WP questions speed at which foreign interference Bill was tabled, says public should have been consulted
SINGAPORE: The Workers’ Party (WP) on Monday (Oct 4) questioned the "rush" to pass the proposed measures to counter foreign interference, and said that the public should have been consulted before the Bill was tabled.
The Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill was introduced in Parliament three weeks ago. It seeks to prevent, detect and disrupt the use of hostile information campaigns and local proxies by foreign entities intending to interfere in domestic politics.
The proposed law would enable authorities to require social media companies and Internet service providers to disclose user information or block access to content that is deemed to be part of a hostile information campaign.
Speaking during the debate on Monday, Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh and other WP Members of Parliament questioned the speed at which the Bill was brought to the House.
“Public feedback should have been sought on this Bill. The Government failed to do so and does not appear minded to postpone this debate,” said Mr Singh during the second reading of the Bill.
“There is an opportunity to commit the Bill to a select committee for public input and to review oversight mechanisms amongst others. The Government should not close the door to this," he added.
“What is more perplexing is that we know that the Government had been mulling the introduction of this Bill for many months. Why was it so difficult to undertake a period of public consultation before it was tabled for first reading?”
MP He Ting Ru (WP-Sengkang) similarly noted that there were no public consultations or select committees convened “for the purposes of scrutinising the powers it gives the minister”.
This approach is a “stark contrast” to the introduction of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), which saw a cross-party select committee convening public hearings over eight days, with 79 individuals and organisations testifying, she added.
“I also note that the Bill is 168 pages longer than the POFMA Bill and contains, on the face of it, even broader powers, which should logically mean that more scrutiny must be given before it is passed,” said Ms He.
She sought clarification from Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam about “the pressing need to forge ahead on this Bill now”.
“While I reiterate that the Workers’ Party agrees that appropriate measures need to be put in place to counter the threat of foreign interference, we would like to understand what is the real and imminent threat that Singapore faces that warrants such a rush in passing the Bill?”
Ms He also asked about the number of instances of suspected foreign interference in the last 10 years.
“And more crucially, why are the specific powers and tools contained under the Bill so urgently required by the minister and various competent authorities, that would mean the Bill needs to be rushed ahead and passed into law without further delay at this particular juncture?”
The Bill is “not an obscure one”, she said, adding that it will impact the lives of Singaporeans if passed.
CONCERNS WITH THE BILL
Lawyers and “several Singaporean academics” have voiced “grave concerns” over the Bill, including its broad scope, said Ms He.
“There is a fear for many that in the rush to pass the Bill to counter foreign interference, we may be throwing the baby out with the bathwater and end up catching many legitimate and innocent people, entities and projects in the dragnet - a fear that has been repeated by numerous voices," she added.
MP Gerald Giam (WP-Aljunied) said there has been a “flurry of criticism” from lawyers, non-governmental organisations, academics and journalists, with some wondering if it will affect perceptions of Singapore as a global hub.
“Some of my constituents have written to me expressing their concern with the Bill’s overreach. These criticisms are not unfounded and are reflective of the disquiet felt by many,” he told the House.
“The root of this disquiet is that FICA (Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act) elects many broad and sweeping measures in an attempt to prevent Singaporeans from being misled by hostile information campaigns over the Internet.
“If these draconian measures are not properly limited, they could have a chilling effect on freedom of speech and the exchange of information among Singaporeans.”
ISSUES WITH OVERSIGHT, OVERREACH
The WP's starting position is that the ubiquity of the threat of foreign interference and its low-cost ecosystem, especially online, is “neither a figment of the imagination nor can it be wished away”, said Mr Singh.
It follows that the Government must have powers, and in some cases “even potentially intrusive powers to intervene in the appropriate case”, he added.
“However, if we accept that such broad-ranging, broadly defined powers should be legislated to deal with foreign interference, then this House must ensure legislation of equally robust oversight mechanisms to prevent abuse of power,” said Mr Singh.
The “high level of executive power” introduced by the Bill “demands that there must be strong oversight mechanisms, namely our courts”, he said.
MP Leon Perera (WP-Aljunied) added that the Bill “overreaches” by giving the Government too much power to act based on suspicions about likely eventualities rather than evidence with no obligation to state reasons publicly.
The Bill “promises to give yet more levers of power to the ruling party” which can potentially be abused for partisan purposes to limit criticism and disadvantage political opponents thus corroding the very functioning of our hard-won democratic society,” he said.
ISSUES WITH APPEAL MECHANISM
Under the Bill, if a party wants to challenge the countermeasures imposed, an appeal can be submitted to the Home Affairs Minister. If the minister declines to vary or cancel the direction, an independent “reviewing tribunal” has the power to overrule the minister.
