The proposed Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act—FICA—is ostensibly meant to address the problem of foreign intervention via “clandestine” electronic communications in Singapore. The bill is expected to have its second and third reading and be passed into law on 4 October 2021. It is extremely problematic and has been severely criticised by prominent lawyers, international NGOs and local activists.

1. In a nutshell, what do I need to know?

In other countries, anti-foreign interference laws logically focus on people with the power to change the country, like politicians, by increasing transparency and public oversight over them. With FICA, the assumption is reversed: private citizens, who hold no power to change the country, need to be monitored; while the government, which holds all the power, must be protected from the people. 

FICA compounds this imbalance by instead massively increasing the power of one man, Minister for Home Affairs K Shanmugam, with no meaningful oversight preventing him from abusing his new powers. The brutal logic of FICA’s maximalist approach to foreign interference is, if the minister has virtually unlimited powers, he can effectively stop any foreign intervention, the same way dropping a nuclear bomb on a person cures them of any illness. But who monitors the minister?

The potential for abuse is massive. The PAP’s track record of using national security as a pretext to restrict civil rights indicates that FICA will likely be used to target independent media, activists, and opposition.

2. How does the law seek to stop foreign interference?

There are three essential avenues of attack:

Part 2 (sections 17–19) criminalises “foreign interference”, but defines it so broadly as to criminalise virtually any electronic communication with a non-Singaporean citizen.

Part 3 (sections 20–46) gives the minister for home affairs wide-ranging powers to pre-emptively demand any information, punish people or stop the publication of information, among other things, purely on suspicion of foreign interference. 

Part 4 (sections 47–49) gives the minister for home affairs the power to arbitrarily designate any person or entity as “Politically Significant”, thus placing them under rigorous scrutiny.

3. What are the problems with this law?

There are three main issues:

A. The definitions in this bill (sections 4–16) are extremely broad. For example, FICA defines foreign interference by four criteria (sections 17–19):

  • “electronic communications activity” that “results in or involves publishing in Singapore any information”
  • “on behalf of a foreign principal”
  • against the “public interest” or “directed towards a political end in Singapore” 
  • that is “covert or involves deception”, including “any conduct that is hidden or secret or lacking transparency”.

But the law defines these four concepts so broadly that it is virtually impossible to electronically communicate with a non-Singaporean citizen without breaking this law. Whether you are a businessperson, politician, activist, journalist or academic, you almost certainly interact with non-Singaporean citizens in legitimate ways that could nonetheless be prosecuted under this law.

B. The law places a disproportionate amount of power in the hands of the minister for home affairs, allowing him to punish people and restrict their rights, even if they have not committed any offence. They are effectively presumed guilty until proven innocent. He can, among other things:

  • demand a person provide information or “take any other step… which the competent authority requires in the public interest” (sections 36 and 108);
  • terminate or suspend the functionality of a social media service or relevant electronic service (section 34);
  • remove published information and order no further publication of similar information, effectively stopping a person from making any further communication about an issue. (section 30);
  • disable access by end-users in Singapore of an online service (section 31) or identified information (section 33);
  • publication of a mandatory message at a specified location(s) (section 32);
  • issue an access-blocking direction where a service provider has to disable access of the identified information from Singapore (section 33);
  • restrict an internet service, including stopping, delaying, or restricting access to messages, or to alter the functionality of the service to users in Singapore, or to suspend the service entirely. (section 35);
  • stop people in Singapore from downloading an app (section 37);
  • force someone to pay back any funds given to them (section 38);
  • declare a site a “Proscribed Online Location”, making it illegal to operate the site, for Singaporeans to support the site and to accept advertising on the site (sections 39–41);
  • designate a person or entity as “Politically Significant”, enmeshing them in a thicket of regulations and red tape regarding their finances and restricting their freedom of association. He could force them to make disclosures about any possible foreign link, and even force them to stop associating with a particular foreigner (sections 46–91).

C. There is an extreme lack of transparency, accountability and oversight, especially over the minister for home affairs. None of the above directions and designations require any proof, merely the suspicion of the minister. Appeals against the minister’s decisions are heard by secret tribunals with no meaningful oversight from the courts (see question 9, below).

4. How do other countries deal with foreign interference?

Laws on foreign interference elsewhere focus primarily on holding the people with power accountable and ensuring transparency of politicians’ dealings, rather than ordinary citizens. 

In Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, all elected lawmakers are required to declare their interests, including income and assets. The UK and US even have public disclosure requirements for legislators’ staff. In Taiwan, reporting and disclosure requirements even extend to close family members. Lobbying of politicians is regulated and publicly disclosed under schemes such as the Foreign Agents Registration Act in the US and the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme in Australia. All this information is placed on public registries. By contrast, FICA has reporting requirements, but only to the authorities—not to the public. This is because in Singapore, the assumption is reversed: private citizens, who hold no power to change the country, need to be monitored; while the government, which holds all the power, must be protected from the people.

