The sole purpose of FICA is, will always be, the prevention of foreign powers from interfering with our domestic matters

10/10/2021

Parliament passed the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill (FICA) on Oct. 4, 2021 — three years after it was first raised.

Amidst the many questions raised and the robust debate from both sides of the aisle, we must not lose sight of the reasons for this important Act.

FICA is, and will always be, a tool designed to prevent foreign powers from interfering with our domestic matters; in other words, to preserve a way of life that is determined exclusively by Singaporeans.

This is our Party’s sole aim in tabling the Bill.

If we need any reminders on how real this clear and present danger is, we only have to look back into our history.

What history has shown to us

In 1971, we uncovered three local newspapers that spread misinformation. Of which, The Eastern Sun received foreign funding to skew their reporting.  Another newspaper, The Singapore Herald, was found to have taken money from a foreign politician and took a critical stance against National Service.

In the 1980s, the First Secretary of a foreign Embassy cultivated a group of Singaporean lawyers to join opposition politics and contest the 1988 General Election.  The lawyers were offered funding, and one of them was even offered refuge should he subsequently run into difficulties with the Singapore Government.

More recently, in late 2018 and 2019, there was an abnormal spike in online comments — made by anonymous accounts — critical of Singapore on social media when Singapore faced bilateral issues with another country.

The ease of foreign intervention in the Internet age

As technologies advance, so do the capabilities of foreign actors in meddling with other countries’ domestic affairs.

In recent years, social media and communications technologies were often used by entities to mount hostile information campaigns (HICs) against other countries.  It is frighteningly easy as a few clicks of the mouse.

Agents in the Internet age come in the form of bots, trolls, fake accounts. For instance, it was discovered that proxies were used to push allegations aimed at discrediting the Democratic Party’s candidate in the 2020 United States Presidential Election. Given our high Internet penetration rate and openness, Singapore is highly susceptible to such attacks. There are numerous reports, in the last few years,  of foreign interventions in other countries.

Hostile campaigns will only continue to evolve to become faster and easier to sow discord, expose fault lines and undermine trust of public institutions.

This law is also designed to protect Singapore  as technology advances.  It updates our defensive tools to make them fit for the Internet age.

Between the broad and the narrow

Home Affairs minister K Shanmugam made the point in Parliament that there are broad laws in Australia and the United States on declarations by persons who work on behalf of foreign governments.

Are we going to wait for an attack to occur first before passing such a legislation? By then, irreparable damage would have been done. That said, even with this bill, we run the risk of going into a bazooka fight armed with just a pistol.

Anything narrower, will not be effective.

What’s the Workers’ Party’s stand?

The WP suggested some amendments to the bill, a few  of which our Party accepted.  Nevertheless, WP voted against the Bill.  A key sticking point was the appeal process.

Our Party believes that all laws should incorporate checks against abuse of powers by current and future governments.  Hence, one can appeal against decisions made under FICA to a Tribunal chaired by an independent High Court Judge.  Tribunal hearings are held close door and can be kept confidential.

This is because foreign interference is a sensitive matter of security, and the contents of such hearings cannot, and should not, be made public.

The Workers’ Party (WP) objected, insisting that appeals must be to the High Court, which means there remains a risk of leaks that may endanger the lives of our sources — even if hearings were to be made private.  This would add to the risk of hostile actors or state saboteurs having view of, and gaining access to, sensitive information and state secrets .

In short, the WP amendment will, in all likelihood, heighten and expose Singapore’s vulnerabilities.  They then voted against FICA.

This  has no regard for Singapore’s national interests.

They also did not deal with the points put forward by Minister Shanmugam..

As Minister K Shanmugam put it matter-of-factly in his closing speech: “Parliament is not just a place where you come and because you are seeing that some people are saying certain things or you resort to rhetoric without offering real suggestions…Parliament is not just a forum for reading out speeches with an intent of putting it out in social media eventually. We need to engage on the issues.”

That said, we were heartened that 5 of the 7 NMPs present voted in support of the bill, with 2 abstaining.

In closing

Singapore has been built up to be a multicultural, multi-religious country.  We all have a duty to protect this.

As Minister K Shanmugam pointed out, the status quo, while successful, is a fragile one: “Our racial and religious mix is easily exploitable by different countries, and we see a steady build-up of different narratives, which is being very cleverly done.”

So fellow comrades, as Singaporeans, we should ask ourselves this: do we want foreigners to tell us what to do and how to run Singapore?  If the answer is no, then how do we ensure our independence, and autonomy, in this internet world?