BY MONICA CHAN
The following is the last of four collective summaries published by the Singapore Policy Journal’s reading group on Digital Technology. Each collective summary is a product of the topics discussed and the various research directions of the members of the reading group. The reading group comprises various individuals from multiple backgrounds, providing a multidisciplinary approach to digital technology.
The previous three sessions of the Singapore Policy Journal’s reading group explored various facets of digital technology and policy implications in the Singaporean context, from notions of governance regarding smart cities, to perspectives on trust in government technologies and regulation of commercial technologies. Simultaneously, over the past two months, each of us in the reading group has been developing our individual research explorations around digital technologies. During this final student-led colloquium, we discussed our interests in a chosen technology policy issue, and provided feedback to one another as we prepare to write our op-eds and explainers. Broadly, our interests fell under three themes: Truth & Regulation, Championing Inclusive Tech, and Smart Nation Aspirations.
Truth & Regulation: Re-examining POFMA’s effectiveness
The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) is a law passed in Singapore in 2019 that is aimed at protecting society from deliberate falsehoods, correcting misinformation, and criminalizing malicious actors. Although POFMA may be used to deter malicious acts, we agreed that POFMA’s effectiveness should be re-examined, due to the implications that POFMA has on deliberative democracy and public trust in the government. There are currently several controversies surrounding POFMA, of which we focus on two: firstly, POFMA only allows government officials, but not opposition politicians or members of the public, to decide what is factual; and secondly, POFMA may worsen Singapore’s already prevalent self-censorship culture, which will lead to decreased discussion on socio-political issues amongst citizens.
So far, Singapore’s government has remained resilient against rising populism via two main modes: calibrated coercion and hyperresponsiveness. The concept of calibrated coercion involves the state using deeply repressive means against dissenters, yet incurring minimal political cost. In the case of POFMA, the Singapore government has calibrated its design and use to allow for more proportionate responses—correction directions against a falsehood still allows the falsehood to remain accessible online (unless the social media platform takes the falsehood down due to non-compliance), as long as the corrective information is published with it. In this sense, POFMA’s calibrated design grants the government leeway to uphold their public image of free speech.
The government has been sensitive to public perception surrounding the formulation and application of POFMA, and has thus far been judicious and cautious. Regarding hyperresponsiveness, the government has created multiple official channels of civic participation, where citizens can voice their concerns directly to ministers and other Members of Parliament. For example, Parliament formed the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods to gather insights and feedback from the public on the issue. The government eventually accepted 22 of the select committee’s policy recommendations in formulating POFMA, giving the impression of a more consultative approach to governance. While this can be viewed as a positive effort engaging with public sentiment that led towards conceiving the idea of POFMA, the nature of POFMA contentions inherently favours the state, potentially fragmenting the media landscape and increasing polarization amongst multiple stakeholders. The debate on whether POFMA has been used necessarily still continues, where some view that POFMA is used on an “arguably reasonable basis,” while others question whether other means such as government-issued clarifications or open data publication could be effective, depending on contexts.
This discussion reignited debates from our reading group’s second session on foundations of trust, where we delved into the implementation and implications of POFMA. Other prospective alternative modes of prevention and reactions towards misinformation include investing in fact-checking tools and enhancing media literacy programmes for the masses. These alternative modes could coexist with and complement POFMA, so that Singapore can approach combating misinformation in multidimensional ways.
Privacy & Power: Championing Inclusive Tech
Taking a step back from the discussion on technology, we pondered on the concept of privacy: how should privacy be considered? Privacy is an innate form of freedom, and it informs the relationship between institutions and individuals. The debate on privacy may manifest in areas where data is concentrated, or when power dynamics come into the equation of what is to be revealed or held.  As researchers and designers that strive for inclusive technology, we need to examine power rendered in existing designs of online environments. Considering vulnerable populations as targets and providers of data, we examined schoolchildren as a vulnerable segment of our population.
