Singapore has not named the countries is sees as an interference threat . Photo: AFP / Roslan Rahmam

SINGAPORE – The passage of a controversial bill aimed at preventing “foreign interference” in Singapore’s domestic politics has sparked debate in the city-state, with some airing concerns that the broadly worded Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act, or FICA, could negatively impact perceptions of Singapore as a global hub.

 Others see the new legislation, approved by the country’s parliament on October 4 after a nearly 11-hour debate, as being at least in part a reaction to signs of increasing Chinese cyber-espionage across Asia and the risk it could pose to the multiracial city-state, which has a large Mandarin-speaking ethnic-Chinese majority.

 Rights groups and activists, meanwhile, have argued that the law overreaches by giving broad powers to the government and limiting judicial review. Critics have described FICA as being crafted to stifle dissent and target political activists, community organizers and independent media outlets under the guise of defending national sovereignty.

Singapore’s powerful Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said in his parliamentary speech that FICA is part of a “comprehensive strategy to deal with foreign interference,” calling it a “calibrated piece of legislation to allow us to act surgically against threats” while describing the internet as a “powerful new medium for subversion.”

The law gives Singapore’s government sweeping powers over internet content and allows for authorities to force social media platforms and internet service providers to hand over user data, remove applications from app stores, and block access to online content that is deemed as being part of a hostile information campaign.

 FICA allows the country’s home minister to order investigations into an individual or organization if foreign interference is suspected, provided that such directives serve “the public interest” by preventing activities that could result in “a diminution of public confidence” in the government or are “directed towards a political end.”

 The legislation also enables the home affairs ministry to publicly designate individuals or organizations as “politically significant persons” if they are assessed to be at risk of becoming potential targets of foreign influence, and thereby made to abide by strict rules pertaining to political donations and declaration of their links to foreign entities.

Legal avenues for appealing the ministry’s designation and measures imposed upon them are available only through mechanisms that exist outside the remit of the judiciary. Under the law, the court’s ability to judicially review the government’s use of powers is severely circumscribed. Judicial review is explicitly limited only to procedural matters.

Rights groups say the law overreaches by giving broad powers to the government and limiting judicial review. Photo: AFP / Roslan Rahman

For national security reasons, an executive-appointed tribunal chaired by a sitting High Court judge – not an open court – will hear appeals against the home ministry’s decisions, measures the government has said are necessary owing to the likelihood that decisions may involve sensitive information and intelligence collaboration with foreign counterparts.

According to the law, an individual found to have published information on behalf of a “foreign principal” towards a political end can be fined up to 100,000 Singapore dollars (US$74,000) and jailed for up to 14 years if the affiliation is not declared. Organizations reportedly face a maximum fine of 1 million Singapore dollars ($741,000).

Eugene Tan, a law professor at the Singapore Management University (SMU), told Asia Times that he regards FICA as “potentially the most powerful or intrusive law” on Singapore’s statute books “because of its potential to curb legitimate civil society activity and healthy public discourse if it is abused by a rogue government of the day.”

Tan added that while a lack of full judicial oversight does not mean that the authorities will use FICA without due regard and due process, and that the law’s “responsible use” would cushion concerns and negative perceptions, its misuse would “severely undermine democracy, diminish governance, and impoverish civil society in Singapore.”

Despite fierce criticism by the parliamentary opposition and civil society, the law’s passage was a foregone conclusion owing to the legislative supermajority wielded by the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). Opposition lawmakers had called on the government to commit the bill to a select committee for public input and strengthen its oversight mechanisms.

Legislators with Singapore’s main opposition party, the Workers’ Party (WP), accused authorities of rushing the contentious bill’s passage while also proposing several amendments and suggestions aimed at more precisely scoping executive powers. FICA was ultimately approved just three weeks after its first reading on 13 September.

“What this entire process has showcased is that the government is capable of pushing through policies without any need for buy-in from the public or from stakeholders,” said Felix Tan, a political analyst at Nanyang Technological University. “It has, and probably will have in the long term, some ramifications in winning public trust.”

The analyst added that while FICA would have very little impact on the lives of most Singaporeans, it is “most unfortunate” that non-governmental organizations, academics, and even businesses risked being caught in the dragnet. “However broad FICA might be, I do believe there is a need to examine the concerns that this law is targeting,” Tan said.

