The PAP-led government is once again attempting to institute what we believe to be an insidious law that will curb freedom of speech in Singapore – the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act, or FICA.
To give you a broad overview, FICA toughens the government’s ability to prevent, detect, and shut down suspected foreign interference in Singapore’s socio-economic and political landscape. Which is good, because with advancements in technology and the worldwide web, it is easy for foreign agents to embark on misinformation campaigns to extend their sphere of influence in Singapore.
At a superficial level, the goal of this law looks innocent enough – to prevent foreigners with bad intentions from meddling with Singapore’s affairs. However, the details in the Act and the haste at which the government is attempting to shove it into the law books despite our current healthcare crisis should be enough to make any Singaporean worried and indignant.
First off, the term “foreign” is so broadly defined that it includes even private foreign citizens who have no ties to any foreign political organisations or governments, or Singaporeans working together with foreigners. And what would constitute “interference” then? That is any information activity or any form of electronic communication.
Secondly, “public interest” too is so broadly defined that it blankets all matters related to Singapore’s public policy – security, public order, health, finance… and of course, politics. Even a “diminution of public confidence” will be considered unlawful.
And finally, who gets to wield the axe. That privilege goes to the Home Affairs Minister. The Minister, even on a suspicion, can direct service providers to block social media pages and websites from a Singapore audience, and compel service providers to disclose personal data related to these accounts. All this, without having to go through the Singapore courts.
Any platform or account owner who challenges the directive will have to go before a “reviewing tribunal”, which is not part of the Singapore judicial system or court process. They will have to present their case potentially without access to the reasons or evidence as to why they were shut down. The decision of the Minister and tribunal will be final, and the punishment can range from a jail time of up to 14 years and a fine of up to $1 million. How is this acceptable?
The implications of these broad definitions, and power concentrated in the hands of the Minister, are overarching and serious.
For Singapore to progress, there must be an open exchange of ideas. After all change is, naturally, disruptive. FICA casts a cloud of fear over non-governmental organisations and voluntary welfare organisations who work with foreign experts. Ordinary Singaporeans who speak up on public policy issues for the betterment of Singapore can also be unfairly indicted should they have unwittingly received any assistance from well-meaning foreigners.
The axe of censorship has never looked sharper. Recent research by the Institute of Policy Studies shows that only 30 percent of Singapore residents are proud of our press freedom. Is the solution to further cull freedom of speech?
And you must wonder why the rush to pass the Bill, which is over 200 pages long, into law within a matter of weeks before the details can be finely scrutinised and debated by members of parliament. Are we not facing a bigger threat – a healthcare crisis with the prospect of 5000 Covid-19 cases a day, Singaporeans dying from the virus every day, and the high possibility of our hospitals and healthcare workers being overwhelmed? Where does the PAP-led government’s priorities lie?
The SDA believes in the need to protect Singapore and Singaporeans from foreign agents looking to bend our nation to their advantage, at our expense. However, we strongly stand in opposition of FICA in its present form because of its harmful implications and potential for abuse.
We hope that responsible Singaporeans will join us in urging the government to grant a comprehensive reading of the Bill, and allow for stakeholders and Singaporeans’ elected representatives to voice their concerns and offer concrete suggestions for improvement.
Singapore Democratic Alliance