Delivered in Parliament on 4 October 2021
Mr Speaker, Since the FICA Bill was tabled just three weeks ago, we have seen a flurry of criticism by lawyers, NGOs, academics and journalists, with some wondering if it will affect perceptions of Singapore as a global hub. Some of my constituents have written to me expressing their concern with the Bill’s overreach.
These criticisms are not unfounded and are reflective of the disquiet felt by many. The root of this disquiet is that FICA enacts many broad and sweeping measures in an attempt to prevent Singaporeans from being misled by hostile information campaigns over the internet. If these draconian measures are not properly limited, they could have a chilling effect on freedom of speech and the exchange of information among Singaporeans.
At the same time, FICA seems to be lacking a sharper approach to deal with real threats that Singapore might face. The Bill does not provide enough countermeasures against elite capture, which is the clandestine foreign lobbying of Singaporeans holding positions of influence. Elite capture can potentially have a far more negative impact on public policies than influence campaigns on the general public.
Fundamentally, no legislation can effectively counter foreign interference in our politics by itself. Public education and a freer press are also needed to inoculate our population against these risks.
Let me now elaborate on these three points.
Protecting public debate
First, on protecting public debate. The definition of “public interest” in Clause 7 includes the prevention of “any foreign interference directed towards a political end in Singapore.” In turn, Clause 8 defines an activity to be “directed towards a political end in Singapore” if its purpose includes influencing public opinion on a matter of public controversy in Singapore, or if it promotes or opposes views on a subject of a political debate in Singapore.
The “public interest” is one of the bases for the Minister to authorise Part 3 directions (Cl 20(1)(d)), anticipatory directions (Cl 21(1)(c)), designations of politically significant persons (PSPs) (Cl 48(1)(b)) or entities (Cl 47(1)(b)), technical assistance directions (Cl 34(c)) or directives regarding donors (Cl 88(k)).
With the inclusion of Clause 8(f) and (g), the Bill’s interpretation of “political end” covers an extremely wide variety of policy matters and issues which may be discussed by Singaporeans. Public discussions on these issues invariably involve the views and voices of foreigners.
FICA sets a low bar on what constitutes the “public interest”. It empowers the Minister to block public discussions if it is, in his opinion, in the public interest to take action. This gives the Minister for Home Affairs very wide discretion to authorise Part 3 directions or designate PSPs.
It could stifle genuine political debate by discouraging Singapore citizens or local NGOs from speaking up, even in good faith, for fear of being issued a directive under FICA or designated as a PSP. While the Government might argue that having a directive issued against, say, a Facebook post is not a death warrant, it carries a reputational risk to the target of that directive. It would be very unfortunate if an NGO engaged in advocacy work, for example speaking up on migrant workers’ rights, is designated as a politically significant entity (PSEs).
I note that MHA has tried to give assurances that this type of activity will not be stopped, but these assurances are not in the letter of the law. This is why the Member for Sengkang, Assoc Prof Jamus Lim, tabled amendments to Clause 120 to codify MHA’s assurances in this Bill.
I tabled amendments for subsections (f) and (g) under Clause 8 to be removed. Removing these two subsections will not hinder the Minister from applying the brakes on hostile foreign influence operations that could harm Singapore. Clause 7 already has a list of actions that are contrary to the public interest, which the Minister is empowered to authorise Part 3 directions against. These include threats to public health, finances, safety, tranquillity, peace and order, as well as incitement of feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different groups of people in Singapore which may endanger the public peace and public order of Singapore
Let me address the scenarios given by the Minister in his speech.
Setting one race against another or using religion to drive a wedge between religious groups could be considered incitement of feelings of ill-will between different groups of people in Singapore and would already fall under Clause 7(d).
A foreign agent promoting harmful falsehoods about approved vaccines could be reined in to protect public health under Clause 7(b).
