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Explained: What is Singapore’s controversial law to counter foreign interference?

What is Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act? Who are politically significant persons and what does the Act say about them? What are the criticisms of the Act?

Written by Sanskriti Falor , Edited by Explained Desk |
October 6, 2021 12:07:05 pm
singaporeCyclists near the Merlion statue, a popular tourist attraction in Singapore (AP)

Singapore has passed a law aimed at strengthening the government’s ability to “prevent, detect or disrupt” any foreign interference in domestic politics through either “hostile information campaigns” and “use of local proxies”.

The Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill, approved after a 10-hour long debate in the parliament on Monday, was first tabled on September 13 by Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam of the ruling People’s Action Party.

“This is because activities undertaken by foreign persons, and those acting on their behalf, can cause severe harm to Singapore’s national security, compromise Singapore’s military capabilities and security relationships, threaten Singapore’s economic stability and undermine Singapore’s political sovereignty and system of government,” the bill states.

What is Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act?

The Act gives powers to the Singapore government to deal against foreign interference through electronic communications, including online communication, which may influence the citizens and act against the public interest.

The act identifies people who could possibly present a threat to the country’s political sovereignty if “the person’s activities are influenced by foreign principals”.

It would preempt, prevent and reduce the foreign interference of “politically significant persons”. The act states that people who are involved in Singapore’s political processes would be categorised as politically significant persons and would be required to periodically disclose funding sources. “Heavier responsibilities are placed on politically significant persons which are assessed as presenting a higher risk,” the bill states.

The Act provides the Minister of Home Affairs the right to investigate, stop access to or remove social media accounts, internet websites and applications and internet services.

FICA requires Singaporean newspapers and media organisations, which publish articles on political issues, to disclose all the information about all their foreign authors or foreign entities on whose directions a particular article might be published in their newspaper, news programme or website.

The Act has been widely criticised as being a measure against the Singapore government’s dissent. A statement released by the Ministry of Home Affairs said, “These provisions do not apply to Singaporeans expressing their own views on political matters, unless they are agents of a foreign principal. Singaporeans have the right to discuss politics. Nor do they apply to foreign individuals or foreign publications reporting or commenting on Singapore politics, in an open, transparent and attributable way, even if their comments may be critical of Singapore or the Government.”

What are hostile information campaigns according to the act?

FICA states that it would be acting against any foreign interference that would be conducted through any Hostile Information Campaigns (HICs).

According to the Act, HICs are “highly sophisticated and secretive methods”. If an act is identified as HIC or thought to be a hostile information campaign, then the government would have the power to ask internet services, social media applications and websites to disclose information required by the authorities about an individual or an organisation “to determine if the harmful communications activity is being undertaken by or on behalf of a foreign principal”.

The Minister of Home Affairs will have the power to ask internet intermediaries to block content, restrict accounts, cease the communication of accounts, and disable accounts. In case an internet intermediary fails to follow the government’s instructions, the Act also gives the Minister a right to block access to the said internet intermediary.

FICA aims to stop the source of funding of “harmful online content that is undertaken by or on behalf of a foreign principal” and would require individuals and organisations that publish harmful online content to return the funding to the “foreign” source of the funding or submit it to the authorities.

Who are politically significant persons and what does the Act say about them?

Individuals and organisations directly associated with Singapore’s political process are, according to the Act, Politically Significant Persons. These include: political parties, political office holders, the Members of Parliament, leader of the House, leader of the Opposition, election candidates and their agents.

The Act states that politically significant persons would face countermeasures under FICA if there exists foreign interference through donations, volunteering, leadership, membership or affiliations.

FICA has overtaken the Political Donations Act, which only prohibited election candidates and agents from taking foreign donations but FICA addresses other politically significant persons too.

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FICA requires politically significant persons to report donations above $10,000; maintain separate accounts for political donations; not let foreigners volunteer in political activities; and disclose all associations with foreign entities.

How will the foreign interference be punished?

The appeals against hostile information campaigns and politically significant persons would be heard by an independent reviewing tribunal and not the courts of the country. The tribunal would be chaired by a sitting high court judge and two people outside the government issued by the Minister of Home Affairs. The decisions made by the tribunal would be final.

According to the government of Singapore, these cases would be heard by the tribunal and not in open court because they might involve “sensitive intelligence with national security implications”.

What are the criticisms of the Act?

The ruling People’s Action Party has been accused of passing FICA as a measure against dissent and cracking down on the media.

Non-governmental Organisation fighting for media rights, Reporters Without Borders issued a statement saying that it was appalled that the Singapore government proposed the bill. It says, “Under the guise of defending national sovereignty, it [FICA] will enable the government to designate any independent media outlet as a foreign agent and to censor its content.”

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Daniel Bastard, the head of Asia-Pacific desk of Reporters Without Borders, said, “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.”

Deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch Phil Robertson, according to The Guardian, said that Singapore has used Foreign influence in FICA as a “bogeyman to justify their expanded persecution of opposition politicians, civil society activists and independent media”.

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