Singapore’s proposed Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (FICA) is an overly broad law that grants the Minister for Home Affairs vast powers, with serious repercussions for civil society, independent media, and public discourse.
The bill was introduced in Parliament on 13 September 2021, with its second reading scheduled for 4 October 2021.
We, the undersigned, would like to express the following concerns:
1. An overly broad, expansive law
FICA contains extremely broad definitions that serve as a catch-all for a wide range of activities. If enacted, the law will have serious ramifications for multiple stakeholders and large sections of society, including academia, business, civil society, and the media.
2. Powers to censor, impose restrictions, and demand information
FICA allows the Minister for Home Affairs vast powers to issue directives that can censor online content and even shut down media outlets. All that is required for the issuance of such directions is for the Minister to be of the opinion that online communications activity has been undertaken, or has been suspected of being undertaken, on behalf of a foreign principal, and that it is in the public interest to take action. Compliance with these directions are mandatory; failure to comply will attract heavy fines and/or imprisonment. The offence of non-compliance is arrestable and non-bailable.
The Minister can also declare an online location a “proscribed online location”. This would then make it illegal to monetise, finance, or form commercial partnerships with the platform. In other words, the Minister can effectively shut down any independent media business or initiative by cutting off its sources of funding.
The proposed legislation allows an authority appointed by the Minister to designate individuals or entities “politically significant persons”, who are then subject to reporting obligations and restrictions regarding donations. This designation can only be appealed to the Minister who appointed the authority in the first place.
FICA also grants authorities the right to demand information from any individual, whether inside Singapore or out, for enforcement purposes. Such a broad power can lead to gross violations of privacy.
3. Absence of meaningful oversight of powers granted under FICA
FICA limits the sources of appeal for the exercise of powers under the bill. Appeals are first directed to the Minister for Home Affairs, who can also choose not to consider an appeal if he deems it “frivolous or vexatious”.
The second source of appeal, the Reviewing Tribunal, is appointed by the President on the advice of the Cabinet. However, the Minister for Home Affairs makes the rules followed by the Reviewing Tribunal.
FICA further restricts judicial review in open court to only procedural matters.
4. Our demands
FICA, in its current state, is an example of state overreach without adequate oversight. Given the serious ramifications that such a wide-ranging law will have on multiple segments of society, it is crucial that such a bill be closely scrutinised and thoroughly debated before any decision can be taken as to whether such a far-reaching piece of legislation is even necessary.
It is therefore unacceptable that the bill – which is 249 pages long – is scheduled for its second, and likely third, reading on 4 October. That’s a mere three weeks after it was first introduced in Parliament. This is nowhere near enough time for Members of Parliament, as well as Singaporeans, to have read, analysed, and be consulted on the proposed law.
A multi-party Select Committee should instead be appointed to carry out extensive public consultation on the issue of “foreign interference”. The term should be clearly defined, and measures enacted should take into consideration with best practices in accordance with international human rights standards.
While legislation to combat malign foreign interference is not inherently unreasonable, national security should not be seen as an excuse to concentrate power in the hands of the state. Any law that is enacted should therefore not be overly broad and ambiguous, but targeted, precise, and subject to adequate oversight and restraints on power.