Singapore’s Parliament has passed a controversial new foreign interference law granting the government the power to order the removal of any online content deemed to be part of a “hostile information campaign” orchestrated by a foreign power.
The Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (FICA), which was tabled in parliament three weeks ago, will arm the Ministry of Home Affairs with a range of tools to prevent, detect, and disrupt the use of hostile information campaigns and local proxies by foreign entities attempting to interfere in Singapore’s domestic politics.
The passage of the law by a vote of 75 to 11 was all but guaranteed, given the large majority enjoyed by Singapore’s perpetual ruling party, the People’s Action Party (PAP), but was preceded by a 10-hour debate in which opposition parliamentarians voiced worries about the terms of the law and what they claimed was a lack of public review of the legislation.
During the parliamentary debate, opposition leader Pritam Singh of the Workers’ Party said it was “wholly incongruous for the government to accept that the public of today desires greater checks and balances but then omits to seek public feedback on a Bill that does away with substantive judicial review.”
The law has prompted a good deal of controversy, with civil libertarians and human rights groups arguing that it hands arbitrary power to the Singaporean government to punish citizens on the basis of vague allegations of involvement with foreigners.
In an editorial yesterday, Academia.sg described the bill as “the single biggest threat to academia in Singapore,” while Phil Robertson of the U.S.-based rights group Human Rights Watch said that its passage “constitutes a human rights disaster for community activists, independent media, and opposition politicians.” Even Facebook believes that FICA’s definition of foreign influence is “worded very broadly.”
Daniel Bastard of the journalism watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) warned that the bill carries “the seeds of the worst totalitarian leanings” and “institutionalizes the persecution of any domestic entity that does not toe the line set by the government and ruling party, starting with independent media outlets.”
Specifically, most critics have pointed to the elastic language of the bill and the limits on judicial review. FICA gives the government the power to compel internet service providers and social media platforms to disclose information on users, remove content, and block user accounts. The law also gives authorities the power to prevent apps from being downloaded in Singapore, if those apps are known to be used by foreign principals to conduct hostile information campaigns.
In its own words, the law covers any activity “directed towards a political end in Singapore,” including attempts to influence views on matters “that have become the subject of a political debate in Singapore.” The bill also allows the government to designate individuals and groups directly involved in Singapore’s political processes as “politically significant persons,” who will have to comply with strict rules relating to donations and declare their links to foreign entities. Yet critics claim that FICA defines “engaging in conduct on behalf of a foreign principal” in overly broad terms.
In a statement on the proposed law, the Ministry of Home Affairs argued that foreign interference, particularly the use of online tools to mislead or incite users and advance a foreign country’s interest, “poses a serious threat to [Singapore’s] political sovereignty and national security.” In particular, the ministry cited recent cases of alleged Chinese foreign interference in Australia and the European Union, and a spike in suspicious social media activity during a bilateral dispute with Malaysia in 2018.
Responding to its critics, the government said FICA does not cover networking with foreigners, the building of overseas partnerships and relationships, or soliciting investment from abroad. It also will not impact those discussing policies or political matters that affect their businesses with foreign colleagues or partners, “as long as they are done in an open and transparent manner, and not part of an attempt to manipulate our political discourse or undermine public interest such as security,” Minister for Home Affairs K. Shanmugam said in parliament.
The home affairs ministry has previously said it would not apply to foreign individuals or publications “reporting or commenting on Singapore politics, in an open, transparent, and attributable way.”
Wherever there is social media use there is the potential for the sort of malicious manipulation that FICA claims to be intended to address. The question is whether the real threat is so serious that it justifies the sweeping powers granted by the new law. And to this question, the PAP’s answer has effectively been: trust us.
While the Singaporean government enjoys relatively high levels of public trust, the city-state has never been a particularly friendly place for dissenting voices. In practice, freedom of expression is tightly circumscribed by a legal system that allows politicians and other prominent people to sue journalists, bloggers, or dissident intellectuals into submission. Last month, leading news website the Online Citizen was suspended for failing to declare its sources of funding.
Given this general trend – the PAP’s tendency to lean on the “order” part of “law and order” – the people deserve more than the government’s assurances, premised on its reputation for economic competence, that the law will not be used to silence voices critical of the PAP and its policies.
“The problem with this whole thing is that Shanmugam insists that FICA won’t touch anyone unless they are being used as foreign proxies,” Kirsten Han, a journalist and rights advocate who has been outspoken about the law’s overreach, argued yesterday on Twitter, “but he and his government is the one who gets to decide whether you’re a foreign proxy or not.”