5. Why is “foreign interference” suddenly a problem?

Accusations that political opponents and activists are acting on behalf of unknown, malicious foreign actors are nothing new to Singapore’s political discourse. The British colonial government used this argument (ironically, since the British themselves were foreign colonisers) to declare an “Emergency” in Malaya in 1948, suspending the rule of law. The rule of law has never been fully restored in Singapore because the Emergency Regulations were then adopted and incorporated into the statute book and subsequently made more draconian by the post-independence PAP government through amendments to the Internal Security Act. 

The PAP has used the argument of “foreign interference” to arrest and detain without trial around 2,500 political activists since it assumed power in 1959 under various clauses of the ISA. For example, collusion with the Malayan Communist Party was used to justify the 172 detentions of Operation Coldstore and Operation Pecah in 1963, while a “Marxist conspiracy” was used to justify the 22 detentions of Operation Spectrum in 1987. No evidence was ever presented to prove that any of these detentions was justified; on the contrary, declassified documents show that they were carried out for political reasons.

In recent years, there have ostensibly been at least two cases of “foreign interference”. In 2017, China-born American academic Huang Jing was expelled from Singapore. The Ministry of Home Affairs claimed he was an “agent of influence of a foreign country”. He was accused of trying to influence the decisions of senior Singapore officials by passing them “privileged” information. In 2019, Singaporean Dickson Yeo was detained under the Internal Security Act for acting as a paid agent for a “foreign state”. Not much is known about either case beyond that, since the ministry has refused to release further details. While Yeo was put on trial and sentenced to jail in the United States for his activities there (and then deported to Singapore after his jail term ended), neither Yeo nor Huang were put on trial in Singapore.

Along these lines, at least since 2019, Minister for Law and Home Affairs K Shanmugam has spoken of the need for a new law to prevent “foreign interference” in Singapore. But when Shanmugam spoke of the need for a new law, his focus was not on people like Huang or Yeo but on independent media organisations like The Online Citizen and New Naratif. Shanmugam cited their employment of foreigners, funding from overseas sources and the ability of their reporting to influence Singaporeans. It is therefore apparent that independent media—not actual foreign threats—are the main target of this law.

6. I’m not an agent of foreign influence. I’ve never gotten involved in politics. Won’t I be safe from this law if I simply declare all my affiliations and funding, restrict myself to local funding, and avoid all foreigners? 

Unfortunately, no.

Restricting yourself to only local funding makes no difference to the “foreign interference” part of the law (Part 2). FICA defines foreign interference by four criteria (sections 17–19):

  • “electronic communications activity on behalf of a foreign principal”
  • that “involves publishing in Singapore any information”
  • against the “public interest” or “directed towards a political end in Singapore” 
  • that is “covert or involves deception”, including “any conduct that is hidden or secret or lacking transparency”.

Given that the definitions to all the above are so broad, there is no practical way to avoid running afoul of the law. For example:

  • If you discuss a political issue with a non-citizen, then take action on that issue, it can be considered “on behalf of” that non-citizen.
  • If you don’t publicly disclose each and every communication (email, phone call) you have with a foreigner, or you communicate with them using an encrypted platform (WhatsApp, Telegram, iMessage), that could be considered lacking transparency. 
  • If you speak up or write about any public issue in Singapore in any format, it is considered activity towards a political end.

These are many possible scenarios that can be considered foreign interference, on a political issue, on a foreigner’s behalf, none of which involve funding. For example: 

  • You and your non-Singaporean business partner overseas are frustrated by Singapore’s business regulations and frequently discuss over WhatApp how to get them changed. You write a letter to your MP and the relevant ministry lobbying for changes. Congratulations, you have just broken the law.
  • You comment to your spouse, who is a permanent resident about how the drains at your estate are badly choked. Your spouse suggests you write an email to your MP complaining about poor public services. You do not mention in your letter that it was your spouse’s suggestion. Congratulations, you have just broken the law.
  • Your church invites a foreign pastor to speak, who condemns homosexuality. You speak to the pastor privately afterward and, inspired by his vision, you publish on Facebook in support of Singapore’s criminalisation of sex between men without mentioning the pastor. Congratulations, you have just broken the law.
  • You are conducting academic research on sexual harassment in the workplace with funding from the Swedish government. Your interviewees all speak to you on condition of anonymity. You publish your work, arguing that existing laws need to be strengthened to protect women. Congratulations, you have just broken the law.
  • A migrant worker collapses in front of you. You help him up, and he tells you about terrible living conditions at his employer’s dormitory. You exchange WhatsApp numbers and keep in touch with him. You write a letter to the Ministry of Manpower formally complaining about how we treat migrant workers. Congratulations, you have just broken the law.
  • You are born a Malaysian, the son of a former Singaporean political detainee who was banished to Malaysia and has Malaysian citizenship. After training as a doctor in the United Kingdom, you move to Singapore to work in a hospital. Seven years later, you are naturalised as a citizen, and you later join the PAP and run for office. You become a cabinet minister. One day, perplexed by a difficult policy issue, you call your father for advice. While his advice doesn’t actually change your policy, you feel comforted. Your policy becomes the official policy. Congratulations, Dr. Janil Puthucheary, you have just broken the law.

