Singapore's new (controversial) foreign interference law

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Some critics are concerned that the new bill may represent a tool to suppress dissent. But what is the Foreign Interference Countermeasure Act really about?

On October 4, after nearly ten hours of debate, the Singaporean parliament passed a new law to limit foreign interference in domestic affairs, known as the Foreign Interference Countermeasure Act.  

This new law gives authorities the permission to intervene in cases of interference in the domestic politics by foreign entities. According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, foreign interference poses a serious threat to Singapore's sovereignty and national security, and this law is an urgent necessity given the increase in cases of foreign interference, especially via the Internet, in local affairs. 

The law allows authorities, for example, to compel Internet service providers and social media platforms to provide information about users, block content, and remove applications used to disseminate content deemed hostile. The law also establishes requirements to identify individuals and entities defined as "politically significant persons," including political parties, political officeholders, parliamentarians, and candidates for election. Such individuals or entities will be required to report donations exceeding 10,000 Singaporean dollars (approximately 6,400 US dollars) and disclose their relationships with foreigners. Civilians may also be designated as politically significant if their activities are directed toward a political end and it is in the public interest to apply countermeasures. However, it is important to remember that this law does not include Singaporeans or other local organizations expressing their views, unless those views are used by foreign entities as agents of interference. 

The process will be as follows: first, authorities identify a suspected foreign-sourced information campaign that is deemed hostile. If they determine that the campaign is directed at a political purpose and it is in the public interest to take countermeasures, guidance is issued to limit the spread of disinformation. Third parties such as online platforms, Internet service providers and website operators may also be forced to block certain accounts or content in the country. Once identified, perpetrators can be arrested and possibly prosecuted, but they cannot be detained without trial. However, the penalties for violating the act are particularly severe and include up to 14 years in prison and 100,000 Singaporean dollars (about 64,000 U.S. dollars) in fines. Parties involved can appeal to the Minister of the Interior or an independent review tribunal led by a Supreme Court judge.

Despite the negative reaction expressed by foreign media and the criticism received by some NGOs, including Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders, passage of the bill was a mere formality given the decades-long legislative majority of the People's Action Party (PAP), which has been in government since 1959. 

Some critics have expressed concern that the bill could pose a threat to legitimate entities, including academics studying controversial issues or foreigners expressing opinions on Singaporean politics. Indeed, there are concerns that terms such as "foreign interference" are defined so broadly as to include "almost any form of expression and association relating to politics," as 11 human rights organizations stated in an open letter. However, the Minister of Internal Affairs reassured that the law will not be applied towards most academic activities, articles written for international journals and the receipt of international funding. The Minister added that the measure is not intended to target foreigners who comment on local issues in an open and transparent manner.

Another critic that has emerged is that this law was brought to Parliament without being subjected to public consultation or scrutiny by a select committee. However, even on this issue, the Government has responded that the issue of foreign interference has been widely discussed for more than three years in various fora. In any case, the government insists that most Singaporeans agree that the threat is serious and that something needs to be done. However, the concern persists among the many foreign companies in the territory about the future impact of such a potentially broad law.

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