Singapore’s new ‘foreign interference’ law leaves journalists like me with an impossible puzzle | Kirsten Han

Singapore’s parliament has passed a controversial anti-foreign interference bill, just three weeks after its first reading on 13 September.

It was only to be expected that the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill, or Fica, would pass – the ruling People’s Action Party has had a supermajority in parliament for decades, allowing them to push whatever legislation they want through the House. But the concerns that activists, journalists, academics and legal practitioners had before the bill’s passage persist.

Justified by the government as urgently necessary for the protection of Singapore’s political sovereignty, Fica grants the government powers to issue directions requiring a range of actions – from removing or blocking access to online content, to mandating the publication of government notices, to banning apps from being downloadable in the country – so long as it suspects there might be foreign interference, and is of the opinion it’s in the public interest to act against it.

It can also appoint an authority to designate individuals and entities as “politically significant”. Once so designated, they will be required to submit regular reports relating to donations and foreign affiliations.

The law has been criticised for being overly broad. For instance, it’s scoped so widely that even collaboration with a foreign individual could be defined as activity conducted “on behalf of a foreign principal”.

In a country where civil liberties are already suppressed and civil society actors already feel like we have to navigate a maze of vague laws and potential defamation suits, the introduction of one more piece of legislation makes the environment feel like one in which it is increasingly impossible to dissent and advocate for human rights safely.

In his parliamentary speech, minister for home affairs and law K Shanmugam explained the expansive language in Fica was necessary, since foreign meddlers often hide behind legitimate facades. “So, the language has got to be broad enough to cover that – that what is apparently normal but is actually not normal,” he said.

But who gets to decide that something is “actually not normal”? This is the question that lies at the heart of the problems with Fica.

While granting the government maximum discretion to take action against whatever they deem to be foreign interference, Fica provides very little independent oversight, and leaves targeted individuals or entities very few options to challenge measures imposed upon them. Appeals can only go to a reviewing tribunal – to be appointed by the government – or to the minister for home affairs himself. Their decisions are final. Judicial review is explicitly limited only to procedural matters.

Essentially, the government is free to act on suspicions or accusations of foreign influence, and their targets will not only struggle to clear their names, but can also be slapped with directions that will restrict their rights to freedom of expression and association.

I got a taste of what this might be like while watching the parliamentary debates. Partway through his speech, Shanmugam named myself and a former colleague as “chief” among those who had started a disinformation campaign about Fica. He accused us of directly inviting foreign intervention into Singapore’s domestic affairs, and used the fact the media outlet we’d co-founded had received funding from the Open Society Foundation (founded by billionaire philanthropist George Soros) to claim we opposed the law simply because we have a vested interest in receiving foreign money.

These are old claims the ruling party and its supporters have made against us over the years. We’ve responded to them multiple times, pointing out again and again that the suggestion we support foreign intervention in Singapore is baseless. When Shanmugam, covered by parliamentary privilege, made his accusations on Monday, it was clear they have unilaterally decided our normal activities are “actually not normal”. And Fica will grant them the legal teeth to act on assumptions.

The government has argued Singaporeans have nothing to worry about; as long as they aren’t local proxies of foreign actors, they won’t feel the effects of Fica. But this is hardly reassuring when it is the government who, enabled by the broad definitions of the law and the lack of judicial oversight, can determine whether you are a local proxy.

Fervent efforts to advocate for a delay in Fica’s passage came to naught, as they were always doomed to be. Now, activists and independent journalists can only struggle with an impossible puzzle: figuring out how to balance achieving impact, while remaining “politically insignificant” enough to escape the government’s Fica-empowered gaze.

  • Kirsten Han is a freelance journalist who runs the newsletter We, The Citizens, covering Singapore from a rights-based perspective.

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