The Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill, or FICA, is ostensibly aimed at protecting Singapore’s political sovereignty from foreign influence or intervention. The proposed legislation targets not just hostile information campaigns conducted on behalf of foreign actors, but also covers political affiliations, donations, and the management of gifts and arrangements with “politically significant persons”.
The extremely broad definitions contained within FICA serve as a catch-all for a wide range of activity, with serious ramifications for multiple stakeholders and sections of society, including academia, business, civil society, and the media.
For instance, the definition of engaging in conduct on behalf of any foreign principal —1 — includes 2 3 Based on this, a local NGO co-hosting an event with a foreign embassy or company could also be deemed to be acting on behalf of the foreign principal, regardless of whether any money has changed hands.
The meaning of conduct being “directed towards a political end in Singapore”4
This is incredibly broad and can apply to a wide range of activities, including legitimate advocacy work undertaken by civil society organisations and activists, as well as journalistic reporting and analysis or opinion pieces.
Due to its focus on hostile information campaigns, much of FICA also relates to “electronic communications activity”, which is, again, expansively defined to include all sorts of communication,5
What can the government do? A break-down.
Part 2 of FICA criminalises “clandestine” electronic communications on behalf of a foreign principal, and stipulates heavy penalties. Under Section 17,6 Under Section 18, 7
According to FICA’s explanatory notes, the term “covert” is defined as8
Even preparing or planning for a Section 17 or 18 offence — whether this offence is ultimately committed or not —9 These offences are both arrestable and non-bailable.
Part 3 of FICA gives the Minister for Home Affairs vast powers to issue directives that can require the removal or disabling of access to online content, the publication of a mandatory message, the handing over of information for investigations into whether foreign interference has occurred, or the banning of an app from being downloadable in Singapore.
On top of this, the Minister can declare an online location a “proscribed online location” as long as it has been given one Part 3 direction (apart from a technical assistance direction or an app removal direction). This would make it illegal for the proprietor to solicit benefit, or for anyone to provide support or enter into advertising deals with that platform.
This would essentially shut down any independent media business or initiative by depriving them of revenue and funding. Compliance with these directions are mandatory; failure to comply will attract heavy fines and/or imprisonment.10.
Part 4 of FICA allows the authorities to designate entities or individuals as “politically significant”.11 12
Parts 5 to 7 of FICA allow the authorities to13, such as foreigners or Singaporeans below the age of 21, 14, or 15. Once designated, 16, which the authorities are 17
Section 81 of Part 6 also allows the authorities to issue a “transparency directive” to any “politically significant person”, person authorised to publish a newspaper in Singapore, or person authorised by a licence or class licence to provide a broadcasting service in Singapore.18
The explanatory notes for Part 6 admit that
Section 108 of Part 9 enables authoritiesThis power can be exercised as long as the authority deems it necessary for the determination of a matter under FICA or an exercise of powers under Parts 4, 5, or 6. Non-compliance can lead to a fine that accumulates daily over the period of non-compliance.
Lack of checks and balances
Part 8 of FICA relates to “oversight arrangements”, but there is a serious lack of independent checks and balances.
Like the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), compliance with directives issued under FICA is required up-front, before any appeal can be undertaken.
However, unlike POFMA, appeals do not ultimately go to the High Court.It is unusual that a party to a legal proceeding can set the rules for how the proceedings take place. This severely limits avenues for judicial review.
During election periods,
Implications and concerns
Although the issue of malign foreign interference is a serious one, FICA confers a huge amount of power to the government, specifically to the Minister for Home Affairs. The proposed legislation does not provide enough checks and balances that would guard against any potential abuse of the bill’s expansive powers.
The bill is currently scheduled for its second reading on 4 October 2021, a mere three weeks after it was first introduced in Parliament on 13 September. This does not give Singaporeans or their elected representatives sufficient time to read, analyse and consult on the proposed legislation.
In fact, there has been a notable lack of any public consultation on the issue of foreign interference and the measures that should be taken against it. This should be rectified: before proposing any legislation — especially one as wide-ranging as FICA — a multi-party Select Committee should be appointed to carry out extensive public consultation. The term “foreign interference” should be clearly defined, and measures enacted should take into consideration best practices in accordance with international human rights standards.