Singapore censors ANU’s East Asia Forum website

Sep 20, 2023
Singapore Map on Digital Hi tech Technology Background.

Growing touchiness as scandals mount.

Singapore appears to be escalating its campaign to control the political narrative in the face of a growing series of scandals by invoking its “Fake News” law, known by the acronym POFMA, against the East Asia Forum, an Australia-based academic website run by the Australia National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy, in response to an August 18 article by Dr Chan Ying-Kit titled “A spate of scandals strikes Singapore.”

It is the first known use of the fake news act against an academic publication. There appeared to be no errors or distortions in Chan’s article which would have qualified it as anything but factual. All of East Asia Forum’s content, centred on the Asia Pacific region. is peer-reviewed and articles are checked for accuracy and edited to conform to style conventions.

Chan documented allegations of scandals involving corruption investigations and extramarital relationships between Members of Parliament (MPs) from the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) and questioned if they might impact the PAP’s fortunes in the next general election, due to be held by the end of 2025 but expected earlier as economic headwinds beset the island republic. The government disputed Chan’s assertions regarding the independence of Singapore’s Corrupt Practices Investigations Bureau (CPIB) and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s handling of the party members’ extramarital affairs in a September 14 response. Chan is an Assistant Professor at the National University of Singapore (NUS) under its Department of Chinese Studies, and an alma mater of Princeton University where he completed his doctorate in East Asian studies.

With allegations over the alleged bribery of a minister over a Formula 1 contract, a billion-dollar-plus money-laundering affair by suspects of Chinese origin, and the renting of hugely expensive homes by senior ministers roiling the waters over recent months and contributing to a prickly government’s insecurity, the pace has picked up markedly for correction orders, with demands handed down in July alone to Reform Party chief Kenneth Jeyaretnam, Facebook user Thamil Selvan, socio-political commentator Andrew Loh, TikTok user Jansenng1, and most recently, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s brother Lee Hsien Yang. Two online publications also have been issued correction demands, the Jom website and a blog entitled Political Sophistry. Separately, The Online Citizen Asia, which was forced to leave Singapore earlier, “was essentially branded a fake news site and cut off from funding under POFMA,” according to the website The Independent News.

The invocation of the fake news law and the subsequent blocking of the EAF in its entirety came almost an entire month after the article’s publication, obviating the rationale behind the law, which was to scotch incorrect, harmful reports as quickly as possible. It also wasn’t used against the Thailand-based Asia Times news portal, which republished Chan’s article in full on August 21 under a Creative Commons License with the title “Singapore’s PAP not as clean as it used to be.”

The justification for EAF’s being blocked in Singapore was given as “failure to comply” to the demand for a correction notice to be published both at the top of the offending article and the EAF website’s main page. EAF complied with the spirit of the POFMA correction order and the Singapore government’s demand for its right to reply by posting a link to its issued statement at the end of Chan’s article’s comment section. (Disclosure: Asia Sentinel was similarly blocked in June under another POFMA order. We stand by the accuracy of our reporting.)

When the law, formally known as the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act 2019 and known colloquially as the Fake News Law, was introduced in 2019, it was claimed as not intended to cover opinions, criticisms, satire, or parody but only targeted falsehoods. Its latest usage against EAF marks an escalation by the ruling PAP to go after academics publishing on foreign academic websites with clear links to foreign tertiary institutions.

As long ago as August 2019, EAF published a critical article by two academics from the University of British Columbia about the then-new “fake news law” and its contribution to growing self-censorship in Southeast Asia. According to the article, by Elvin Ong and Isabel Chew, the law overinvests power in the executive by allowing it to determine what a falsehood is and what is contrary to the public interest. The end result, the article said, is that citizens will be less likely to express their political opinions online when they are uncertain about how or whether their particular instance of political expression contravenes the law.

POFMA was listed alongside similar repressive legalism from countries such as Myanmar and the Philippines as the latest signal of the challenges facing the expansion and safeguarding of freedom of expression in Southeast Asia. Four years on, EAF would fall victim to the very law its August 2019 article had decried.

That was little more than a week since it warned Dominic Ziegler, the Singapore bureau chief of The Economist, of foreign interference in domestic politics for his public endorsement of a new local independent media outlet called Jom. Ziegler, a veteran journalist, did nothing more than appear in an ad campaign endorsing the website. That was enough to earn a warning from the Ministry of Communications and Information for having “clearly crossed the line from reporting on Singapore to participating in Singapore’s domestic affairs.”

“The East Asia Forum is a respected academic initiative which generally provides comprehensive analysis of Asia-Pacific affairs and specifically serves as a platform for academics focused on the region to share their research, including academics from Southeast Asia,” said Imran Shamsunahar, a Kuala Lumpur-based political analyst. “With EAF now geoblocked, Singaporean academics will suffer through loss of access to the platform.”

The EAF directive is an indication of the Singapore government’s growing touchiness, demonstrated by its crackdown on an academic website. With tough political and economic headwinds on the horizon, a government increasingly trying to shake off the appearance of major scandals may find additional reasons to strike out.


First published in Asia Sentinel September 18, 2023

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