim Wah Guan, University of New South Wales*
  • Bernard Loo Fok Weng, Nanyang Technological University*
  • Neil Loughlin, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London (PhD student)
  • Donald Low, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology*
  • Justin McDaniel, University of Pennsylvania
  • Neo Yu Wei, National University of Singapore*
  • Irene Ng Yue Hoong, National University of Singapore*
  • Ng Kok Hoe, National University of Singapore*
  • Kristopher Olds, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • Lynette Ong, University of Toronto
  • Stephan Ortmann, City University of Hong Kong
  • Pang Eng Fong, Singapore Management University*
  • T.J. Pempel, University of California-Berkeley
  • Thomas Pepinsky, Cornell University
  • Elizabeth Perry, Harvard University
  • Martin Powers, University of Michigan
  • Kai Quek, University of Hong Kong*
  • Lily Rahim, University of Sydney*
  • Anthony Reid, Australia National University
  • Nicholas Rine, University of Michigan
  • Geoffrey Robinson, University of California-Los Angeles
  • Garry Rodan, Murdoch University
  • Herman M. Schwartz, University of Virginia
  • James Scott, Yale University
  • Sarita Echavez See, University of California-Riverside*
  • Ken Setiawan, University of Melbourne
  • Gerald Sim, Florida Atlantic University*
  • Vineeta Sinha, National University of Singapore*
  • Daniel Slater, University of Michigan
  • Patricia Sloane-White, University of Delaware
  • Jessica Tan Soo Lin, Nanyang Technological University*
  • Joanne Tan, University of Michigan/Singapore Management University (Postdoctoral fellow)*
  • Kevin Y. L. Tan, National University of Singapore & Nanyang Technological University*
  • Netina Tan, McMaster University*
  • Rae Yunzi Tan, University of Baltimore*
  • Robyn Tan, National University of Singapore*
  • Tan Ying Jia, Wesleyan University*
  • Yuko Tanaka, Hosei University
  • Tay Kheng Soon, National University of Singapore*
  • Katrin Travouillon, Australian National University
  • Kay-Key Teo, National University of Singapore (PhD Candidate)*
  • Teo You Yenn, Nanyang Technological University*
  • Mark Thompson, City University of Hong Kong
  • Toh Puay Khoon, University of Texas-Austin*
  • Wenfei Tong, University of Alaska-Anchorage*
  • Christopher Tremewan, University of Auckland
  • Jonathan Unger, Australian National University
  • Chin-Shou Wang, National Cheng Kung University
  • Yuan-Kang Wang, Western Michigan University
  • Meredith Weiss, State University of New York-Albany
  • Bridget Welsh, John Cabot University
  • Lynn White, Princeton University
  • Marina Whitman, University of Michigan
  • Thongchai Winichakul, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • Jieh-Min Wu, Academia Sinica
  • Anand Yang, University of Washington-Seattle
  • Lorraine Yang, University of Leeds (PhD Candidate)*
  • Dominic Yeo, Hong Kong Baptist University*
  • Mako Yoshimura, Hosei University
  • Kyu-ho Youm, University of Oregon
  • Min Zhou, University of California Los Angeles

* Singaporean signatories

April 11, 2019, SGT

c.c. Prof. Sun Sun Lim, NMP, Assoc. Prof. Walter Theseira, NMP