The website New Naratif, run by historian Thum Ping Tjin and freelance journalist Kirsten Han, has dismissed suggestions that it is being used by foreigners to pursue a political activity in Singapore as "unfounded".
In a rejoinder last night, the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (Acra), however, said that New Naratif "clearly has a political agenda", and had also confirmed that it received a grant from an entity linked to American billionaire George Soros.
In fact, it added, New Naratif's statement highlighted that it has received subscription fees from over 420 members in 17 countries.
Acra said: "In other words, its political activities in Singapore would appear to be funded by a number of foreigners - not only foreign entities like OSF (Open Society Foundations), but also citizens of foreign countries."
The exchange of words comes a day after the authority said it had refused to register a company to be headed by Dr Thum and Ms Han, OSEA Pte Ltd, which aims to support New Naratif and run activities such as "Democracy Classroom" sessions.
This is because OSEA was to be a subsidiary of British-registered company OSEA UK, which had received a grant of US$75,000 (S$98,000) from Foundation Open Society Institute (FOSI), said Acra. FOSI is closely associated with OSF, which is founded by Mr Soros and has a history of being involved in various countries' politics, Acra added. "Singapore's politics should be for Singaporeans alone to determine," it said.
But New Naratif said yesterday that the grant from FOSI was awarded on the basis of the website's project concept and "does not impose any conditions beyond goals that we defined ourselves".
"FOSI and OSF do not have any involvement or input in New Naratif's editorial decisions or the day-to-day running of our start-up," it said.
New Naratif also added that it is substantially supported by revenue from members, who pay subscription fees of between US$52 and US$552 per year. It has over 420 members in 17 countries, and has also received numerous donations from individuals, it said.
To this, Acra said that even if it is true that FOSI or OSF - and possibly all of its foreign donors - are not involved in New Naratif's day-to-day running of the website, or its other activities, this "does not detract from the fact that the registration of OSEA Pte Ltd would amount to allowing a foreign entity or foreigners to fund and influence political activities in Singapore".
"This is contrary to Singapore's national interests," it reiterated.
It also refuted New Naratif's characterisation of its work as being "a platform for journalism, research, art or community building", saying that it is also known to have organised events such as workshops and "Democracy Classroom" sessions.
"New Naratif clearly has a political agenda," said Acra.
Ms Han told The Straits Times yesterday that she and Dr Thum are seeking legal advice and considering the best course of action to take. She said they wanted to register OSEA in Singapore "so that we can operate in accordance with Singapore's regulations".
Registering a company limits an owner's financial liability to the capital that he has paid up if it loses money, said corporate finance lawyer Perry Yuen, a partner at law firm Pinsent Masons MPillay.
This means that the individuals behind it cannot be made bankrupt, unless factors like fraud are involved.
Corporate lawyer Robson Lee, a partner at global law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, said that registering as a company will also insulate discussions and meetings conducted by the organisation from being considered as unlawful assemblies.
Some of the options now available to OSEA include making an appeal to the Finance Minister within 30 days of Acra's decision or seeking a judicial review, said the law experts.
For an appeal to be successful, or to successfully register as a company on a new application, OSEA has to do more than simply return the FOSI grant, said Mr Lee. It will have to convince the minister or the registrar that it will not affect the national security and interests of Singapore, for instance.
Ms Stefanie Yuen Thio, a joint managing partner at TSMP Law Corporation, said:. "You may not receive (a foreign grant) today, but what is going to stop you from taking foreign money tomorrow, for example?"
There could also be the option of filing a judicial review, said Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan. To do this, OSEA has to show that the decision-making process behind Acra's rejection of its registration is flawed.
For instance, OSEA may have to prove that it is not a proxy for foreign influence. The Acra registrar would then have to reconsider the application based on the court's ruling, he said.