Singapore passes anti-foreign interference law after marathon debate

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Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill debate in Singapore's Parliament on 4 October 2021. (SCREENSHOT: Ministry of Communications and Information/YouTube)
Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill debate in Singapore's Parliament on 4 October 2021. (SCREENSHOT: Ministry of Communications and Information/YouTube)

SINGAPORE — Singapore passed a controversial law to counter foreign interference on late Monday night (4 October) after more than 10 hours of intense debate in Parliament.

The Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (FICA) will empower the Minister for Home Affairs to order takedowns of content deemed to be part of hostile information campaigns. It will also enable him to compel, among others, social media companies to disclose information to help investigate and counter hostile communications activity of foreign origin.

FICA is a calibrated piece of legislation that enables the government to act surgically against "threats that have come and continue to loom over us", said Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam.

The Bill was passed after 75 Members of Parliament (MPs) said "yes", 11 from the Workers’ Party and Progress Singapore Party objected, and two Nominated MPs abstained. It came after WP chief and Leader of The Opposition Pritam Singh asked for a division to record all the votes by MPs.

Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh voting
Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh voting "No" against the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill during its reading in Parliament on 4 October 2021. (SCREENSHOT: Ministry of Communications and Informations/YouTube)

The law has been criticised by some opposition politicians and academics for its broad provisions and lack of judicial review, which leaves it vulnerable to abuse by a rogue government. Such concerns were also raised by several MPs on Monday.

Among them, Shanmugam explained the reasons for the creation of a tribunal to deliberate on cases of foreign inference under the new law instead of through a judicial review. A tribunal is an appropriate forum to deal with sensitive matters such as national security and foreign relations, he said.

“When the courts are not suitable, we have introduced other types of bodies or tribunals with statutorily imposed safeguards. I have taken this House through various pieces of legislation where we have vested powers in tribunals, as an alternate to the courts, as a form of checks and balances.”

Shanmugam told MPs that the tribunal has been vested with the powers to override the minister’s decision.

Members of the tribunal will be selected based on their areas of expertise, Shanmugam said. They will have to undergo security vetting because they will be receiving highly classified information and must protect it under the Official Secrets Act.

Shanmugam also rebutted criticisms that the Bill was rushed to Parliament and did not involve public consultation.

He reminded the House that the authorities have been extensively consulting with experts and others for the past three years ahead of the Bill’s introduction. “This is not the end, it's the beginning. We will face a major attack at some point. We need to bring the entire society together...So there is a long haul ahead of us, and the public has to be involved in that.”

Keeping actors' identities confidential

The minister also addressed a question on whether Singapore should make known the activities and identities of the actors who were involved in foreign interference against the country.

Earlier in the debate, Shanmugam mentioned a report by the Strategic Research Institute of France’s military college on influence operations, which named Singapore as among the country case studies.

While Shanmugam did not name the country that was the main focus of the institute’s findings, the report is entitled "Chinese influence operations - a Machiavellian moment". In its report, the institute wrote about the extensive network that China has built over the years to exert its influence around the world including Singapore.

“We have taken the approach not to name foreign state actors whom we suspect to be involved in these attempts. There are wider national and foreign policy considerations in doing so...National security concerns may make it impractical to publish the reasons for actions taken,” Shanmugam said.

Even with the introduction of the Bill, Shanmugam warned of the wide asymmetry between the actors capable of hostile foreign interference and the ability of Singapore to thwart them.

“But the threat we face are people armed with bazookas and I described this legislation as a toy gun...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.”

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