Fighting foreign influence in Singapore

OCTOBER 3 — Last week, the Singapore government introduced one of the most sweeping pieces of legislation in its history. 

The Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill (FICA) basically gives the government extensive power to investigate and prosecute anyone suspected of colluding with foreign countries to interfere in Singapore's politics. 

Now, in principle, laws restricting foreign interference make some sense. Singapore is a tempting prize for various interested parties — and of course with all sorts of online and social media channels for interference proliferating, it follows that some of our laws may have to be updated.

However, the FICA Act which was presented to Parliament last week will confer enormous power to the government to investigate potential foreign interference.

Organisations and individuals deemed to be collaborating with foreign agents can, at the behest of the minister, be subject to restrictions on their financing, be forced to divulge their contacts and be made to shut down any affiliated websites and platforms. 

Basically the Act allows the government to effectively shut down any website it deems to be involved in facilitating foreign interference.  

But what actually constitutes foreign interference and how this interference is to be proved seems to be very vaguely and broadly defined under the Act.  

And extraordinarily those targeted by the government under FICA will not have recourse to appeal under the judicial system.  

Instead they will have to appeal to a tribunal under the Ministry of Home Affairs.  

So, the ministry will effectively issue FICA orders and will also be responsible for reviewing appeals related to the orders. 

The core definitions in the Act also seem unclear.  

While it makes sense to restrict foreign government interference, the Act seems to potentially encompass involvement with foreign individuals, organisations, even companies.   

A view of the financial business district buildings in Singapore on June 25, 2021. — AFP pic
A view of the financial business district buildings in Singapore on June 25, 2021. — AFP pic

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So what constitutes interference on behalf of foreign groups? What if you're funded by an overseas organisation to write about environmental policy, or work to lobby for a free trade agreement with a country? What if you simply write for a foreign organisation and end up writing about Singapore politics? What if you work for Facebook or Google in a politics facing team, or work for a foreign university?    

Again the scope of the powers seems extraordinary and with no recourse to courts, how do individuals wrongfully charged defend themselves?  

Many of these problems pertain to definitions within the Act and robust debate and a thorough review of the proposal might help address a lot of these concerns but as it stands, the FICA Act is set to be approved within days. 

Why is such far-reaching legislation being pushed through at such speed?  

While preventing foreign interference is important, this does not seem an urgent matter. Singapore already has some of the strongest security and anti-terrorism laws in the world, combined with extremely robust intelligence and security services.  

So, why is the government expanding its powers so massively and so quickly? 

It’s also doing so at a time when the country is facing its highest daily death tolls from Covid-19 and the public is much more concerned about management of the virus than complex laws impacting security.  

Again it seems that at the very least FICA should be put on the back burner for a while until the Opposition, relevant civil society groups and lawyers have had the time to review it thoroughly. 

This is key legislation conferring unprecedented power on an already very powerful government and now may not be the best time to push this through rapidly and with minimal scrutiny. 

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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