An application by historian Thum Ping Tjin and freelance journalist Kirsten Han to register a company has been rejected on the grounds that the registration would be contrary to Singapore's national interests.
The Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (Acra) said yesterday that the purposes of the proposed company, OSEA Pte Ltd, "are clearly political in nature".
OSEA Pte Ltd, it said, has links to foreign funding from a group led by billionaire George Soros, which was set up to pursue a political agenda the world over.
Acra noted that OSEA was to be a wholly-owned subsidiary of a British-registered company called Observatory Southeast Asia (OSEA UK).
OSEA UK has received a grant of US$75,000 (S$98,000) from a Swiss charitable entity, Foundation Open Society Institute (FOSI), said Acra.
FOSI is closely associated with Open Society Foundations (OSF), founded and led by Mr Soros, it added.
KEEPING FOREIGN INFLUENCES OUT
Singapore's politics should be for Singaporeans alone to determine. We should not allow foreigners to interfere in how we should govern our country. Nor should we allow any group of Singaporeans to lend themselves to being used by foreigners to pursue a political activity in Singapore.
ACCOUNTING AND CORPORATE REGULATORY AUTHORITY
In a statement, the authority said that what happens in other jurisdictions is not the concern of the Singapore Government.
"OSF and FOSI, and other foreign philanthropies and groups, can fund whatever causes they like elsewhere," it said.
"In Singapore, however, our position is that none of them can be allowed to fund Singaporean organisations or individuals participating in our domestic politics. The registration of OSEA Pte Ltd would therefore be contrary to Singapore's national interests.
"Singapore's politics should be for Singaporeans alone to determine. We should not allow foreigners to interfere in how we should govern our country. Nor should we allow any group of Singaporeans to lend themselves to being used by foreigners to pursue a political activity in Singapore."
Acra said an application was made to register OSEA Pte Ltd on Feb 8. Dr Thum - a research fellow and coordinator of Project Southeast Asia at the University of Oxford - was cited as its director and Ms Han its editor-in-chief.
Its proposed activities included organising discussion fora, workshops and other events in Singapore, such as "Democracy Classroom" sessions.
Another of its objectives was to provide editorial services to a website named New Naratif, which both are involved in.
Acra said New Naratif has been publishing articles "critical of politics" in the region, such as articles claiming that certain governments are using violence to maintain political control, had manipulated events or framed them for political gain, and have "rigged" their electoral systems.
"The purposes of the proposed company are clearly political in nature," said Acra.
Currently, OSEA UK owns and manages the New Naratif website, said the authority.
Dr Thum and British researcher Philip Kreager are listed as its directors and shareholders on the British government's company registry. Both men are trustees of Oxford's Project Southeast Asia.
Acra said one of OSEA UK's stated objects is to "promote the universal values of democracy, freedom of the media, and freedom of inquiry, information and expression".
Of OSF, Acra said it was "expressly established to pursue a political agenda the world over, and has a history of involvement in the domestic politics of sovereign countries".
For example, it is said to have provided financial backing to organisations opposing the Catholic Church's position in an upcoming referendum in Ireland.
It also sought to build upon legislation legalising same-sex marriage, and thereby also im-pacting other strongly Catholic countries in Europe.
It has reportedly funded organisations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Last year, Human Rights Watch published a report advocating changes to laws and the political system in Singapore, said Acra.
Contacted yesterday, Ms Han said: "Speaking for myself, I only just found out about this, so I would like to seek legal advice before considering next steps."
Dr Thum did not reply to questions sent by e-mail. Both recently appeared before the Select Committee hearings on deliberate online falsehoods.
In response to queries, Acra said that the information on grant funding to OSEA UK was provided by the applicant. It added that the application was rejected under Section 27(12A) of the Companies Act.
This states that an application can be rejected if the company is likely to be used for an unlawful purpose or for purposes prejudicial to public peace, welfare or good order in Singapore, or if it would be contrary to the national security or interest for the company to be registered. Applicants have 30 days to appeal.
Corporate lawyer Robson Lee, a partner at global law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, said: "This is the first publicised case of a proposed incorporated entity having its application rejected due to foreign funding for domestic political activities."
Law don and former Nominated MP Eugene Tan said that if a company could be set up as a subsidiary of a foreign entity which is known to engage in domestic politics, there is a legitimate concern that it could be a proxy for the foreign parent company.
"That would go against the Singapore Government's longstanding policy that domestic politics is only for Singaporeans to participate in," he said.
OBSERVATORY SOUTHEAST ASIA (OSEA UK)
The company is registered in Britain, and was incorporated on April 28 last year.
Historian Thum Ping Tjin and British researcher Philip Kreager are listed as its directors and shareholders on the British government's company registry.
Both are trustees of Oxford University's Project Southeast Asia research project.
Dr Thum was most recently in the headlines for his appearance during the Select Committee hearings on deliberate online falsehoods.
He was questioned by Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam for six hours over his account of Operation Coldstore in 1963, when more than 100 leftist unionists and politicians were arrested.
The research fellow at Oxford University had said in his submission to the committee that the Government had been the main source of falsehoods in Singapore, adding that there was no evidence that the detainees were involved in any violent communist conspiracy to overthrow it.
Dr Thum is also one of the three founders of the New Naratif website, which was founded last year and publishes articles on South-east Asia.
The other two are freelance journalist Kirsten Han and cartoonist Sonny Liew.
Yesterday, the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority said OSEA UK owns and manages New Naratif. It also said OSEA UK has received a grant of US$75,000 (S$98,000) from Switzerland's Foundation Open Society Institute, which is closely associated with Open Society Foundations.
OPEN SOCIETY FOUNDATIONS (OSF)
OSF was started by billionaire investor George Soros in 1979.
Mr Soros was born in Hungary in 1930 and studied at the London School of Economics before emigrating to the United States. He found success on Wall Street and launched his own hedge fund, Soros Fund Management, in 1970.
The 88-year-old American has given more than US$30 billion to the OSF since 1984, according to its website.
The site says Mr Soros wanted to establish "open societies in place of authoritarian forms of government", and began by supporting scholarships for black students at the University of Cape Town in South Africa and for Eastern European dissidents to study abroad.
In February, The Guardian reported that OSF had donated £400,000 (S$744,000) to the Best for Britain campaign, which advocates for Britain to remain in the European Union. OSF also reportedly gave cash to other anti-Brexit groups, including £182,000 to the European Movement UK and £35,000 to Scientists for EU.
OSF also provided a grant to Amnesty International Ireland for a campaign focused on reproductive rights and repealing the Eighth Amendment (the section of the Constitution that gives equal rights to the mother and the unborn).
Closer to home, Malaysian electoral reform group Bersih received one-time funding of RM70,000 (S$23,660) from the OSF between 2010 and 2011. Minutes of a 2015 meeting between OSF and some Malaysian groups leaked in 2016 showed the parties had discussed strategies for Malaysia's upcoming general election.
OSF also said in 2010 that it was giving US-based non-governmental organisation Human Rights Watch US$100 million over 10 years.
Last December, Human Rights Watch published a 133-page report advocating changes to laws and the political system in Singapore.