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Singapore Invokes Fake-News Law to Defend Migrant Workers’ Tests

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 5/7/2020 Joyce Koh
A general view shows the Singapore skyline behind the Merlion park on May 15, 2020. (Photo by Roslan RAHMAN / AFP) (Photo by ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP via Getty Images) A general view shows the Singapore skyline behind the Merlion park on May 15, 2020. (Photo by Roslan RAHMAN / AFP) (Photo by ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP via Getty Images)

(Bloomberg) -- Singapore’s government defended its stand on the testing of migrant workers, the biggest cluster of its coronavirus outbreak, issuing five corrective directions under its fake-news law to media outlets and a local graduate club that carried comments by an opposition leader on the topic.

The government is disputing statements by Paul Tambyah, chairman of the Singapore Democratic Party, who spoke Friday at an election forum organized by the National University of Singapore Society, where he said authorities had actively discouraged testing of migrant workers, among other issues.

The directions to the club, local broadcaster CNA, The Online Citizen Asia and New Naratif on Sunday would require them to each carry a notice stating that videos, a Facebook post, an online article and an audio recording they had published contain false statements of facts. They all ran comments at the forum by Tambyah, who’s a senior consultant in the division of infectious diseases at the National University Hospital in Singapore.

With Singapore’s election set to be held July 10 amid the pandemic that has infected more than 44,000 people in the city-state, the government’s response to tackling the virus is set to be one of the defining issues in the polls. While it was praised for its earlier containment of the outbreak, the spread among migrant workers -- making up more than nine in 10 cases -- has challenged the country’s efforts.

The fake news law, passed in October, has been invoked a number of times in the run-up to the polls in what the government said is to ensure the correct facts are stated.

The Manpower and Health ministries said in a joint statement Sunday that medical management of migrant workers was guided by the Health Ministry and its medical professionals, based on the prevailing scientific evidence and local situation. They said an advisory issued in February told employers there was no need to prevent workers who were residing in dormitories from working if they were healthy.

A separate advisory issued later that month told employers they didn’t need to send workers who were healthy for tests, to ensure that medical facilities were focused on the sick who needed medical treatment. The authorities said the advisories to employers by the Ministry of Manpower, or MOM, didn’t say that they couldn’t bring their workers for testing, nor did the ministry actively discourage the testing of workers.

“What MOM said was: ‘Do not send workers to hospitals unless it is a medical emergency. If the worker is unwell, employers should send him to a general practitioner to seek medical attention, who will make a proper assessment on whether the worker needs to be sent to the hospital,’” according to a statement.

The outbreak led the government to impose a lockdown known as a “circuit breaker” in early April, which it started easing last month. Still, the majority of migrant workers weren’t in need of hospital care. Only two people are in the intensive care unit as of Sunday. Singapore has one of the lowest death rates, with just 26 fatalities.

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