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EXPLAINED: 'Toy Gun' Or 'Totalitarian Leanings'? Why Singapore Law On Foreign Meddling Has Sparked Debate

The Singapore Parliament. The FICA legislation was debated for 10 hours by Singapore lawmakers before it was passed

The Singapore Parliament. The FICA legislation was debated for 10 hours by Singapore lawmakers before it was passed

Singapore has passed a law against foreign meddling that hands sweeping powers to the government to crack down on internet content

None other than the US has been prey to it while Australia can be counted among the countries that have brought in laws to tackle it. India, too, has taken action against Chinese apps over the same fears: meddling and subversion by foreign actors via the exploitation of online resources. But a law passed by Singapore — the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act, or FICA — has sparked concerns over censorship and draconian actions and fuelled a debate as to how far can countries go to curb what is widely regarded as a growing menace of the internet age.

What Does The Law Say?

According to the words of the legislation, it is intended to “protect the public interest by counteracting acts of foreign interference". Singapore’s Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said the aim is to “address a serious threat that concerns our national security and sovereignty".

The Act hands sweeping powers to designated authorities in Singapore to employ “countermeasures" targeted at preventing online publication and circulation of material deemed to be in violation of its terms and also requires individuals and entities regarded as being in a position to exert political influence to make disclosures of any foreign associations.

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With a view to clamping down against ‘hostile information campaigns’, authorities can invoke FICA to order internet and social media companies to share user information, block content and also take down any app that is deemed to be exerting a subversive influence in Singapore’s political discourse, a threat that the government said was immediate and palpable.

“Our racial and religious mix is easily exploitable by different countries, and we see a steady build-up of different narratives, which is being very cleverly done," Shanmugam said during the debate on the legislation in the Singapore parliament.

“The internet has created a powerful new medium for subversion. Countries are actively developing attack and defence capabilities as an arm of warfare, equal to, and more potent than, the land, air and naval forces," he had told his fellow lawmakers, who will be required to fulil compliances under FICA. The law refers to a category of “politically significant persons" (PSPs) who will have to comply with rules pertaining to donations and declare their links to foreign entities.

FICA defines PSPs as anything from a a political party to an election candidate, agent of such candidate, any political office holder or Member of Parliament, among others.

Why Has It Been Criticised?

Opposition members in the Singapore parliament complained that the Bill — which was tabled on September 13 — was rushed through without adequate discussion on its provisions. Following a debate that lasted for more than 10 hours and continued till close to midnight the Bill was passed by the parliament — where the ruling People’s Action Party enjoys an overwhelming majority — with 75 votes in its favour. Eleven opposition members objected to the Bill while two members abstained.

The main opposition Worker’s Party flagged issues, echoed by political commentators, that the broad construct of the legislation and the wide-ranging powers it hands to members of the executive raise fears of its being abused to stifle democracy.

Others have been more acerbic. Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said that the law “will enable the government to designate any independent media outlet as a foreign agent and to censor its content" under the guise of defending Singapore’s national interest. Noting that it was

passed within weeks of being brought in, RSF said it “condemns the rushed debate and hasty vote on a draft law that was the subject of fierce criticism by the parliamentary opposition and civil society", adding that FICA “contains within it the seeds of the worst totalitarian leanings".

A petition on change.org that had gone up before FICA was passed into law says it is “an overly broad law that grants the minister for home affairs (of Singapore) vast powers, with serious repercussions for civil society, independent media, and public discourse". It reiterates concerns, aired by various sections, that FICA “will have serious ramifications for multiple stakeholders and large sections of society, including academia, business, civil society, and the media".

“FICA allows the minister for home affairs vast powers to issue directives that can censor online content and even shut down media outlets. All that is required for the issuance of such directions is for the minister to be of the opinion that online communications activity has been undertaken, or has been suspected of being undertaken, on behalf of a foreign principal, and that it is in the public interest to take action," it said.

A key issue that has been flagged relates to legal remedies envisaged under the Act. Any entity aggrieved by a direction under FICA has to first approach the home ministry itself for its revocation, which, RSF says, makes it “judge and party in the same case". If the ministry rules otherwise, it cannot go to a court but to a tribunal set up on the government’s recommendation. The tribunal’s decisions will be final.

Reports note that independent media have come under increasing pressure in Singapore with a leading news website, Online Citizen, suspended last month for failing to declare its funding sources. Mainstream media in the city-state is mostly seen as being pro-government, with the People’s Action Party having been in power for six decades.

What Has The Government Said?

On the charge of uncommon haste in rushing the Bill through, minister Shanmugam said that the issue of regulation of online content was taken up more than three years back — his reference was to the setting up of a select committee in 2018 to go into the question of fake news — and that it had been discussed in depth.

As to limiting appeals against FICA actions to a tribunal, he said that given the nature of the legislation, cases may involve a scrutiny of sensitive matters that should not be made public.

Seeking to allay fears over censorship and stifling of the free exchange of ideas, the Singapore government said FICA does not bar any legitimate business contacts and activities and the seeking of funds, “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".

The government also said that FICA does not prevent citizens of Singapore from expressing their own views or pursuing their political goals and that it would not target foreign individuals or publications “reporting or commenting on Singapore politics, in an open, transparent and attributable way".

Minister Shanmugam claimed while opening the debate on FICA in parliament that foreign actors have been “steadily building up covert, clever narratives to try and condition Singaporeans’ thinking".

Who Are The Foreign Meddlers That Singapore Is Afraid Of?

Discussing the legislation in parliament, Shanmugam said that the issues that FICA aims to tackle are those that “our people haven’t even begun to realise".

“It’s not obvious propaganda but it conditions people to think in certain ways, particularly on foreign policy issues, often appealing to a larger racial identity beyond the Singaporean identity," he said.

Referring to reports of online meddling in other countries’ affairs — one of the prime examples of which has to do with Russian state-sponsored actors allegedly trying to influence the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election — Shanmugam said that while international media regularly links Russia, China, Iran and North Korea to such attacks, the US and other Western countries have similar capabilities.

“But the threat we face is people armed with bazookas, and I describe this legislation as a toy gun," he said, adding that FICA was much restricted in scope when compared with similar laws passed by the US and Australia.

Amid a standoff with China in Ladakh, India had last year blocked dozens of Chinese apps, including TikTok, saying they were “prejudicial" to the country’s sovereignty and national interest.

“Singapore believes in the law, so we give ourselves legal powers. But in reality the kind of threats we face, the kind of adversaries and the resources they have in terms of manpower, are far greater than what we have,"Shanmugam said.

Pointing to a report by a French think-tank, he said it notes how Singapore could be exposed to Chinese influence operations. He is also said to have referred to what is commonly known as the Gerasimov Doctrine, which is regarded as representing the Russian assessment of the primacy of non-military means for achieving political and strategic objectives, including through misinformation campaigns and digital subversion.

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first published:October 07, 2021, 18:01 IST