As part of Singapore’s National Artificial Intelligence (AI) Strategy unveiled in 2019,  the Ministry of Education is moving towards AI-powered education technology tools with three foci: 1) developing an enhanced Student Learning Space with an adaptive learning system, 2) building an automated marking system to decrease teachers’ grading load, and 3) implementing an AI learning companion to support students’ social-emotional learning. While these are commendable efforts to incorporate emerging technologies into how we teach our youth, we have to ensure the technologies are implemented ethically, from data collection for model training, to applying AI tools in the classroom. Singapore has developed the 2020 Model AI Governance Framework, which offers guidance on measures that promote responsible use of AI for all organizations, namely in internal governance structures, level of human involvement in AI-augmented decision-making, operations management, and stakeholder interaction and communication. While these guidelines and areas are well-articulated with concrete examples of companies that adopt sound AI regulations, we should reconsider how these guidelines might fit into the realm of education, and also in the Singaporean context.
The University of Buckingham in the UK recently published The Ethical Framework for AI in Education, funded by leading education and technology firms such as McGraw Hill, Nord Anglia Education, Microsoft Corporation and Pearson PLC. The objective of this framework is to assist institutions and governments in making application decisions relevant to AI in education, and to ensure that learners can benefit from AI-powered education tools while protected against risks that these emerging technologies may present. A crucial next step is to examine this framework’s application in the context of a school, government or education technology company. Will educational technology companies be able to apply considerations from this framework to their products? How might applications of this ethical framework affect the modes of interaction between students and teachers in the classroom? Finally, how applicable is this framework in the context of Singapore’s education system? If so, how might our Model AI Governance Framework be augmented with input from the Ethical Framework for AI in Education? These are all questions that surface when we discuss the design, development, and implementation of emerging inclusive technologies.
Smart Nation Aspirations: Cyber Leadership in ASEAN
Singapore has made significant progress in its Smart Nation Initiative, a large-scale, complete digital transformation effort that the government introduced back in 2014 to markedly apply information and communications technologies (ICTs) to policy issues and emerging industries. Singapore has since topped global smart city indices, and in 2018 chaired the ASEAN Smart Cities Network, an extensive project that leverages technology and urban planning to improve the quality of life in 26 cities across Southeast Asia. There is certainly much potential in smart urbanism. However, in terms of cyber leadership in Southeast Asia, we should be aware of the tension between ideology and implementation, where Singapore’s positionality may be double-edged, considering regional policy developments of smart urbanism.
In Singapore’s context, the success of smart urbanism relies on internal and external facets: the cooperation of citizens, and a symbiotic collaboration with regional partners in designing a mutually beneficial future. Enabling “smart citizenship” involves sharing private individual data to drive a smart nation, sharing of government data through open-data platforms, and sharing the responsibility of managing and improving civil society among public and private-sector stakeholders which use these data. In forming this “smart citizen,” we must look beyond technocratic pursuits and pursue human-centric and inclusive digital transformation. Although access to the internet is mostly a given in Singapore, we need to nevertheless consider and accommodate the unique needs of differently abled communities and potentially vulnerable populations (which has been highlighted in the section above), and educate the masses with digital and data literacy to mitigate unconscious bias and improve interactions between public agencies and non-state partners.
As a rising regional cyber leader, Singapore may experience power asymmetries, thus setting expectations and maintaining trust amongst regional neighbours is paramount. Singapore’s current rise in cyber leadership implicitly alludes to historical dilemmas such as SIJORI-GT (the Singapore-Johor-Riau Growth Triangle) in the 1980s, a highly anticipated regional commodities trade cooperation framework that eventually ran into challenges due to divergent individual interests, uneven economic performance, and escalating social problems. Recognizing such case studies may help Singapore mitigate future issues in cyber diplomacy and cybersecurity. As the ASEAN Smart Cities Network begins implementation of projects around Southeast Asia, and while all ASEAN members are clear that they are dependent on each other, existing geopolitical tensions may nonetheless reemerge.
The themes in this summary are merely snippets of the diverse topics our op-eds and explainers will cover. This summary featured POFMA, Singapore’s national AI strategy, and the Smart Nation Initiative, but as a reading group, we have debated and explored many other topics, such as technology-facilitated gender violence, regulation and implications of deepfakes, data privacy through TraceTogether, and cyber diplomacy through case studies of small foreign states. Stay tuned for our op-ed and explainer publications later this summer!
Monica Chan is a doctoral candidate at Columbia University (Teachers College) in the Instructional Technology & Media program. Her research lies at the intersection of the learning sciences and child-computer interaction, where she focuses on K-12 maker education.
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