Today, ICJ and nine others organizations called on the Government of Singapore to withdraw the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill (‘FICA’). FICA’s provisions contravene international legal and human rights principles – including the rights to freedom of expression, association, participation in public affairs, and privacy – and will further curtail civic space, both online and offline.
On October 4, 2021, the Parliament of Singapore passed FICA, three weeks after it was tabled on September 13 by the Ministry of Home Affairs purportedly to “prevent, detect and disrupt foreign interference in (…) domestic politics”. This was despite serious concerns that the law could undermine civic freedoms – raised by members of the public, civil society, legal fraternity, independent media, political opposition, academia and industry in Singapore. The bill went through both its second and third readings in one parliament sitting and FICA was passed without significant amendments to address key concerns.
While the protection of national security may be a legitimate aim, FICA contravenes the rule of law and the principles of legality, necessity and proportionality under international human rights law. Overbroad and ambiguous provisions draw within its scope a wide range of conduct, activities and communications “directed towards a political end in Singapore”. As a result, almost any form of expression and association relating to politics, social justice or other matters of public interest in Singapore may be ensnarled within the ambit of the legislation – making it difficult, in turn, for the average individual to reasonably predict with precision what conduct may fall foul of the law. Vague provisions also allow for unfettered executive discretion in interpretation and implementation of the law. Unlimited executive discretion – together with severe penalties under the law – can result in executive overreach into what it deems permissible as civic discussion and public debate. FICA also provides no mechanism for independent judicial oversight or provision of remedy where human rights violations occur as a result of the enforcement of its provisions. The law thus fails to provide for the least intrusive mechanisms to achieve its stated aim of protecting national security while greatly enhancing the risk of executive abuse.
FICA empowers the Minister for Home Affairs to order the removal or disabling of online content – undermining the right to freedom of expression. The Minister is, for example, empowered to order publication of mandatory messages drafted by the authorities, ban apps from being downloadable in Singapore, and order disclosure of private communications and information, when the Minister “suspects or believes” that someone is undertaking or planning to undertake online communications activity “on behalf of a foreign principal”, and that it is in the “public interest” to act. The law makes it a criminal offence to undertake “clandestine” electronic communications on behalf of a foreign principal under certain circumstances, including when that activity “diminishes or is likely to diminish public confidence in (…) the Government or a public authority” or “is likely to be directed towards a political end in Singapore”. Activity “directed towards a public end” includes conduct influencing or seeking to influence government decisions or public opinion on matters of “public controversy” or “political debate” in Singapore. The government can also designate individuals as “politically significant persons” after which they can be required to follow strict limits on sources of funding and disclose all links with foreigners or foreign entities.
FICA’s provisions can also facilitate violations of the rights to freedom of association and participation in public affairs. “Conduct” committed in connection with a “foreign principal” and “directed towards a political end in Singapore” is criminalized where this involves “covert” communication or “deception” – which is defined as including any “deliberate” use of “encrypted communication platforms”. The expansive and vaguely worded definition of activities “directed towards a political end” can cover a broad range of activities – including social justice advocacy, artistic commentary, academic research, social enterprise or journalistic reporting – carried out by, among others, members of civil society, academia, media, the arts and industry. Meanwhile, the overbroad configuration of connection with a “foreign principal” as “arrangements” with any “foreigner” or “non-Singapore registered entity” that can be “written or unwritten” brings within the law’s remit nearly all forms of cross-border collaboration or engagement. Use of “encrypted platforms” as a reflection of “covert” communications also allows for criminal intent to be inferred from a wide range of modes of communications via modern electronic devices and platforms – including through encrypted messaging and email services; and the use of online platforms through secure connection services, such as virtual private networks (VPNs).
FICA will disproportionately impact members of civil society, independent journalists, academics, researchers, artists, writers and other individuals who express opinions, share information and collaborate to advocate on socio-political issues and matters of public interest. As their work can involve critical opinions and is often underpinned and supported by cross-border collaboration, research and funding, they are exposed to increased scrutiny and sanctions under FICA. The issues on which they work will also come under increased State oversight and control. Executive oversight and control can, in turn, infringe not only their rights to freedom of expression and association but the rights of other individuals in Singapore who rely on their work to participate in public affairs, which includes conduct of citizens to “exert influence through public debate and dialogue with their representatives or through their capacity to organize”.
Severe penalties under FICA are disproportionate. In addition, many of those penalties may be imposed without adequate independent oversight or remedy in case of human rights violations, which can result in a chilling effect on civic space and discussion. Directions can be issued by the authorities to censor, restrict or block access to online content, accounts, services, apps or locations deemed to violate the law. The law also allows for the authorities to designate “politically significant” individuals and entities and order them to “disclose foreign affiliations” and “arrangements” or to end “reportable arrangements”. However, there is a lack of independent oversight over these restrictions and designations. These directions may only be appealed to a Reviewing Tribunal appointed by the President on advice of the Cabinet, and decisions made by this Tribunal cannot be appealed to the High Court except for non-compliance with procedural requirements. Further, individuals can face criminal sanctions under the law for “clandestine foreign interference by electronic communications activity” and non-compliance with directions, which may result in steep fines and imprisonment terms. These criminal offences are arrestable and non-bailable.
These penalties and restrictions not only risk undermining the right to privacy, but increase the risk of individuals self-censoring and deliberately deciding not to participate in or engage with cross-border networks to avoid potentially falling foul of the law. Their negative impacts can be particularly severe on independent online platforms, which can be banned from receiving funding or other financial support from foreign individuals or entities, and on journalists, political commentators, civil society members and community researchers who often nurture public opinion and debate through information, opinions and advocacy shared online.
In light of these significant concerns, we request that the Government of Singapore withdraw FICA. The law risks imminently and substantially narrowing already limited civic space in the country – particularly where this space is significantly restricted through abuse of other existing laws such as defamation and contempt of court provisions; the Protection Against Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), the Public Order Act and the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act. The imminent enactment and future enforcement of FICA will significantly undermine the Government of Singapore’s obligations under international law to protect, promote and fulfil human rights – instead allowing for the State to expand curtailment of civic freedoms to the detriment of its people.
ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights
Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
Digital Defenders Partnership
Human Rights Watch
International Commission of Jurists
Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada
Full statement with a summary legal analysis, click here.
Osama Motiwala, ICJ Asia-Pacific Communications Officer, t: +66-62-702-6369 e: osama.motiwala(a)icj.org