Singapore starts new facility to detect biological, nuclear substances at ports
K. Shanmugam, minister of foreign affairs of Singapore, addresses in a meeting Reuters

Amid Facebook's unprecedented data breach, Singapore Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam on Thursday said Facebook had fallen short of its own standards of transparency in handling user data involving Cambridge Analytica.

Though the data breach was known to Facebook way back in 2015, the social media giant admitted last week about the incident, apologized and offered corrective measures while tech experts have openly called for users to delete their Facebook accounts.

Stating that the conduct of Facebook gives every reason for the government to question whether the social network can be trusted in the fight against online falsehoods, Shanmugam said the government would have to intervene through legislation.

On the fourth day of Singapore Parliament's Select Committee's hearings, representatives from Facebook, Twitter and Google said the existing laws can tackle the problem and questioned new legislation in Singapore.

Facebook vice-president of public policy for Asia-Pacific Simon Milner was the target when he was asked to explain the political consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica's exploits in data breach of of 50 million Facebook users. Instead, Facebook had deliberately sought to mislead even the British Parliament, as chair of the committee Damian Collins himself had suggested, Shanmugam pointed out.

Mr Milner at one point said, "This has been a tough Q&A, I respect that you are asking questions that need to be answered and we as a company need to be accountable to you and your colleagues and other policymakers, most importantly, the community of 2.2 billion, including some 4.1 million people here in Singapore, about how we protect their data, how we keep it secure and when things go wrong, how we tell them and you about it."

Shanmugam said it could happen anywhere and Singapore may not be the exception. "We know our position as Singapore in the world. We are not the United States of America. If a very senior legislator in the US feels that you are not being cooperative, then how do we expect that you will cooperate with us? But these are issues that we are entitled to explore," he said.

Taking exception to Facebook's contention, he said, "By looking at your answers elsewhere, it is clear and you have confirmed you will not decide whether something is true or false, you will not take down something simply because it is false."

He dwelt on Facebook's evasive replies on procedural matters which involve taking down false news if there is a legal obligation on them. He said throughout the debate, Facebook wanted to act as self-regulator with its own internal guidelines. "That is my sense of it, if I am wrong, I am wrong - and that you do not want to be regulated," he told a baffled Facebook representative.

Singapore is planning to bring in a new law to tackle the threat of fake news since it was small in size and highly vulnerable to social media fake news, which may hamper its known role as a global financial hub.

"We do not believe that legislation is the best approach to addressing the issue," said Alvin Tan, Facebook's head of Southeast Asia, in a written submission. "Singapore already has a variety of existing laws and regulations, which address hate speech, defamation and the spreading of false news."

Twitter also shared similar views about Singapore's new law. "No single company, governmental or nongovernmental actor, should be the arbiter of truth," said Kathleen Reen, Twitter's director for Asia Pacific.