SINGAPORE: There has been “some degree” of misrepresentation on Singapore’s proposed law against foreign interference, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam in Parliament on Monday (Oct 4).
Under the proposed Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill (FICA), which was introduced in Parliament on Sep 13, authorities will be able to issue directions to Internet and social media service providers and website operators to provide user information, block content and remove applications.
The proposed law has sparked concerns from various groups including opposition parties, academics and experts about its broad scope and limits on judicial review.
Among the misconceptions is the idea that FICA seeks to curtail "normal interactions" with foreigners, said Mr Shanmugam in his opening speech for the second reading of the Bill.
"That is not true. Singapore depends for its success and vitality on being open, and a Government that seeks to close down that, will lead Singapore to ruin," he added.
In the US and Australia, foreign interference laws cover a broad range of people and organisations under control of a foreign government or entity outside of the country or those who have arrangements with foreign principals, the minister noted.
In comparison, Singapore's proposed foreign interference law covers a "much, much, much narrower" group.
It will only cover defined and designated politically significant persons, said Mr Shanmugam.
"A (politically significant person) designation is possible if the activities are directed towards a political end and it is in the public interest that countermeasures should be applied," he said.
The definition of public interest includes the requirement of proportionality, which the minister or authority will have to consider in arriving at a decision, and that the decision has to be made on the basis that it is necessary or expedient, he added.
Based on this, the "vast majority" of collaborations and linkages between Singaporeans and foreigners will not meet the required conditions as well as the requirement of proportionality, said Mr Shanmugam.
"Collaboration and partnership with a foreign person by itself is not the trigger, you have to go further and look at the facts – is there a hostile campaign, damage to Singapore? Is there a foreign agency involved? What is the extent of possible damage?" he said.
"These are non-exclusive factors nor must they all be present or any one present."
Responding to concerns about the timing of the Bill – which was tabled less than a month ago – Mr Shanmugam said the issue has been talked about “extensively” for more than three years.
A Select Committee also heard extensive evidence on the issue in 2018, he added.
PROVISIONS UNDER THE BILL
With technology evolving and new communication tools allowing foreign actors to blend in with authentic online users and distorting reality, the rules of war have changed, said Mr Shanmugam.
Singapore's racial and religious mix is "easily exploitable" by different countries, he said, adding that the country is seeing a steady build-up of different narratives cleverly done so that they do not appear to be obvious propaganda but instead, conditions people to think in certain ways on foreign policy issues.
"(It's) often appealing to a larger racial identity, beyond the Singaporean identity. In my view, this is one of the most serious threats we face, and our population and I think most Members of Parliament are not aware of this," he said.
That is why, he said, there's a need for more targeted and calibrated legislation to address these evolving threats.
"It can be seen that FICA is an update to ensure that our laws can deal with online hostile information campaigns, by allowing for disclosure of information by global platforms and new offences which have to be proven beyond reasonable doubt in court, for perpetrating hostile information campaigns in a clandestine way," he said.
Ministers of State for Home Affairs Faishal Ibrahim and Desmond Tan went into more detail on the areas covered in the Bill.
Dr Faishal described the new offences laid out in the Bill, stressing that they are aimed at acts of foreign interference "by covert means using electronic communications".
In the Bill, electronic communications activity is defined as the communication or distribution of any information or material through means of SMS, MMS, a social media service, a relevant electronic service or an Internet access service.
The new offences include the offence of clandestine foreign interference by electronic communications activity, Dr Faishal said.
There is also a separate aggravated offence of clandestine foreign interference of a target using electronic communications activity, and another for preparing or planning for either of the first two, he noted.
These offences will be investigated by the police, and for offences involving the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), the police will work with the SAF, he added.
There are three elements for the first offence, said Dr Faishal.
First, the person must be acting on behalf of a foreign principal or on behalf of a person acting on behalf of a foreign principal, and the person undertakes electronic communications activity that results in or involves publishing any information or material in Singapore.
The other two elements are: Any part of the person's undertaking or electronic communication activity "is covert or involves deception", and the person knows or has reason to believe that the activity, information or material published in Singapore is against the country's public interest.
However, this offence does not cover Singaporeans acting on their own accord, foreigners making open and attributable comments, or unintentional acts, Dr Faishal added.
For example, an article by a foreigner who openly declares his identity published in a foreign publication like the Wall Street Journal would not be an offence under FICA, he noted.
"The same applies to foreign political observers or political commentators publishing on a social media platform or a blog, if they make no attempt to mislead Singaporeans as to who they are," said Dr Faishal.