The appeals are made to this tribunal - headed by a Supreme Court judge – and not to the court to protect sensitive information that may be relied on to make a decision, Mr Shanmugam said in his opening speech.
However, the WP rejects such an appeal mechanism.
“We propose an amendment … to allow first for an appeal to the minister, and thereafter to the High Court with full judicial scrutiny,” said Mr Singh.
There is a provision for private hearing when national security is at risk, he noted.
Mr Perera said that a government-appointed tribunal does not meet the standard of independent oversight.
SCOPE OF FOREIGN INTERFERENCE, POLITICALLY SIGNIFICANT PERSONS
MP Jamus Lim (WP-Sengkang) said the Bill leaves the scope of foreign interference “troublingly vague”.
“The common thread among these amendments is that we need to satisfy a reasonable standard of proof and intent when we claim that an individual has acceded to the influence of foreign principles,” he added.
Society and the legal system have allowed for a “comparatively high” burden of proof for claims and accusations, “which at the very least requires a comparatively high probability of an outcome or event being true”, said Associate Professor Lim.
Singapore also has “well-understood" channels of appeals to allow for overturning rulings that subsequently turn out to be “false positives”.
“But this does not appear to be the case in a number of clauses in this Bill,” he added.
For example, a portion of clause 17 involves charging individuals with an offence if they engage in electronic communications that involve activities that “is or is likely to be prejudicial to the friendly relations of Singapore with other countries”, said Dr Lim.
The word “likely” does not “attribute any probability to this likelihood”, he added.
“Thus, establishing that a given action will amount to an offence will require an estimation of a likelihood.
“While courts have a long history of attributing just cause based on strong, credible evidence, this is an enormous leap of faith for any single largely unchecked individual.”
The WP also questioned if the list of politically significant persons is “far-reaching enough”, said Mr Singh. He said, however, that the party has no objections to the additional requirements of the Bill with regard to political donations.
The civil service has a significant footprint in the success of Singapore, with its central role in influencing government policy as key nodes in decision making, he noted.
Politically significant persons, as defined in the Bill, include political parties, political office holders, MPs, Leader of the House, Leader of the Opposition, election candidates and election agents.
A “competent authority”, or a civil servant in the Home Affairs Ministry appointed by the minister, can also designate other individuals and entities as politically significant parties if certain conditions are met.
Elaborating on Mr Singh’s point, MP Gerald Giam suggested amending it to include permanent secretaries and deputy secretaries in government ministries.
NEED FOR NON-LEGISLATIVE MEASURES
Mr Singh also spoke about the need to put in place non-legislative measures to deal with foreign interference. The Government has been “comparatively muted” on such measures, he said.
“Such measures should include educating the public to resist malignant inflammation efforts, and how to be vigilant against such interference,” he said.
Mr Singh quoted a policy report by the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies on countermeasures against foreign influence published in April this year, which said that to combat foreign interference, it is critical to build resilience by raising awareness about information manipulation in both the government as well as among the public.
According to the paper, foreign campaigns to sway public opinion during the 2017 presidential campaign in France were unsuccessful because the French government created awareness about information manipulation.
It also built strong central organisations to counter this information and undertook a strategy to push counter-narratives that blunted the effects of this information, such as focusing public attention on the perpetrators, Mr Singh noted.
In Singapore, however, Mr Singh said the country did not use an opportunity to engage the public in a conversation when the opportunity arose.
When Singapore was having a spat with Malaysia in 2018 and 2019, there was a spike in online comments critical of Singapore, many from anonymous accounts, he said.
This spike in online chatter sought to give the “artificial impression” that there were significant and fundamental objections to Singapore's position. This was a “highly opportune moment” for the Government to share the nature of the threat, and to engage in a conversation with the public on foreign interference, Mr Singh said.
“But beyond the scanty details, no further clarity and communication on foreign interference have followed,” he said.
“Non-legislative responses that promote a more participatory and educated citizenry would inoculate the population in a whole of society way far better against foreign interference,” he said.
“It is my argument that the Government needs to work with the public in a far more participative way so as to strengthen the resolve of the population against foreign interference,” he said.
“This apparent lack of integration of legislative and non-legislative measures to address foreign interference, in my view, is a critical omission in our public discourse on this subject.”
Mr Giam echoed Mr Singh’s call for other non-legislative measures to combat foreign interference.
“We need to focus much more on public education and avoid over-relying on legislative measures to curb hostile foreign interference,” he added.
Given the “growing sophistication” in the way foreign powers conduct and their influence operations, Singapore needs a “whole-of-society” approach to counter them.
“Sustained public education, of both the young and old, will help remind us that we are a sovereign nation with our own core interests," he said. "This requires a consciously planned and sustainable approach so that Singaporeans are aware that other countries have their own agenda, and our national interests are not necessarily aligned to them.”