By Shermaine Lim and Jahnavi Roy
On 15 June 2019, university undergraduates gathered at The Arts House for the Students’ Union Youth Forum, collectively organised by the Students’ Unions of Nanyang Technological University (NTUSU), National University of Singapore (NUSSU), and Singapore Management University (SMUSA). Powered by the National Youth Council (NYC), the closed-door dialogue served as a platform for students to discuss current affairs pertinent to Singapore with Mr K Shanmugam, Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law.
Of central interest during the forum was the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) passed in Parliament in May 2019. Addressing the students, Mr Shanmugam explained the impetus behind POFMA, as well as its scope and uses. He explained that falsehoods are easily weaponised by bad actors to mislead individuals and portray a distorted version of reality. This undermines the infrastructure of fact, that is critical for public discourse to occur.
Mr Shanmugam further explained that POFMA serves as a tool to tackle online falsehoods that harm the public interest. With the vast speed at which information travels in this day and age, falsehoods may cause irreparable damage in a short period of time.
As history and recent affairs have demonstrated, differences within various interest groups are exacerbated by rumours spread without concern for facts. This has generated tension and harm amongst groups, and resulted in actual violence in some countries. It is therefore vital for Singapore to take proactive steps to mitigate the risk of such incidents occurring. He also mentioned how the bill envisages clarification of the falsehood as the primary measure and the removal of the falsehood as a secondary measure.
Moreover, people may find themselves caught in the crossfire between different ill-wishing entities, who use the internet and misinformed claims to engage in ‘information warfare’. Therefore, Mr Shanmugam highlighted that POFMA seeks to prevent public opinion from being influenced by falsehoods, thus allowing citizens to make informed decisions.
Other topics that were covered included the recent sexual misconduct cases occurring across university campuses. In response, Mr Shanmugam emphasised the importance of nurturing a culture of respect amongst students, as well as the importance of implementing adequate deterrence and punishment measures.
The audience expressed that they were able to gain a better knowledge of the issues troubling the youth today. An NTU student who identified himself as Sean felt that the concerns of the audience were well addressed during the forum, and that the intimate setting of the dialogue allowed for a comfortable discussion. Additionally, Benjamin, a student from NUS, expressed his appreciation for the candid nature of the discussion, which facilitated a better understanding of the rationale of POFMA.
The youth dialogue was ultimately an important educational experience, which paved the way for a better understanding and awareness of events concerning the student population, while also indicating the necessity of political sensitivity.
It is not just important for youths to be politically involved, but also having a platform to express their opinions and concerns is imperative for improvement in the student community. Edward Lim, NTU Students’ Union President, stated: “The core of our events revolves around students’ interests and this dialogue has allowed our students to engage in a frank and intimate discussion with Mr K Shanmugam. It is pertinent for the Union to establish such platforms to ensure student voices are heard.”