"A Singaporean shares an online video propagated as part of a foreign HIC (hostile information campaign) on his social media account. However, he does so unwittingly and was not aware that the content is part of a HIC nor did he receive any support or instruction from a foreign principal. The Singaporean also has not committed an offence."
The Bill also includes "customised powers" for the Government to act against hostile information campaigns online, said Dr Faishal.
Under the new legislation, the Government can issue directions to obtain information about such campaigns before they happen, and to detect and prevent them from taking place.
If hostile information campaigns occur, the Government can also issue directions to contain them, he noted.
Dr Faishal gave an example of how hostile information campaigns have been conducted against other countries.
"On a social media service, a set of accounts amasses followers by first posting popular content on lifestyle matters, such as cute animal videos or funny memes. There are multiple accounts, and the accounts act in coordination. For example, account A actively tries to increase B's visibility, by sharing its content, and so on," he said.
"At the opportune moment, such as election season or during a period of tension with another country, these accounts start to pivot to social and political commentaries hoping to sway how Singaporeans vote or react to a foreign policy issue."
If this happens in Singapore and agencies detect these accounts gaining traction, the Government can issue a technical assistance direction to investigate the origin of such accounts, said the Minister of State.
If the Government has "sufficient reason to believe" that these are foreign accounts planning to undertake a hostile information campaign against Singapore, it can issue account restriction directions to prevent them from propagating their content to users in Singapore, he added.
"MHA has studied international cases and reviewed testimony from the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods to come up with these directions," said Dr Faishal.
"Let me reiterate that MHA will use these powers judiciously and will calibrate our actions based on the specifics of each case. In assessing whether a HIC (hostile information campaign) is afoot, the primary determinant is the behaviour of the actor involved, and the entities behind the content.
"It is clear therefore that Singaporeans who are simply expressing their own views or engaging in the political process on their own accord are not covered. And neither will the vast majority of communications involving foreigners, be it journalism or academia, or online advocacy."
POLITICALLY SIGNIFICANT PERSONS
In his speech, Mr Tan explained the role and scope of politically significant persons as set out in the Bill, and said that there are "no substantial changes" from the Political Donations Act.
"Where it is new, it is meant to address gaps," he said, reiterating that Singapore's approach is "narrower" than the Australian and US approaches.
Politically significant persons, as listed in the Bill, includes political parties, political office holders, Members of Parliament, Leader of the House, Leader of the Opposition, election candidates and election agents.
With the new legislation, the "competent authority", or a civil servant in the Home Affairs Ministry appointed by the minister, can designate other individuals and entities as politically significant parties, Mr Tan noted.
To do this, certain conditions have to be met: They must be members of foreign political or legislative bodies, or their activities are directed in part towards a political end, and the competent authority assesses that it is in the public interest to apply these countermeasures, he added.
"It is important that we have levers to designate and impose countermeasures on individuals or entities who may be at risk of foreign interference and have exhibited behaviour that points to such risk," said Mr Tan.
"It also has the effect of promoting transparency and deterring would-be foreign actors with malicious intent from trying to influence Singapore's politics through these proxies."
The Bill also sets out requirements for these politically significant parties in terms of accepting donations, volunteers, declaring affiliations, and leadership or membership.
All politically significant parties will need to disclose donations to the competent authority if they are S$10,000 or more. Smaller donations from the same donor in the same reporting period that amount to S$10,000 or more in total must also be disclosed, Mr Tan noted.
Defined politically significant parties will be subject to more stringent donation controls, he added.
These parties are also prohibited from accepting voluntary labour or services from foreigners. For example, an MP cannot allow foreigners to volunteer at Meet-the-People sessions or community outreach programmes, said Mr Tan.
For designated politically significant parties, there is no prohibition on foreign volunteers in the first instance, but if there is "an increased risk of foreign interference", the competent authority can require the party to report the voluntary labour and services rendered by foreigners.
Under the new legislation, there are also other countermeasures for instances where "the Government will need to act" even before an individual or organisation is designated as a politically significant party.
Singapore citizens will be required to declare their involvement in foreign political or legislative bodies, said Mr Tan.
"MHA recognises that there may be innocuous instances where Singaporeans living abroad join foreign political bodies, such as Singaporean students joining foreign political parties while they are studying abroad, out of their own personal interests," he added.
"However, this can nonetheless still pose a threat, as such Singaporeans may be cultivated, approached or influenced, even unknowingly, and subsequently made use of to affect our local politics."
