Lee Hsien Loong and Mahathir Mohamad on “Fake News” Bills

In an era of “fake news” and social media replacing the conventional media, many countries have begun to pass laws designed to clamp down on the spread of misinformation via the internet. Southeast Asia is no exception: Malaysia passed an Anti-Fake News Act in 2018 (PDF), for example. Currently, Singapore is entertaining a draft anti-fake news bill called the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act 2019 (PDF).

Singaporean civil society has widely criticized POFMA, arguing that it will clearly have negative consequences for the freedom of expression and criticism, especially among academics (see e.g. here and here) but also more broadly across society (see e.g. here).

It is in this context that I stumbled across the following clip of a press conference between Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Mahathir was recently elected Prime Minister in a stunning defeat of the Barisan Nasional government—he, in fact, was the first person charged under Malaysia’s anti-Fake News Act back in 2018. One of his coalition’s main campaign promises was to repeal that country’s anti-Fake News Act.

The clip features PM Lee defending POFMA, and then Mahathir explaining why his government repealed Malaysia’s fake news act.* For anyone who has watched Malaysian politics over the years, seeing Mahathir criticize government overreach—and alleging that governments will now be the ones making fake news—is a sight to behold.

Singapore and Malaysia are neighbors with close ties and a linked history, and until 2018 both had been led by strong electoral authoritarian regimes. PM Lee’s and PM Mahathir’s commentaries on government efforts to clamp down on fake news are a good summary of how things have changed in Malaysia,** and how they have not in Singapore.


* They are also gently insulting one another, in ways that Singaporeans and Malaysians often do.
** I do not mean to exaggerate, of course. New parties in government do not necessarily mean new politics or new policies, especially without new politicians.