Singapore’s parliament is debating controversial legislation that the government says is needed to counter alleged foreign interference, but opposition parties, rights groups, social media platforms and others are worry too broad a scope.
The Foreign Interference Countermeasures Act (FICA) was first tabled last month and is expected to pass as the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) holds all but 10 of the 93 seats in parliament.
Home Secretary K Shanmugam kicked off the proceedings on Monday with a speech to MPs explaining the government’s position.
The law will give authorities sweeping powers, including forcing the internet, social media platforms and website operators to provide information about users, block content and remove apps.
The government would also be empowered to designate organizations or individuals as “politically significant persons” if their work is perceived to be politically oriented in Singapore, without giving them the opportunity to challenge the designation.
The country, ruled by the PAP since independence in 1965, already has extensive laws controlling freedom of assembly, expression and association, and introduced a sweeping “fake news” law in 2019.
Freedom House ranked the country “partially free” in its Freedom in the World 2021 report, with a score of 48 out of 100, and noted the actions taken against online media, which offer a greater diversity of views than the mainstream media in the city-state.
“With its extremely vague definitions, widespread arbitrariness and the lack of independent legal recourse for those who receive orders from the government, the FICA bill is an abomination from a purely legal standpoint and with regard to compliance. fundamental rights, ”Daniel Bastard, the head of the Asia-Pacific office of Reporters Without Borders said in a statement.
“Above all, under the pretext of preventing possible foreign influence on the state, this bill institutionalizes the persecution of any national entity that does not respect the line set by the government and the ruling party, starting with the independent media. . As it stands, this entirely Kafkaesque project contains within it the seeds of the worst totalitarian tendencies.
The Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill targets foreign interference carried out through hostile information campaigns and local proxies. The bill does not apply to Singaporeans discussing issues, unless they are acting as foreign agents.#MHAExplain #WhatTheFICA #SGUnited pic.twitter.com/TxqqYbrA5l
– Home Office, Singapore (@mhasingapore) October 2, 2021
Legal experts have also questioned certain aspects of the legislation.
“The powers of pre-emption … and the broad scope of the provisions could potentially provide the government with important means to curb legitimate activities of civil society,” Eugene Tan, professor of law at the University of Management of Singapore, said at the Reuters news agency.
“FICA has the makings of being the most intrusive law of the law books,” he said.
The bill allows the Home Secretary to order public interest investigations to “denounce hostile information campaigns” based on suspicion of foreign interference.
Instead of a public hearing, an independent panel, chaired by a judge, will hear appeals against the minister’s rulings, a decision the government deems necessary because the issues may involve sensitive information with national security implications.
An online petition urging the government to rethink the law because of its “serious ramifications” had garnered nearly 7,500 signatures as of Monday morning.
In response to a Reuters query, the Home Office said the bill did not apply to discussions or advocacy by Singapore citizens or the wide range of their collaborations with foreigners.
But orders can be issued if a citizen acts for a foreign principal in a manner contrary to the public interest, he added.
The main opposition party, the Workers’ Party, called for changes to the bill, such as reducing the scope of executive powers to reduce the risk of abuse of power.
Academia SG, a group of Singaporean academics who have gathered for the first time over concerns over the fake news law, said in an editorial Friday that the “overbreadth” of the new legislation would undermine trade and international collaboration that allows research to thrive and deepen. -censorship in higher education establishments in the country.
“Its vague language will accentuate the tendencies opposed to controversy and avoid the hassles that already suffocate academia in Singapore,” the group wrote.
Social media platforms have also raised concerns about Facebook, noting its broad wording.
“Foreign interference as a concept is actually a very broad concept,” Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of security policy, told the Straits Times newspaper. “You can imagine he’s covering both a covert operation that’s misleading people about what’s going on and who’s behind it; and an open public persuasion effort led by a genuine NGO (non-governmental organization) or community of users.
“Bringing these two things together is tricky and can lead to real challenges. One of the things we’re going to be looking for is exactly how these divisions are broken down. “