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Cutting the strings of foreign meddling or shutting the voices of dissent?

What is FICA?

On 25 Sep, ST published an article “From black ops to bots – countering hostile meddling by foreign actors” to help to justify the “Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (“FICA”). The Act was unveiled on 13 Sep and due for second reading in Parliament on 4 Oct – a period of only three weeks for a bill of 249 pages!

I think the two ST writers struggled to find good recent examples to show the threat of foreign interference is indeed real and quick actions must be taken by the government to protect Singapore’s sovereignty and national security.

They dug up the Eastern Sun (1971), expulsion of American diplomat Hank Hendrickson (1988), impounding of Terrex armoured vehicles in Hong Kong (2016), expulsion of academic Huang Jin (2017, warning of foreign disinformation campaign during POFMA committee hearings (2018), spike in critical comments during tensions with Malaysia (2018-19) and report of China’s soft power efforts in Singapore (2019).

Unlike the parliamentary committee hearing for POFMA, this FICA has none but is certainly no less sensitive. Why?

It seems the 2-page ST article is meant to supplant such committee hearing by providing some feedback from academia. Although some points they raised were good, is that sufficient for the government to push through this bill with PAP MPs forming the overwhelming majority in Parliament? Politically, it seems so unwise for the Law Minister Mr Shanmugam to do it.

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) in introducing the bill said:”Open and highly digitally connected Singapore is especially vulnerable to foreign interference and the threat it poses to political sovereignty and national security.”

Is this a new development?

“The draft law targets external meddling in Singapore’s domestic politics conducted through hostile information campaigns and the use of local proxies.”

When domestic politics come into the realm of this Bill, Singaporeans should be more wary after seeing how POFMA was used to target certain people with dissenting views.

“If the Bill is passed into legislations, the government will have powers to compel Internet platforms to block accounts and to require politically significant persons to declare any foreign affiliation, among others.”

Mr Muhammad Faisal Abdul Rahman, a research fellow at the Centre of Excellence for National Security at RSIS, amid the two episodes with China and Malaysia, said “ there were online posts implying that Singaporeans lacked the steel to fight and that Singapore should just acquiesce to bullying by larger states.”

If the government is fearful that foreign interference through propaganda can shake the resolve of Singaporeans (when most male adults have completed NS), to defend the country, this calls into question, how willing are our citizens to die for our country, I doubt any foreign country can influence Singaporeans’ resolve in a national crisis just by launching a hostile social media campaign.

Loyalty for a country has much deeper roots. Associate Prof Chong Ja Ian from NUS political science department, says: “ Addressing malign interference requires a scalpel and not a meat cleaver.”

Is FICA all that is aiming at: actions undermining Singapore’s political sovereignty and ability of Singaporeans to make their own choices?

In 2019, Minister of State Mr Edwin Tong said in Parliament, “ there was a need for new updated legislation against modern and technologically sophisticated foreign interference tactics.”

If that is all that FlCA seeks to achieve, then I think the Bill has gone way out of proportion which has strong capacity to change the current political landscape. This should be a matter of grave concern for Singaporeans.

Associate Prof Alton Chua, associate chair of research at NTU’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information rightly pointed out that “ more attention should be paid to underlying societal issues such as the local-foreign workplace divide” which malicious actors can exploit even without using sophisticated methods.

Is MHA totally transparent with Singaporeans on the objectives of FICA? The ST article was silent on the harsh penalties proposed by the Bill.

On 23 Sep, Reporters without Borders’ article, “Singapore’s foreign interference bill – legal monstrosity with totalitarian leanings,” provided another perspective of the Bill. I quote from the article:

“Under the guise of defending national sovereignty, it will enable the government to designate any independent media outlet as a foreign agent and to censor its content, RSF says.

Unveiled on 13 September, the government’s FICA Bill could be passed by Singapore’s government-dominated parliament as soon as early October without significant changes. It contains 249 pages of obscure legal jargon, in which the devil is in the details.

Behind specious wording and using national sovereignty as a cover, this bill gives the government a blank check to slap a “foreign agent” label on any media outlet it dislikes and to impose extremely harsh sentences simply for the intent to publish content. And, above all, it would allow the government to introduce a system of prior censorship without saying so openly.

“What with its extremely vague definitions, pervasive arbitrary approach and lack of independent legal recourse for those who are given orders by the government, the FICA bill is an abomination both from a purely legal viewpoint and as regards respect for fundamental rights,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.

“Above all, under the pretext of preventing possible foreign influence on the state, this bill institutionalises the persecution of any domestic entity that does not toe the line set by the government and ruling party, starting with independent media outlets. As it stands, this utterly Kafkaesque project contains within it the seeds of the worst totalitarian leanings.”

