However, not everyone will know what the bill is about, so here are nine facts about it so that you can get up to speed with the new law!
First Brought Up 3 Years Ago
Some people may be wondering why the law was passed so quickly without much discussion by the government.
However, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam clarified during the Second Reading of FICA in Parliament that the issue of foreign interference in Singapore was actually brought up three years ago, back in 2018.
During that period of time, 20 people and organisations gathered to speak about this issue at the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods.
Yes, that was when our Law Minister grilled a Facebook executive.
Experts noted that Singapore has been a target of foreign interference and “is especially vulnerable when race and religion is used as an issue of protest potential”.
Mr Shanmugam also reminded everyone of the hacking incidents in recent years, proving that Singapore has been a target of manipulation and cyber attacks. A notable incident he brought up was the hacking incident where 1.5 million patients had their data stolen from SingHealth’s databases.
Introduced Formally on 13 September 2021
The bill was introduced formally on 13 September this year as legislation that will focus on campaigns held by foreign parties that specifically spread hostile information meant to influence Singapore’s politics, create social tensions, or sway important national decisions.
This bill will allow the Government to clamp down on such campaigns by instructing entities like social media platforms to remove such “hostile communications”, disclose information on the users and their origins, as well as request politically significant persons to disclose any affiliations with foreign parties or donations made to them.
With this law in place, Singapore will be better prepared in preventing, detecting, and blocking foreign interference from influencing Singapore’s politics.
Finally Passed As Law on 4 October 2021
During a 10-hour Parliament debate on 4 October, 16 MPs from both sides of the aisle discussed the issues and concerns brought up by experts and activists. They questioned the law’s broad language and sought more clarity over its parameters. They also commented that there was a lack of judicial oversight.
Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai proposed that it would be better to postpone the passing of the law to a time where these concerns are addressed. He also brought up a few changes that the Workers’ Party (WP) would like to see.
However, due to the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) being the majority in Parliament, it was obvious that the law would be passed as soon as possible once all votes were cast.
At 11:15pm, 75 MPs voted in favour of the bill being passed, while 11 from the WP and Progress Singapore Party (PSP) voted against, and two Nominated MPs abstained.
Despite the bill being passed, the Government did acknowledge some of the changes that WP proposed, and agreed to review the law further to see if the changes could be applied.
A Serious Threat
Noting how Singapore has a mix of different races and religions, Mr Shanmugam highlighted that it makes us more susceptible to exploitation by foreign actors.
He said that these foreign actors have been steadily building up discreet and clever ways to condition Singaporeans’ thinking.
“In my view, this is one of the most serious threats we face, and our population and I think most MPs are not really aware of this,” he said.
While it is usually publicised that perpetrators are those from China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia, it is important to note that they can also come from the US and other Western countries. In fact, those who come from the US may even have better capabilities in manipulating and influencing political decisions.
What Constitutes Hostile Information Campaigns?
Hostile information campaigns make use of sophisticated online tools and tactics in a coordinated manner to influence Singapore’s politics, sow social discord, and undermine political sovereignty.
According to Minister of State for Home Affairs Faishal Ibrahim, there are three elements for it to be constituted as an offence, with the first being that the individual must be acting on behalf of a foreign entity, and the individual utilises electronic communications to report any information or material in Singapore.
The remaining two elements are that that as long as any part of the information that the individual publishes through electronic communication is “covert” or deceptive in nature, and as long as the individual has knowledge or has reason to believe that the activity published in Singapore is against public interest, it is an offence.
However, it is important to note that this offence does not apply to Singaporeans acting on their own accord, foreigners making open and reasonable statements, or unintentional acts.
In other words, it must be intentional lah.
What Doesn’t Constitute An Offence?
In case it isn’t very clear, here are some examples of when certain actions do not constitute an offence, as explained by Dr Faishal.
Dr Faishal explained that if a foreigner publishes an article in a foreign publication like The Wall Street Journal and openly states his identity in it, it would not be an offence under FICA.
This also applies to foreign political observers or political commentators who post on a social media platform or blog. Of course, this is based on the condition that they “make no attempt to mislead Singaporeans as to who they are”.
Dr Faishal then raised a slightly more complicated example. He said, “A Singaporean shares an online video propagated as part of a foreign HIC (hostile information campaign) on his social media account. However, he does so unwittingly and was not aware that the content is part of a HIC nor did he receive any support or instruction from a foreign principal. The Singaporean also has not committed an offence.”
Politically Significant Persons
According to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), politically significant persons are people and organisations directly involved in Singapore’s political processes. They include political parties, political office-holders, MPs, non-constituency MPs, nominated MPs, Leader of the House, Leader of the Opposition, election candidates, and their election agents.
Now that the bill has been passed, these people, who are considered to be vulnerable to being compromised, will have to follow strict measures so that the government can ensure that they are not influenced by foreign parties.
These people would also have to disclose if they have any ties to foreign parties and report single donations of $10,000 or more from local and foreign donors. Individuals would also need to disclose it if the same donor makes small donations within the same reporting period that amount to $10,000 or more in total.
Designated politically significant parties are not allowed to have foreigners provide them with any voluntary labour or services. This means that MPs are not allowed to allow foreigners to volunteer at community outreach programmes.
Other Countermeasures Implemented
Any Singapore citizen who is involved in foreign political or legislative bodies will have to disclose this to the government.
While the MHA understands that some Singaporeans living abroad may join foreign political bodies based on their own interests, Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan explained that this can still “pose a threat, as such Singaporeans may be cultivated, approached or influenced, even unknowingly, and subsequently made use of to affect our local politics”.
Since there have also been instances where foreign writers are “masquerading as local writers in penning articles relating to Singaporean political matters”, the government believes that it is in the best interest of Singaporeans that they are made aware of the origins of these types of articles and opinions.
Yes, I know who you are thinking.
If the government deems that there is a higher chance of interference from foreign parties, authorities can issue a transparency directive to make any media or newspaper source disclose the information of the foreign author who instigated the publishing of the article piece, assuming that it is regarding a political matter in Singapore.
Will This Curtail “Normal Interactions” with Foreigners?
One of the concerns that were brought up was that the passing of this law may affect our interactions with foreigners and affect the research of academics.
It may also cause some local non-governmental organisations to shun away from cooperating with foreign businesses to complete corporate social responsibility projects.
To address the concerns over the interactions with foreigners, Mr Shanmugam reassured everyone in his speech that “Singapore depends for its success and vitality on being open, and a government that seeks to close down that, will lead Singapore to ruin”.
He explained that the bill focuses on a group that is “much, much narrower” as compared to other countries like the US and Australia, where it only targets defined and designated politically significant persons.
Since most of the collaborations and linkages between Singaporeans and foreigners do not constitute conditions that are covered under the bill, it does not affect the normal interactions we have with foreigners.
He added, “Collaboration and partnership with a foreign person by itself is not a trigger, you have to go further and look at the facts – is there a hostile campaign, damage to Singapore? Is there a foreign agency involved? What is the extent of possible damage?”
Addressing the concerns over the bill affecting the research of academics, Mr Shanmugam said that FICA will not have a big impact on most of the academic work that is being done.
He elaborated, “We value the intellectual output, collaborations, exchange of ideas, the work our academics do and they need to link with the rest of the world for work, bona fide and professional work is not affected, it is important for Singapore.”
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