Singapore’s parliament is debating controversial legislation that the government says is necessary to counter alleged foreign interference, but opposition parties, rights groups, social media platforms and others worry is too broad in scope.
The so-called Foreign Interference Countermeasures Act (FICA) was first tabled last month and is likely to be passed since the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has all but 10 of the 93 seats in parliament.
Home minister K Shanmugam got proceedings underway on Monday with a speech to members explaining the government’s position.
The law will give authorities sweeping powers, including compelling internet, social media platforms and website operators to provide user information, block content and remove applications.
The government would also be empowered to designate organisations or individuals “politically significant persons” if their work is perceived to be directed towards a political end in Singapore, without allowing them an opportunity to challenge the designation.
The country, led by the PAP since independence in 1965, already has extensive laws controlling freedom of assembly, expression and association, and introduced a sweeping “fake news” law in 2019.
Freedom House ranked the country “partly free” in its Freedom in the World 2021 report, with a score of 48 out of 100, and noted action taken against online media, which offer a greater diversity of views than the city-state’s mainstream media.
“What with its extremely vague definitions, pervasive arbitrary approach and lack of independent legal recourse for those who are given orders by the government, the FICA bill is an abomination from a purely legal viewpoint and as regards respect for fundamental rights,” Daniel Bastard, the head of Reporters Without Borders Asia-Pacific desk, said in a statement.
“Above all, under the pretext of preventing possible foreign influence on the state, this bill institutionalises the persecution of any domestic entity that does not toe the line set by the government and ruling party, starting with independent media outlets. As it stands, this utterly Kafkaesque project contains within it the seeds of the worst totalitarian leanings.”
The Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill targets foreign interference conducted through Hostile Information Campaigns and local proxies. The Bill does not apply to Singaporeans discussing issues, unless they are acting as foreign agents.#MHAExplains #WhatTheFICA #SGUnited pic.twitter.com/TxqqYbrA5l
— Ministry of Home Affairs, Singapore (@mhasingapore) October 2, 2021
Legal experts have also questioned aspects of the legislation.
“The preemptive powers … and broad scoping of provisions could potentially provide the government with significant wherewithal to curb legitimate civil society activity,” Eugene Tan, a law professor at Singapore Management University, told the Reuters news agency.
“FICA has the makings of being the most intrusive law on the statute books,” he said.
The bill allows the home minister to order investigations in the public interest to “expose hostile information campaigns”, based on suspicion of foreign interference.
Instead of open court, an independent panel, chaired by a judge, will hear appeals against the minister’s decisions, a move the government says is necessary as matters may involve sensitive intelligence with implications for national security.
An online petition urging the government to rethink the law because of its “serious ramifications”, had secured nearly 7,500 signatures as of Monday morning.
In response to a Reuters query, the home ministry said the bill does not apply to discussion or advocacy by Singapore citizens or the vast array of their collaborations with foreigners.
But orders can be issued if a citizen acts for a foreign principal in a manner contrary to the public interest, it added.
The main opposition Workers’ Party has called for changes to the draft law, such as narrowing the scope of executive powers to reduce the risk of abuse of power.
Academia SG, a group of Singaporean scholars who first came together over their concerns about the fake news law, said in an editorial on Friday that the new legislation’s “overreach” would undermine the international exchange and collaboration that allow research to thrive, and deepen self-censorship in the country’s institutions of higher education.
“Its vague language will heighten the controversy-averse, hassle-avoiding tendencies that already stifle academia in Singapore,” the group wrote.
Social media platforms have also raised concerns with Facebook, noting its broad wording.
“Foreign interference as a concept is actually a very broad concept,” Facebook’s Head of Security Policy, Nathaniel Gleicher was quoted as saying in the Straits Times newspaper. “You can imagine it covering both a covert operation that misleads people about what’s happening, and who’s behind it; and an open public effort to persuade being run by an authentic NGO (non-governmental organisation) or community of users.
“Lumping those two things together is tricky and can lead to some real challenges. One of the things we’re going to be looking for is exactly how these divisions are broken up.”