Based on the Government's "experience of seeing foreign writers masquerading as local writers in penning articles relating to Singaporean political matters", the authorities "felt it was important" for Singaporeans to be aware of the origin of such articles and perspectives, said Mr Tan.
If there is an increased risk of foreign interference, the competent authority can issue a transparency directive to direct any newspaper, media outlet, or any defined or designated politically significant party to disclose the particulars of the foreign author or principal who directed the publishing of the article or programme, if it is a political matter relating to Singapore.
APPEALS AND ADDRESSING ACADEMICS
Like in the Political Donations Act, there is "no fixed expiry date" for the designation and countermeasures imposed on the politically significant parties, said Mr Tan.
If a designated party wants to challenge the designation or imposed countermeasures, it can submit an application to the competent authority or appeal to the Home Affairs Minister, he noted.
"Unless a Singaporean or entity is acting as a foreign agent or working with foreigners to affect our public interest, they will not be covered," said Mr Tan.
Areas like academic research, business partnerships, creative collaborations and cultural exchanges will not be designated, he added.
"An employee working for an American tech firm that is openly advocating for American technology as part of their business will not be designated as there is no public interest in doing so.
"It is also not within the Bill's intent to prevent local NGOs from freely working with foreign businesses on their corporate social responsibility projects."
Amid concerns from academics on the impact of the proposed law on their research and collaboration with foreigners, Mr Shanmugam also stressed in his speech that FICA will not affect the "vast" amount of academic work that is being done.
"We value the intellectual output, collaborations, exchange of ideas, the work our academics do and they need to link with the rest of the world for work, bona fide and professional work is not affected, it is important for Singapore," he said.
However, in some situations, he said there are academics who go into a "different realm" around the world.
Pointing to the case of Huang Jing, a former professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Mr Shanmugam said academics may collaborate with foreign intelligence agents in an attempt to influence senior decision-makers in government.
Huang was identified by the Ministry of Home Affairs in 2017 as an "agent of influence for a foreign country" by Singapore's Ministry of Home Affairs.
RESPONDING TO WP'S PROPOSED AMENDMENTS
In his speech, Mr Shanmugam also addressed proposed amendments to the draft law raised by the Workers' Party (WP).
Among the points raised by the WP, the party had called for greater clarity and transparency on the identities of the people and entities that have been subjected to the law.
It suggested maintaining a public registry of all individuals and entities designated as politically sensitive persons or declared involvement in foreign policy organisation.
In response, Mr Shanmugam said the Government can agree to the WP's suggestions to make public all designations, stepped up countermeasures on politically significant persons, transparency directives, as well as hostile information campaign directives.
However, he added that technical assistance requirements will not be made public, as they will be in the course of investigations and could tip off hostile actors about the authority's investigations.
On MP Leon Perera's (WP-Aljunied) suggestion to make public the names of citizens involved in foreign political and legislative organisations, Mr Shanmugam said the Government will relook that particular point and if it agrees with him, it could make the amendment in the future.
“A substantial number of these citizens may not be PSPs (politically significant persons), the required reporting requirement under clause 79 applies to non-PSPs, ordinary citizens,” he said.
“It could become quite wide and we have to be mindful when making disclosures relating to this group. So we are studying that particular issue, whether we should make all these non-PSPs reports public,” he said.
"Our previous intention was we should let them have their privacy on this, reporting to the Government is enough but given that Mr Perera has raised this, we will relook that particular point."
The WP also called for oversight of executive action by the judiciary and a "more precise scoping" of executive powers to "significantly lower the likelihood of abuse of power". MP He Ting Ru (WP-Sengkang) suggested replacing the tribunal with proceedings in the High Court instead.
However, Mr Shanmugam said there are trade-offs whether the appeals are heard by a tribunal or the High Court.
"You have to weigh the risks of a rogue government doing that (abusing its powers) versus a rogue foreign interference. The latter is a far greater risk," he said.
If a rogue government abused its powers, it can be looked at by a tribunal headed by a Supreme Court judge, with all decisions published so that people can see and assess for themselves, he added.
"Ultimately, people have the final say in a highly educated, literate population like Singapore, final say of their opinion and public opinion expressed through elections in Singapore. People in Singapore won't stand for a rogue government," he said.
In contrast, Mr Shanmugam said the risk of not giving the power or requiring a court process will severely compromise the Government's ability to deal with the very real risk of foreign interference.
"This law gives the Government a set of tools that can help, it is not a complete defence against foreign interference but they can help," said Mr Shanmugam.
"And the Bill represents the best balance, that they can find between dealing with the risks and providing checks against abuse."