In short, our amendments to the Bill will not prevent the Minister from acting against foreigners seeking to do harm to Singapore, but they will go some way in preventing genuine political discussions from being stifled, either deliberately by the Government of the day or inadvertently due to their mere presence.
Preventing elite capture
Next, I wish to highlight an area where the Bill does not do enough of, which is preventing elite capture.
While high profile influence campaigns tend to hog the limelight, clandestine foreign lobbying of individual elites is, by definition, done in secret. The most likely targets of these secret influence operations are our political elites. Many democracies have countermeasures in place to deal with the risk of such influence operations.
The US has the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), enacted in 1938, which requires agents of foreigners to register or risk prosecution under federal law. These agents must disclose their agreements with foreign principals, report the funding they have received and provide a log of all activities performed on behalf of the foreign principals. The Singapore Government would be familiar with FARA because agencies like EDB, STB, Temasek Holdings and the Government itself have all been registered as foreign principals. These registrations are transparent to the public and can be downloaded from the FARA website.
Australia has the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act which has a Registry of Interests. Taiwan has the Sunshine Acts which require public officers from the President all the way down to the Administrator for Company Registrations, and their immediate family members, to make public declarations of their assets, which helps combat both graft and foreign influence operations. In addition, most of these democracies provide for independent legislative review through regular select committee hearings.
Policymaking in Singapore is highly concentrated in the top ranks of the Government and Civil Service. Many policymakers regularly exchange ideas with each other in informal settings like golf courses and exclusive clubs like the Pyramid Club. These are places where informal discussions on policies may take place well before they are discussed in the media or drafted into law.
Yet in the Bill, the list of defined PSPs excludes senior public officers. This could make it easier for malign foreign actors to co-opt local elites to use their influence, either wittingly or unwittingly, for the benefit of foreign powers.
This is why I tabled amendments to the Bill to add several more classes of people to the list of defined PSPs under Clauses 14 and 78.
My proposed additions to the list include permanent secretaries and deputy secretaries in government ministries. These officials lead the formulation and drafting of legislation. They are subject matter experts who provide important policy advice to Ministers on almost a daily basis.
The Minister has argued that civil servants are subject to the Instruction Manual and various rules and declaration requirements which are cumulatively stricter than the FICA requirements on PSPs. This is even more reason to include PSs, DSs and stat board CEOs as PSPs. FICA will provide a stronger layer of public transparency, accountability and oversight, without making it any more onerous on them. Their names will be made public on the register of PSPs, and any foreigner dealing with them will know that they are PSPs, and vice versa.
The chairpersons, board members and chief executives of statutory boards also have important roles in influencing and implementing Government policies. I cannot agree with the Minister that it is impractical to define this group as PSPs, just because some of them are foreigners. Stat boards are not private firms. The fact that many of stat board members are foreigners is even more reason to impose transparency requirements so that the public and Government can be more confident that they are acting in the best interests of Singapore.
Our list also includes the board members and chief executives of Temasek, GIC, MAS and CPF Board. These individuals provide directions on policies and long-term asset allocations that involve hundreds of billions of dollars of our national reserves. Surely we can all agree that these decisions must be guarded against any malign foreign interference.
All these influential individuals should be subject to the same level of scrutiny of their foreign connections as election agents and candidates, the latter of whom are already on the list of defined PSPs, but are far less influential in policymaking.
Lastly, central executive committee members of registered political parties are included because they have a role in setting the policy and political positions that their party takes into elections or Parliament.
While this expanded list of defined PSPs does not cover every possible person who can influence policies, it provides for additional scrutiny over interactions between government elites and foreign principals. It will require them to disclose foreign affiliations, reportable arrangements and migration benefits with foreign principals, all of which have the potential to colour their decisions on domestic and foreign policies which affect all Singaporeans.
