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Over 2 years in the making, law to detect and counter foreign meddling in domestic politics tabled in Parliament

SINGAPORE — More than two years after the Government first mooted legislation to counter foreign influence campaigns, a Bill proposing to enact a law to protect Singapore’s political sovereignty from foreign actors was tabled in Parliament on Monday (Sept 13).

Among other things, the proposed Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act will empower the authorities to restrict online content, stop the distribution of mobile applications, or cripple sources of funding if they are deemed to be part of a hostile information campaign.

Among other things, the proposed Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act will empower the authorities to restrict online content, stop the distribution of mobile applications, or cripple sources of funding if they are deemed to be part of a hostile information campaign.

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  • The Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill was tabled in Parliament on Sept 13 
  • The proposed law aims to protect Singapore’s political sovereignty from foreign interference
  • If the law is passed, the Government could issue directives to restrict access to online content linked to hostile information campaigns
  • “Politically significant persons” such as politicians and political parties could also be subject to foreign funding disclosures and a ban on foreign volunteers
  • Singapore is especially vulnerable to foreign interference, the Ministry of Home Affairs said

 

SINGAPORE — More than two years after the Government first mooted legislation to counter foreign influence campaigns, a Bill proposing to enact a law to protect Singapore’s political sovereignty from foreign actors was tabled in Parliament on Monday (Sept 13).

The proposed Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act will give the Government greater levers to detect and counter hostile meddling in Singapore’s affairs through online means or via proxies such as politicians, “politically significant” organisations and individuals.

The law will “help ensure that Singaporeans retain the freedom to decide how we should govern our country and live our lives”, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said in a statement.

The Bill, tabled by Associate Professor Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim, Minister of State for Home Affairs and National Development, is set to be debated by Members of Parliament at the next parliamentary sitting.

The Bill comes more than two years after Mr Edwin Tong, then Senior Minister of State for Law, said in February 2019 that the Government would consider new laws to counter foreign interference, because the country is “especially vulnerable” to these exploits that stir distrust and undermine its democratic processes.

The following month, Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam said that laws to tackle foreign interference in Singapore's domestic politics would be strengthened and reviewed.

He said then that hostile information campaigns had been mounted to weaken countries' resolve amid tensions between states, and foreign actors had tried to undermine democracy and elections in several jurisdictions, and this can divide nations and tear their social fabric.

The proposed law comprises two major prongs meant to protect Singapore’s political sovereignty. 

HOSTILE INFORMATION CAMPAIGNS

The first is to grant the Government powers to detect and counter hostile information campaigns — coordinated operations by “hostile foreign principals” that interfere in Singapore’s politics and incite social tensions.

The proposed Act will allow the authorities to issue directives to social media platforms, websites and other online services to investigate and counter foreign interference. 

The powers granted by these directives include blocking websites or social media accounts involved in such hostile campaigns, preventing the distribution of mobile applications in Singapore, and crippling the funding sources of such content.

MHA stressed, however, that this would not apply to Singaporeans who are expressing their views on political matters, unless they are agents of a foreign principal.

“Nor do (these provisions) 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,” MHA said.

'POLITICALLY SIGNIFICANT PERSONS'

The second prong of the Bill aims to counter foreign interference through proxies here, such as politicians, political parties or other “politically significant persons”.

If passed, the new law will achieve this by empowering the authorities to designate people and organisations that may become targets of a foreign influence operation. This means that they will be required to disclose their funding sources regularly and provide specific information to aid authorities in detecting these operations.

The Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act will thus encompass the existing Political Donations Act, which is set to be repealed. Its provisions will be ported over to the proposed new law, with an expanded scope to prohibit foreign volunteers or affiliates.

The powers under both prongs of the proposed law will be vested in the Minister for Home Affairs. 

For example, the minister can issue directives to stop access to online content if he suspects that it was done on behalf of a foreign principal as part of a hostile campaign and it is in the public interest to restrict such content published in Singapore.

The Bill also proposes to allow for appeals against the Government’s designation of politically significant persons and directives issued under the proposed law.

In particular, a reviewing tribunal, chaired by a High Court judge and two others who are not in the Government, could hear appeals for directives under the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act relating to hostile information campaigns.

Such appeals will not be heard in open court because they could entail sensitive intelligence with national security implications, MHA said.

WHY IS THIS LAW NEEDED?

In its statement, MHA said that Singapore is not immune to the threat of foreign interference, especially since it is an open, highly digitally connected and diverse society.

“Foreign interference poses a serious threat to our political sovereignty and national security,” it added. 

“During a hostile information campaign, hostile foreign actors can seek to mislead Singaporeans on political issues, stir up dissent and disharmony by playing up controversial issues such as race and religion, or seek to undermine confidence and trust in public institutions.”

It gave the example of how in late 2018 and 2019, when Singapore faced bilateral issues with another country, which MHA did not name, there was an “abnormal spike in online comments critical of Singapore on social media”.

Mr Tong had referred to this country being Malaysia in Feb 2019 when he spoke in Parliament. Singapore had been embroiled in maritime and airspace disputes with Malaysia.

These were anonymous posts that sought to create an artificial impression of opposition to Singapore’s positions, the ministry noted.

MHA also said that in the 1980s, Mr Hank Hendrikson, former first secretary of the United States Embassy in Singapore, had cultivated a group of Singaporean lawyers to join opposition politics and contest the 1988 Singapore General Election.

These lawyers were offered funding. Among them was former Law Society president Francis Seow, who contested for the Workers’ Party in 1988.

He was offered refuge in the US should he run into difficulties with the Singapore Government, MHA said, adding that he was later conferred American citizenship.

The ministry also cited many examples of social media and communication technologies used to mount hostile information campaigns against other countries in recent years.

These included how the US intelligence community detected “troll farms” used by foreign actors to amplify controversial domestic issues, and promote or attack certain political candidates, ahead of the US presidential election last year.

MHA said that there were also influence campaigns to discredit the US government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and spread scepticism of vaccines developed by Western countries.

“History is replete with examples of countries interfering in the politics of other countries. Singapore is not immune,” MHA said.

Related topics

Parliament foreign interference law Politics social media

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