The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Singapore passes ‘most powerful’ foreign interference law amid fears of ever-shrinking space for dissent

Reporters record a speech by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong that was streamed on Facebook Live in July 2020 as votes in the general election were counted. (Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images)

Singapore’s Parliament has passed a law aimed at countering foreign interference that is potentially so powerful rights groups and legal experts worry it could crush public debate in a city-state where authorities are already frequently accused of curbing civil liberties.

The law, approved late Monday after a 10-hour session, would allow authorities to compel Internet service providers and social media platforms to provide user information, block content and remove applications used to spread content they deem hostile.

Groups and individuals involved in local politics can also be designated “politically significant persons,” which would require them to disclose foreign funding sources and subject them to other “countermeasures” to reduce the risk of overseas interference.

Legal experts say the law risks capturing legitimate civil activities undertaken by Singaporeans. The move is the latest in a series of legislation that critics say has reduced space for public debate. In 2019, the government targeted “fake news” with another far-reaching law; in a separate incident, a prominent anti-establishment news website went offline in September after its license was suspended.

Officials argue that Singapore, a small and open economy, is especially vulnerable to foreign interference. The country is an important U.S. partner in Southeast Asia but maintains close cultural and economic ties with China. It is currently detaining at least one of its citizens, who had admitted to being a Chinese agent, without trial under a sweeping security law.

Singapore’s powerful Law and Home Affairs minister, K. Shanmugam, told lawmakers the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act, or FICA, was needed to address a “serious threat” to national security, saying the Internet “has created a powerful new medium for subversion.” He didn’t name any countries suspected of engaging in such activities and a spokeswoman for the Home Affairs Ministry said the law is “actor agnostic.”

Shanmugam’s People’s Action Party, which has governed Singapore and continuously won elections by large margins for six decades, stamped its parliamentary supermajority on the interference bill, which passed by 75 votes to 11.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, described FICA as a “human rights disaster” that hands “arbitrary power to the Singaporean government to punish anyone based on vague allegations of involvement with foreigners.”

“Using this law, the government can easily make its critics run the gantlet of discriminatory restrictions, and shut down viewpoints it doesn’t like,” Robertson said in an email. “Once again, Singapore shows just how little faith it has in its democracy by resorting to political measures better suited to authoritarian regimes that don’t trust their people.”

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Eugene Tan, a law professor at Singapore Management University, said FICA is “potentially the most powerful law” because of the extensive range of powers it gives authorities. The law also strictly limits the ability of Singapore’s judiciary to review challenges to its application.

Shanmugam’s spokeswoman, when asked for comment, referred to the minister’s parliamentary speech in which he described the notion that FICA could close off foreign research collaborations as “doomsday scenarios.”

“Our universities would not have acquired such enviable reputations if the Singapore Government were as oppressive and authoritarian” as the law’s critics suggest, the ministry said in a Facebook post last week.

“The challenge is to craft balanced legislation that effectively addresses undesirable foreign influence while not curtailing legitimate citizen-led activity,” Harpreet Singh Nehal, a top Singaporean lawyer, wrote in the Straits Times on Sept. 28, adding that several aspects of FICA gave cause for “grave concern.”

Kirsten Han, an independent journalist and civil liberties activist, is considering her future after the bill’s passage. She believes she will be designated as a politically significant person.

In 2018, regulators refused to allow New Naratif, a media platform she co-founded, to register a subsidiary as a company. They pointed to funding that Han’s publication had received from a nonprofit tied to George Soros’s Open Society Foundations. Shanmugam has also accused Han, along with several other activists, of soliciting foreign intervention into Singapore’s domestic affairs after they met Malaysia’s then prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad; Han says the accusation is baseless.

“I don’t really see how I would safely navigate this sort of environment that’s made itself very clear that it’s quite hostile to what I do,” she said in an interview. “There isn’t a lot of independent journalism to start with. The mood is kind of just quite grim.”