Singapore is a fine country. You most likely have heard that phrase at some point in your life if you have been in Singapore for some time.
While this is a tongue-in-cheek phrase to reference the harsh punishments (in the form of monetary fines) that Singapore has and fines for a wide range of offences, it also alludes to how Singapore has a robust legal system.
With scams on the rise, those who are responsible for law and order in Singapore have pulled through yet again to tackle this growing problem.
A new law is being proposed to allow the government to take down websites as well as online accounts if they are thought to be used as part of scams.
Here’s what you need to know.
New Bill to Tackle Scams and Other Offences in Singapore
During today’s parliamentary session, a new Bill was introduced to tackle a range of criminal offences committed within Singapore. This Bill is known as the Online Criminal Harms Bill.
The suite of targeted offences includes those committed in the online sphere, such as voyeurism, scams and other malicious activities that take place on the Internet.
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The laws were proposed to complement other government efforts to protect Singaporeans, such as educating the public and engaging private sector institutions (such as banks and telcos) to put in efforts to protect Singaporeans online.
The primary purpose of the new Bill is to enable the government to “take swift action against criminal activities carried out online” and also “proactively [disrupt] scams and malicious cyber activities” before they can claim their prey.
Some of the criminal offences which will be targeted in this Bill include terrorism and internal security issues, the harmony between different racial, religious and socio-economic classes, incitement of violence, breaches of the Official Secrets Act, drugs, gambling, loaning money, scams and malicious cyber activities as well as sexual offences including child abuse and those related to voyeuristic material.
One of the key features of the Bill, which will hopefully reduce online crime, is the government’s ability to issue Directions to “any online service through which criminal activities could be conducted”. These criminal activities include offences that threaten the nation’s security, national harmony and individual safety of those in Singapore.
The threshold for such a Direction is when there is a “reasonable suspicion” that the online activity is used to commit a crime. The government can request that the recipient of such a Direction stop communicating the online content to people in Singapore, disable certain content on their service, or stop an account from interacting with those in Singapore.
If the recipient is an app store, they may be required to remove an app so that locals cannot download the harmful app.
Another crucial protection the Bill will offer if passed, is for the government to be able to issue a Direction when “any website, online account, or online activity may be used for scams or malicious cyber activities”. The threshold that must be met before issuing the Direction is just a mere “suspicion”.
Notably, this threshold for scam-related action to be taken is lower than the other online activities which the government wants to regulate.
Presumably, it is because of the sheer prevalence of scams in Singapore.
If someone receives a Direction from the government, not all is lost. The recipient of the Direction who wants to complain or object to the issuance of the Direction may lodge an appeal with a Reviewing Tribunal to vary or cancel the Direction.
It is proposed that the Reviewing Tribunal comprise a District Judge or Magistrate appointed by the President on the advice of the Cabinet.
Sounds very grand indeed.
In certain circumstances, there may also be an appeal route to the Minister for Home Affairs. Our current Minister of Home Affairs is Mr K Shanmugam. He is also the incumbent Minister for Law, which all adds up neatly.
Whether you approve or disapprove of this law, there is still some way to go before the proposed Bill makes it as an Act of Singapore. It still has to undergo another two more readings (the first having taken place today) and receive the President’s assent before its status as a law of Singapore is set in stone.
There Has Been a Rise in Scams in Singapore
If you’re scratching your head as to why scams and malicious online activity is being scrutinised with a fine-tooth comb over and above other crimes in the online sphere, you can look no further than the recent rise in scams that have been plaguing our island.
In 2022 alone, the victims of scams in Singapore have lost a collective eye-watering $660.7 million. Quite crazy, given that this is an increase from the figure in 2021, $632 million.
Considering the amount of money lost to scammers during the COVID-19 period, this is close to $1.3 billion.
Is this more than the amount of money the government pumped in to help individuals and businesses tide through the tough COVID-19 times?
Also, the government appears to have stepped in because many victims are young adults. Contrary to popular belief that young adults are generally tech-savvy and, therefore, less susceptible to falling prey to conniving scammers, it seems that 53% of scam victims last year were between the ages of 20 and 39.
The number of scam cases has also been rising at an alarming rate. In 2021, there were 23,933 reported cases and in 2022, 31,728 cases—a whopping 32.6% increase in just a single year.
Can you imagine how many more scams are taking place under the radar if the victims don’t report the scams? No wonder the threshold for the government to issue a Direction when a scam is involved is just that of suspicion.
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Other Bills in Singapore to Tackle Crimes That Take Place Online
You can rest easy at night knowing that the Singapore government is always on the lookout to protect our interests. The Bill is not the only legal weapon in the government’s toolkit to protect Singaporeans who trawl cyberspace.
This latest Online Criminal Harms Bill is part of a whole suite of existing legislation which aims to protect the public from harms that occur in cyberspace.
Some other legislation that protects those who spend time on the Internet include the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act, and the recently amended Broadcasting Act.
The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) was introduced in 2019 with the aim to “prevent the electronic communication in Singapore of false statements of fact, to suppress support for and counteract the effects of such communication, to safeguard against the use of online accounts for such communication and for information manipulation, to enable measures to be taken to enhance transparency of online political advertisements, and for related matters”.
The government has also not been shy when it comes to using the powers granted to it under POFMA. Recently, a Correction Direction was issued to Mr Terry Xu and The Online Citizen Asia (TOCA) regarding some publications made through articles and on social media.
In particular, there were several false allegations made against the Singapore Police Force concerning an incident at Yishun Avenue 5 in 2021 which involved the police and an elderly lady who was not wearing a mask (mask-wearing was mandatory at that point in time).
As the allegations made by Mr Xu and TOCA were found by the authorities to be false and had misrepresented what occurred at that point in time, there was a direction that a correction notice be posted alongside the articles and social media to avoid eroding the public’s trust in the police.
For those unfamiliar with the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act, it originated in 2021 to “counteract foreign interference in the public interest”. The countermeasures can be taken through electronic communications activities as well.
As for the amendments to the Broadcast Act, which were passed late last year, the aim was to strengthen online safety. With the amendments, the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) is empowered to issue a direction to Internet service providers to ask them to block access to certain online platforms from Singapore.
This set may be employed where online platforms refuse to remove harmful content. No geographical limitation exists to where the content is hosted or initiated, so the law is quite wide-reaching.
Given the whole suite of laws that have been enacted to deter and prosecute crime in Singapore, do you feel safe because we have such laws in place? Or do you think that our laws are just all bark and no bite?
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