  

Legislators with the opposition Workers’ Party accused authorities of rushing the bill’s passage. Photo: AFP / Roslan Rahman

Though 11 opposition lawmakers voted against FICA, and despite disagreements over aspects of the legislation, opposition leader Pritam Singh maintained that foreign interference indeed poses a credible threat to Singapore and agreed that the government should have “potentially intrusive powers to intervene in the appropriate case.”

In parliamentary discussions, both the government and opposition notably stopped short of naming the countries that the law intends to target. Shanmugam said that while Western powers like the United States were no strangers to meddling, directly naming state actors involved in hostile information campaigns could incur major geopolitical costs.

The home minister directly cited interference operations allegedly conducted in third countries by Russia and the US, though appeared to more cautiously allude to scenarios involving alleged Chinese-linked activities. Observers don’t rule out that Beijing’s rising cyber-espionage prowess was a key consideration in crafting the law.

Ja-Ian Chong, a political scientist from Singapore, said potential Chinese-backed activities “go far beyond” cyber-espionage operations and could include “running content farms that spread disinformation, trying to shape the views of local media, as well as trying to frame popular perspectives through entertainment and news programming.”

“Then there are alleged attempts to compromise elites in positions of decision-making authority in order to affect policy. These all pose a risk for Singapore,” said the academic, who cited a recent report by the Institute for Strategic Research at France’s Military College detailing how Singapore’s various structural vulnerabilities risk being exploited by China.

Chong said that the report highlighted how appeals to ethnic ties and “Asian values” are potential vulnerabilities that are particular to Singapore, where around 74% of the city-state’s total population of 5.4 million are ethnic Chinese. The 646-page study also noted that the city-state has proven to be “particularly resilient to Chinese influence.”

The report cited Singapore’s 2017 expulsion of the Chinese-American academic Huang Jing who authorities accused of being an agent of foreign influence for an undisclosed country – widely presumed to be China. Huang allegedly provided “privileged information” to senior Singapore officials with the intent of affecting their decisions, which he denies.

Dylan Loh, an assistant professor of public policy and global affairs at Nanyang Technological University, said he views the new legislation as being “motivated by Singapore’s own experiences with foreign interference and also what it sees as happening around the world with […] various other actors, besides China.”

Requirements that may involve storing personal information risk putting multinational corporations in tension with legal requirements in other jurisdictions. Photo: AFP / Roslan Rahman

“Singapore’s unique position as the only sovereign country with a majority Chinese population makes it a naturally attractive location for the exchange of culture, trade, knowledge, people and by extension, inevitably influence and interference from China. So that consideration certainly figures in FICA, but I would not say that’s the main reason.”

Loh added that amid strong criticism of the law and expressions of alarm about its broad potential for misuse, “it remains to be seen what negative long-term effects there will be and definitive claims in that regard are, in my view, premature. Essentially, it really depends on how the government wields this power.”

“If it frequently invokes FICA to stifle free speech and hamper normal international collaboration, then surely there will be some deleterious effect. But if it is used purely for narrowly scoped foreign interference activities, I don’t see any long-term damage to Singapore’s reputation either perceptually or in reality,” said the academic.

Chong, however, said some of FICA requirements for online service providers that may involve collecting and storing personal information risk putting multinational corporations in tension with legal requirements in other jurisdictions, and such uncertainty surrounding compliance could make Singapore comparatively less appealing as a hub.

“There is a chance to reduce this uncertainty through clearer subsidiary legislation,” Chong said. “I would also add that persistent investigative reporting, robust academic research into sensitive areas, and civil society mobilization are key components in addressing malicious foreign influence in many places around the world. Singapore lacks these protections.”

SMU law professor Tan said that authorities would have to be very clear that FICA does not ensnare legitimate activities and collaboration. “Where people or organizations are improperly dealt with under FICA, it would be a severe body blow to the [law’s] integrity,” one which would “severely undercut” efforts to effectively combat foreign interference.

The academic said there may well be concerns by foreign stakeholders of FICA’s pointed intent and wide reach. “Now is the much harder part of shaping public opinion, including those outside Singapore, that FICA is more of a shield rather than a sword in the name of protecting Singapore and Singaporeans from foreign interference,” Tan added.