Finally, remember that there are three crucial avenues of attack for this law. Even if you do nothing wrong, you can still be hit with a Part 3 direction or a Part 4 designation (see question 7 below) merely on the suspicion or opinion of the minister for home affairs.

7. How does the minister for home affairs decide whether to issue a Part 3 direction or a Part 4 designation as a “politically significant person”?

Under Part 3 of the law, the minister for home affairs may order a direction where “in the opinion of the Minister, the online communications activity is or has been undertaken, or is suspected of being or having been undertaken, by or on behalf of a foreign principal” (section 20(1)(b)) (emphasis added).

Furthermore, if the Minister “suspects or has reason to believe” (emphasis added) that a person is “preparing” or “planning to undertake” activity by or on behalf of a foreign principal, the minister may order an “anticipatory direction”, which includes either a technical assistance direction or an account restriction direction (section 21).

Crucially, the minister can take these actions without any proof, purely on suspicion.

Equally, the minister can designate an individual as a “politically significant person” if their activities are “towards a political end” and “it is in the public interest” that the designation be applied. As noted in question 3A above, these are incredibly vague categories that cover virtually any form of public speech or political activity. A designation could effectively punish a person for exercising their rights as a citizen to political participation.

As with the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), during election periods, the minister for home affairs is allowed to appoint an alternate authority to exercise the powers granted under Part 3 of FICA—the ability to demand the removal or blocking of access to online content—in their stead (section 106). In the 2021 general election, this enabled POFMA to be blatantly abused by alternate authorities against opposition politicians and independent media.

8. What happens if I break the law? What happens if I don’t comply with a direction? 

Committing foreign interference as defined by sections 17–19 of Part 2 is an arrestable and non-bailable offence. For individuals, under section 17 (which criminalises direct foreign interference), you can be fined up to S$50,000 and/or imprisoned up to seven years. Under section 18 (which criminalises foreign influence using a proxy), you can be fined up to S$100,000 and/or imprisoned up to 14 years. Under section 19, planning/preparing to violate section 17 carries a fine of up to S$30,000 and/or a prison term up to five years, while planning/preparing to violate section 18 carries a fine of up to S$60,000 and/or nine years in prison.

Failing to comply with a Part 3 direction carries a variety of punishments depending on the direction, including fines between S$20,000 and S$40,000 and/or a prison term of 2–4 years for individuals, or S$500,000 to S$1,000,000 for other entities (section 45).

All offences listed above are arrestable and non-bailable (section 112). Thus, while you are trying to prove your innocence, you will be languishing in jail the entire time.

Once you are designated a “politically significant person” or “politically significant entity”, there are a range of ways you can run afoul of the law. They are all arrestable and carry a range of fines and/or prison terms (sections 73-75, 112).

9. If I don’t agree with the directions, what can I do?
  • You must comply with a Part 3 direction before you can appeal it. You must appeal within 30 days (section 98). The appeal is first heard by the minister for home affairs, effectively making the minister both prosecutor and judge.
  • Appeals do not ultimately go to the High Court. Instead, they go to a three-person Reviewing Tribunal appointed by the president on the advice of the cabinet, which means the president cannot exercise their own discretion. Only one member of the tribunal has to be a judge (section 94).
  • The minister for home affairs regulates this tribunal, including members’ remuneration (section 95) and procedures for considering appeals, such as the “mode and burden of proof and the admissibility of evidence” (section 99).
  • The appeal may also be summarily dismissed without calling for a defence from the minister if the tribunal determines that the appeal is “frivolous or vexatious” (sections 97–99).
  • The minister for home affairs may decline to disclose information at the appeal on several grounds, including national security and the economic wellbeing of Singapore. However, the minister can request information from the person who has received the direction to show that the appeal is “frivolous or vexatious” (section 99).
  • The tribunal does not have to disclose to you the full reasons for why you are being punished; it can hear your appeal without your participation, and it does not have to show you any evidence presented in your absence (section 99).
  • Orders and decisions made by the tribunal or the minister for home affairs are final and cannot be challenged in any court, except for alleged procedural violations (section 104). This severely limits avenues for judicial review.
10. What can we do about FICA?
  • Contact your member of parliament and make your concerns known. Urge them to speak up about the bill during the next reading and give the people of Singapore more time to understand this law.
  • Sign and share this petition.
  • Read more about FICA at www.fica.sg, or better yet, read the 249-page bill itself!
  • Talk about the bill to your friends and family—highlight your concerns and show them this FAQ!

Thum Ping Tjin

Thum Ping Tjin (“PJ”) is Managing Director of New Naratif and a historian at the University of Oxford. A Rhodes Scholar, Commonwealth Scholar, Olympic athlete, and the only Singaporean to swim the English Channel, his work centres on Southeast Asian governance and politics. His most recent work is Living with Myths in Singapore (Ethos: 2017, co-edited with Loh Kah Seng and Jack Chia). Reach him at pingtjin.thum@newnaratif.com.