I believe some sections of the Bill could bring about a significant change in the political landscape of Singapore and likely to heighten fear among Singaporeans on any involvement in local politics or even making public comments. This Bill has vague concepts which give the government a great deal of leeway.

The Bill seems to be directed at restricting political activities such as Section 7 which also allows the government to justify action as being “in the public interest” if activities could result in “a diminution of public confidence” in the government or is “directed towards a political end.”

And what is a “political end”? Anything liable to “influence the legislative process” or” influence public opinion” on what is “a matter of public controversy” or “political debate.” [Can CECA be an example?]

Is the Government fearful of losing public trust that it needs to introduce stronger legislations to prevent further challenges?

The penalty for violation is harsh. “Any violation or intention to publish information online without declaring the involvement of foreigners will be punishable by up to 14 years in prison and a fine of 100,000 Singaporean dollars (63,000 euros) for an individual or a fine of 1 million Singaporean dollars for an entity, such as a news site.”

The Reporters Without Borders is of the opinion that the Bill “is clearly independent media outlets that the FICA is targeting on national sovereignty grounds.”

Singapore is ranked 160th out of 180 countries in the RSF’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index, and has been coloured black on the RSF press freedom map since 2020 as the situation is now classified as “very bad,” in part because of the draconian anti-fake news law adopted in 2019.

The new Bill, if passed in Parliament on 4 Oct, will put Singapore further down the global index. The government won’t care.

What it really cares about is how it can maintain and strengthen its power over the country- if FICA serves the purpose, it shall be done. It also doesn’t matter if no Singaporean believes in this “foreign interference” fairy tale.

I think this single-mindedness of the PAP government to pass the FICA Bill in such great hurry is a sign of deep fear that it is losing the trust and confidence of Singaporeans in its general governance, unwillingness to admit policy failures and the standard narratives [that foreigners create good jobs for Singaporeans], that Singapore is unique and its political leadership is outstanding.

These are the “underlying societal issues” (as mentioned by Associate Prof Alton Chua) that can create dissent and champion by local political opponents, not foreign interference against national sovereignty, that worries the ruling government.

I think the government is preparing the ground for GE 2025 and all risk of any rising political challenge must be contained or removed. Hence, the FICA Bill must be passed as law!

 

Kok Ming Cheang

 

 

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READER COMMENTS BELOW

7 Responses to “Cutting the strings of foreign meddling or shutting the voices of dissent?”

  • opposition dude:

    Even if this FICA nonsense was implemented so what? Back then when there was a Taiwanese talk show saying that Ho Ching earns over $100 million there was denial by the government but no legal action was taken against them. So does this mean that with FICA implemented the government could sue whichever foreign news outlet they wanted? Do they even have the guts to do so or is their FICA just for show?

    Going by how this government likes to show off this will just be another failure to be derided by critics. We already see just how badly they have done in managing this pandemic so if there was a critical article written by a foreign newspaper I would like to see it get sued if PAP has got the guts to do so.

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  • Temusik Patriot:

    P0FMA – FICA, what next???

    POCA…People Of Chinese Aritocracy…

    Prime Ministership…Only Chinese ALLOWED!!!

    No Puppies & OTHERS allowed

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  • xoxo:

    GRC,POFMA,FICA?
    Not enough to protect rice-bowl,add more!

    Scholars are *chow kar*( play dirty).
    So many only know how to *por lam par*?
    And,cow peh cow boh!

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  • illiterate pap voters:

    pap is ffffing stupid.

    we still remember the face of then pap Msia minister cow boon huan who said, with great fear, that pap would lose. that was GE2015.

    as sheep who produced cotton for pap would have it, they voted pap. and voted pap again 5 years later in GE2020.

    now 61% cotton sheep are going to be conned one more time by pap, if 61% cotton sheep agrees that FICA is good for them.

    POFMA FICA or whatever, as long as we get to vote, we vote PSP WP or any party as long as it is NOT pap.

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  • Beware of Covet Influences:

    I guess FICA is to address the open “foreign influences” via online platforms (local websites publishing alternative news). What about those covet “foreign influences” in social media which use multiple fake accounts to influence the thoughts of the people. It’s a kind of brainwashing which is detrimental to Singapore as a country.

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  • mrWie:

    i guess …

    foreigner praising singapore = it’s a compliment!
    foreigner critizising singapore = FOREIGN INTERFERENCE???

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  • What a joke:

    POFMA or FICA was invented to bully sgs and to “keep them in place” !
    Tak pakei outside this red dot .
    Just try..outsiders will die laughing!

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