13 April 2019 [Updated 14 April]
Academics Against Disinformation: Singapore’s proposed online falsehoods law may deter scholarship and set precedents harmful to global academia
The Singapore government has tabled sweeping legislation against online disinformation. The proposed Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act 2019 (POFMA) is currently being scrutinised by legislators and concerned citizens, ahead of the Bill’s Second Reading in Parliament.
As academics with expertise, experience or interest in Singapore and Asia generally, we are concerned that the proposed legislation will have unintended detrimental consequences for scholars and research in Singapore, compromising Singapore’s notable efforts to develop itself into an internationally-recognised hub for excellence in higher education. The legislation may also set negative precedents, with knock-on effects on the global academy.
We have written to Singapore’s Education Minister to express our concerns. As at Sunday 14 April, the letter carries more than 90 signatures, solicited by invitation only. They include the current and four past Presidents of the Association for Asian Studies, the world’s largest and premier scholarly association for academics who study Asia, and a former President of the International Communication Association.
Most of the signatories are not based in Singapore. Several Singapore-based academics privately expressed agreement with our letter but declined to sign for fear of compromising their career prospects. Our concern about the proposed legislation cannot be divorced from larger issues around academic freedom in the Republic.
The Education Ministry responded through Singapore media on 12 April 2019. We note its assurances that the proposed law will not affect academic work. But we cannot accept this as a categorical guarantee until it is reflected in the language of the Bill.
The disinformation dilemma that has prompted the Singapore government to act is a real one, resulting in the corruption of democratic processes and the spread of hate propaganda against defenceless communities. Many of our colleagues are directly engaged in researching this urgent problem and have contributed to emerging best practices for dealing with it.
We are concerned about Singapore’s proposed legislation certainly not because we are oblivious to the seriousness of the global assault on reason. On the contrary, academics are at the frontlines of this battle. But no country’s response should undermine the very capacities it requires to deal with this crisis.
Correction: An earlier version of this release included mention of a serving officer of a regional consortium of universities. We have removed this mention to avoid creating the wrong impression that the academic was signing in that official capacity. All signatories have signed in their individual capacities. We apologise if we did not make this clear enough in our communication.