Public conversations on core national interests
The last part of my speech will focus on the other actions that are essential to our efforts to combat foreign interference and protect our core national interests. We need to focus much more on public education and avoid over-relying on legislative measures to curb hostile foreign interference. This is a point made by the Leader of the Opposition earlier. Back in 2019, Minister Chan Chun Sing also said that a discerning electorate is the best defence against foreign influence. I couldn’t agree more.
Given the growing sophistication in the way foreign powers conduct their influence operations, which Minister Shanmugam has taken us through in his handouts, we need a whole-of-society approach to counter them.
Sustained public education of both the young and old will help to remind us that we are a sovereign nation with our own core interests. This requires a consciously planned and sustainable approach so that Singaporeans are aware that other countries have their own agenda and our national interests are not necessarily aligned with theirs.
For example, some countries, to further their own agenda, may insidiously play up the cultural affinity card. They may, for example, appeal to Singaporeans of a particular ethnicity to share with their friends their pride in that country’s military and economic progress, and chastise their own government for not showing sufficient deference to them.
This goes against our national interest, yet the vectors of this campaign may not even realise it. Issuing directions under FICA to block the transmission of their messages may be like cutting off the head of the mythical Hydra — a new head will grow again, until these Singaporeans are convinced that they have been deceived. This is not something that a legislative hammer like FICA can easily achieve.
We need more frank and open discussions about the tactics used by foreign powers to influence our population, so that Singaporeans will recognise them and will not unknowingly spread foreign propaganda without realising their goals and origins.
As a small country which seeks to be friends with all countries large and small, it is sometimes inconvenient for the Government to front public education and lead discussions of this nature. Some countries might bristle at being called out by the Singapore government and this could impact diplomatic relations.
Academic institutions, NGOs, researchers and even schoolteachers should step forward to play a greater role in this national effort. These independent organisations and individuals will have more freedom to educate the public or their students without being seen by foreign powers as government spokespersons. They can therefore be more candid in sharing their views, even in public forums, without Singapore incurring the ire of other countries. Government agencies, especially MFA, MINDEF and MHA, should regularly engage these groups and individuals in closed door sessions, to share the Government’s perspectives on our core interests, but without dictating what they should or should not do.
Investigative reporting and the free press
Many incidents of foreign influence operations in other countries like Australia, Sweden and the US came to light because of investigative reporting by their free press.
A former US national security adviser resigned after journalists investigated and reported about his contacts with Russia. He was later charged and pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.
Sweden’s ambassador to China was recalled and investigated after the daughter of a Chinese-Swedish bookseller jailed in China made a blog post, which was reported in the media, revealing that the ambassador had commissioned businessmen to negotiate a sensitive case involving her father without the knowledge of the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The ambassador was later prosecuted in Sweden but acquitted due to insufficient proof.
The PAP Government has rejected the notion of the press being the Fourth Estate, which scrutinises the actions of public officials and public institutions in the public interest, calling for accountability for their actions. This could handicap our efforts to weed out hostile foreign interference. We cannot rely only on legislation, or law enforcement and intelligence agencies to stem foreign interference.
Given the risk that foreign interference poses to a small and open country like Singapore, we need to use more tools in our arsenal to counter it. By drawing on a wide range of intelligence, including research and exposure by the press, we are made more secure, not less. A free press which invests in investigative journalism can shine the light on shady activities, as well as inform and educate the public and policymakers about hostile information campaigns taking place on our shores.
Mr Speaker, the approach taken by FICA amounts to using a sledgehammer to crack one bad nut at the expense of perhaps a dozen good ones. Yet in the area of preventing elite capture, it falls short compared to foreign lobbying laws in other countries.
My Workers’ Party colleagues and I have proposed some very reasonable amendments to the Bill to prevent overreach, ensure greater transparency and provide more judicial oversight. With these amendments, FICA will retain all its teeth to keep foreign interference at bay, while assuring Singaporeans that its fangs will not be used unjustly against our own citizens.
I appeal to this House to seriously consider these amendments and approve them for the benefit of all Singaporeans and our future as a country.